Could High Speed Rail from Melbourne to Sydney be as fast as air travel?

Sydney Central station

The Federal government’s High Speed Rail study assumes a route from Melbourne via Canberra to Sydney of between 823 and 842 km (mostly following existing highways), with trains reaching up to 350 km/h, and a three hour trip time from Melbourne to Sydney.

Some people who argue against the idea like to claim there is no way this estimated three hour travel time could be competitive with air, when the plane trip is only a bit over an hour.

But if the train was Melbourne CBD to Sydney CBD, how does plane compare to that?

On Thursday, I had a quick trip up to Sydney. Here’s how the trip up panned-out (times as close as I can estimate from photos, receipts etc).

9:04am. Step off suburban train from home at Southern Cross. Briskly walk towards the Skybus terminus.

9:10am. Skybus departs towards airport. (There were five more people aboard than seats available.)


9:31am. Skybus makes first stop for international and domestic flights other than Qantas/Jetstar. I stay aboard, though given the traffic in the airport, and the fact that the second bus stop is actually a little way past the Qantas terminal entrances, I always wonder if I should jump off here and walk the rest of the way to Qantas.

9:34am. Alight Skybus at the Qantas stop.

9:38am. Attempt to check-in. This doesn’t work and the machine tells me I need to seek assistance from staff. I don’t know what went wrong, but the staffer got it figured-out. It might have been because my boarding pass for the trip back was linked to a colleague’s who’d flown up earlier in the day.

9:45am. Go through airport security.

9:55am. Board plane.

Just after 10:00, after the last stragglers board and squeeze their barely-fitting carry-on suitcases into the overhead lockers, the plane pushes back.

11:20am. Plane lands. Apparently it’s a distance of 713 km (more or less, obviously since the exact flight path would vary), so if it’s a 75 minute flight, that would be a speed of about 570 km/h.

We (eventually, after aforementioned people struggle to get their suitcases sorted out) alight.

Sydney: Domestic airport station

11:33am. Find and enter the Domestic Airport station entrance.

11:37am. Buy rail ticket from the vending machine. By the way, it came with a compulsory receipt (which I needed to claim back from work), which unlike Myki receipts, did not include my name nor the bulk of my credit card number.

Sydney airport train ticket and receipt

11:38am. Go through station gate and down to the platform.

11:43am. Board train to city.

11:54am. Train arrives at Central station. (I stayed on for another 4 minutes, or two stops, to St James, which dropped me in the heart of the CBD.)

By air: 164 minutes. By rail: 180 minutes?

So in fact, the Melbourne CBD to Sydney CBD trip took from 9:10am to 11:54am, or 164 minutes, and that was without having to buy a Skybus ticket (I always buy them online to avoid the queues), without checking in baggage, without long queues at security (there were about 3 people ahead of me in the line), nor any significant delays on the flight, and with a short wait for the train (but I didn’t just miss one, for instance due to buying the train ticket).

I’m not a regular business traveller, but to my untrained eye, this trip appears to be close to the ideal Melbourne to Sydney plane ride. But CBD to CBD, it was only 16 minutes shorter than the theoretical fast train travel time of 3 hours — though one would need to take into account check-in and waiting time for train, of course.

On the train it is likely you’d be able to make phone calls, use the internet and any portable electronic devices one might have handy — with no “turn everything off” blackout period during departure and arrival, as on a plane. You’d also be able to move around more freely.

Certainly it would produce less carbon emissions. And the government’s study is predicated on a train also serving Canberra along the way, making trips to/from there more convenient.

There are significant hurdles to getting High Speed Rail built, of course, particularly the huge infrastructure cost. But in a busy air corridor like Melbourne to Sydney, it’s not hard to imagine that it might work quite well.

I suspect that once they proclaim me emperor, I’ll tell the airlines that starting in, say, 10 years, their flight paths between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney will be cut by 10% per year. And I’ll recommend they start investing in and building a high-speed rail line to replace their planes, on condition that it’s a joint venture to maximise train frequencies (rather than split them between companies).*

And before you say it’s impossible, Lufthansa Airways is in the train business. (So is Virgin, of course, but Virgin’s into just about every business one can think of.)

  • *Footnote: sadly all of this paragraph is unlikely to ever happen.
  • The high speed rail study did say that they looked at a Sydney terminus at Parramatta or Homebush, which would cut costs, but obviously lengthen the travel time to the Sydney CBD.

Perth day 7: Heading home

All good things come to an end, and so it was with our Perth trip.

We had a sleep-in, then packed up our stuff into the car and headed out.

The flight wasn’t until lunchtime, but we had one more place to go before heading home: the boys have a strong interest in retro video gaming. (I can’t imagine where they got THAT from.) There are two retailers you can buy this kind of stuff from: Cash Converters, and a small chain called Gametraders.

So we arranged for my aunt to drive us to the only Gametraders in Western Australia, which is in a shopping centre called Centro Galleria, in the suburb of Morley, fortunately not too far from the airport. “Kate” (the name my aunt has given to her GPS unit) guided us there, and the boys had a happy time looking through the range, and buying a few ancient cartridges to play at home when they got back.

(I should note at this point that my cousin Justin also has an interest in video games, and in fact at my aunt’s house is his enviable collection, most or all of it still in boxes, in various cupboards. Very impressive.)

Perth airport

From there we headed back to the airport. I’d checked-in on my mobile phone earlier, but this time we were able to check-in our suitcase (arguably it’s quicker at your destination to leave it as hand luggage, but it’s less hassle wheeling it around the airport while you wait if it’s checked-in), and we also elected to get printed boarding passes, since on the mobile it had been a bit laborious calling up the three of them onto the screen when boarding.

While we waited we got a snack: some wedges (a reasonable-sized tray; enough for the three of us) and a drink.

Brigands! Pirates! Buccaneers! Gyroscopes! $13.70 for a bottle of water and some wedges?! #PerthAirport

I got a copy of The West Australian to read on the plane, and Qantas were giving away The Australian as well, so I had plenty to read. The flight itself was fine; no delays.

Flying home

The in-flight movie was Game Change, about the 2008 US Presidential Campaign, and Sarah Palin in particular. I found it interesting, though the kids were completely bored by it. Fair enough.

After landing, we did our usual thing: luggage, Skybus, then train home. The two-hour time-difference resulted in a little jetlag, but it certainly didn’t detract from a great holiday — thanks in no small way to the extraordinary hospitality of my aunt. Thanks Aunty!

Perth trip day 1

(Scroll down to skip the words and get to the pics)

Before we left I prepared by cancelling the newspaper (oddly, by phone is actually better than online; the deadlines are more relaxed), pre-purchased a Skybus ticket (you can print it yourself; very handy), and totally failed to even start packing before departure day.

Thursday 5th July

We got out of the house a little later than planned, caught a train into the city, then (thanks to the Skybus pre-purchase) straight onto a bus to the airport. On the way I checked-in with my mobile phone; the concept of checking-in when you’re not actually at the airport is still a concept that I find somewhat intruiging.

When we actually got to the airport, the AirportAutoQantasCheckinMachine wouldn’t let us check-in our suitcase because we were running late; given it’s not too large and we had no sharp objects in it, a Qantas person recommended just taking it through with our hand luggage. A queue at security didn’t help, and the screens indicating “Flight closed” caused me to panic a bit, but we made it the gate with… oh, a minute or two to spare.

One of the runways was being dug up or vacuumed or something, causing a delay taking off. After that the flight when smoothly; entertainment was some news (including a long Higgs Boson Particle story, which caused me to remark “Yay science!”), an episode of Big Bang Theory and some Brit movie starring Harriet Jones MP, Professor McGonagall, and Bill Nighy.

There appeared to be an entire footy team (or at least, some young-uns from some WA AFL training academy) on the flight; they were pretty subdued, some of them watching videos of footy matches on their laptops (that’d be yawn-o-rama for me) though they did perk up/get a little noisier towards the end of the flight.

We landed in Perth pretty much on time, and met my aunt outside.

Into the car for a whirlwind tour of Perth, we headed initially into the Swan Valley, to the Margaret River Chocolate Factory (the branch that’s not actually in Margaret River, but in Perth) to have some hot chocolate and a snack and watch a continuous series of tourist buses rolling in.

Grape vines... and a distinctive suburban Perth bus shelter, Swan Valley
Grape vines… and a distinctive suburban Perth bus shelter, Swan Valley

From there we headed past central Perth to Kings Park, a quite amazing open space overlooking the CBD and had a walk around.

We took a look at the war memorial (smaller than Melbourne’s Shrine, but with a view — at least from ground level — more spectacular), and a walk with views across the Swan River. Peak hour was just getting underway, and we watched the traffic slowly moving along the Kiwana Freeway, overtaken regularly by trains heading out along the new Mandurah railway line. Nice.

Memorial, Kings Park
Memorial, Kings Park

Jeremy gets arty with the camera at Kings Park
Jeremy gets arty with the camera at Kings Park

Kings Park
Kings Park

Kings Park
Kings Park

Saturday: Additional picture added:
Kwinana Freeway, Perth (viewed from Kings Park)
Kwinana Freeway, Perth (viewed from Kings Park)

My aunt pointed out the honour avenues around the park, with trees planted in memory of those fallen on the front line in WW1. Even more sobering was the list of more recently fallen soldiers.

Then we headed south for a bit to look at the ritzy riverside suburb of Mosman Park, and also at Cottesloe beach – where we arrived just in time to watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean.

On the Swan River at Mosman Beach
On the Swan River at Mosman Beach

Sunset from Cottesloe Beach
Sunset from Cottesloe Beach

Perth skyline, from south of the river
Perth skyline, from south of the river

This was followed by another riverside stop at South Perth, for views of the city. My aunt remarked that there are only half-a-dozen actual skyscrapers in Perth, though it looked like a few more to me.

After that we headed to her house, where she made us very welcome, cranked up the wifi, and cooked a huge meal for us to celebrate our arrival in WA.

Brisbane day 6 – heading home

Thursday 6th October

Alas, the day came to depart Brisbane and head back home.

Perhaps it’s inevitable these days that travelling interstate pretty much requires setting aside most or all of the day just for the journey. I suppose it’s a consequence of modern air travel, which requires getting to and from airports, and lengthy check-in times. (Plus my preference for flights at civilised times such as 11am!)

After checking-out (and verifying that a hole in the wall in one of the bedrooms wouldn’t be a problem — it was caused by a bed on rollers in a tiled room, with nothing to stop it moving around) we headed down to Central station to catch the airport train.

Queensland transport minister makes an announcement

I’d had a message from the Queensland PTUA-equivalent Rail Back On Track’s Robert Dow early in the morning to say there was going to be a ministerial announcement at Central, at 10am, about the time we’d be heading out. When we got there, we quickly spotted the media pack, and Queensland’s Transport Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk, who was announcing that the airport train is to have its hours extended, from the current time of 8pm (which is hardly satisfactory given flights continue for some time after that), to 10pm — starting in December.

After the Minister did her grabs, Robert fronted the cameras to make some approving remarks. He then grabbed me and introduced me to the Minister as his Melbourne equivalent, and we had a quick chat… I told her Melbourne could learn a lot from Brisbane’s public transport network, and the only major problems we’d had during our visit was the low frequencies of trains at off-peak times, which she seemed to agree with.

Robert also introduced me to some Translink people, and I asked them about the bus/train coordination we’d seen the day before. I asked if it was the Translink governance structure that makes this possible, eg how the Translink organisation works with the individual operator companies such as, in this case, Queensland Rail and Surfside Buslines. They said yes — the operators write timetables within Translink’s guidelines.

Rail is done first, then bus timetables are written to match. They see it as really important given 30 minute train frequencies outside peak. This is something Melbourne definitely needs to learn from, and the hope is that the Coalition Government’s planned Public Transport Development Authority will do here what Translink is doing in Brisbane.

After a bit of a chat, we headed down to the platforms for our train to the airport, and made our way to the Domestic terminal to check-in.

Not so fast, said the check-in kiosk machine thingy — we’d need to go and see a human. Uh oh, this couldn’t be good.

It wasn’t. The human told us that a late-arriving international flight had caused the middayish Brisbane to Melbourne flight we’d booked to overflow, and we’d either have to fly via Canberra (arriving in Melbourne around 6pm) or get onto the next direct flight with seats, which wasn’t leaving until about 8pm — which allowing for two hours flight time, and an hour to adjust for daylight saving, would have meant getting back to Melbourne at about 11pm.

Blargh. Canberra it was then. Didn’t Jerry Seinfeld do a standup bit on this topic on his TV show? It might have been about hire cars not being available despite having a reservation. I seem to recall that he doubted that the company understood the concept of a reservation. Apparently this escapes Qantas as well.

So we went and waited for the Canberra flight, which turned out to be delayed. I was cursing myself for throwing away the (disposable) water bottles just before we were told of the delay. Damn. Could have refilled them at a water fountain.

While we waited, we heard final boarding calls for a missing group of four passengers for what should have been our flight home. Blargh, we thought — kicked off our plane, and four people who took our seats didn’t even bother to turn up at the gate.

Boarding at Brisbane

The flight to Canberra was delayed by about an hour, and we went and got some lunch from the food court, at exhorbitant 50% higher airport rates, of course. Then eventually we boarded, with a walk along the tarmac, to our waiting Dash 8 aircraft. I suspect the prospect of a propeller plane made Jeremy a little nervous (or maybe he was bummed about there being no inflight entertainment), but the flight was without incident, and we actually got a decent feed on-board.

I had hoped that it would have been clear enough to see some of our nation’s capital as we flew in, but there was a lot of low-level cloud, and nothing to see except fields close to the runway. We had about an hour to wait before our connecting flight, and thankfully could just mooch about in the terminal without having to worry about the luggage, which had been checked straight through. I found and purchased a Mad magazine compilation of sci-fi spoofs for the boys to read on the next plane.

Soggy Canberra

Boarding again at about 4:30, we found this time the plane was full of suited businessmen and public servants (I assume) heading out of Canberra. Almost all of them appeared to have those cases which are effectively luggage, but which are allowed as carry-on, resulting in the overhead lockers being absolutely packed to the gills. No doubt they all do it to avoid having to avoid the hassle and delays of checked luggage, but I wonder if it adds to the boarding times.

Some in-flight delays resulted in us arriving a bit after 6pm, and we found the luggage (only after Jeremy found the right conveyor, which was behind some hoarding) and boarded the Skybus.

After one false turn at Southern Cross (seriously, they could make the route from Skybus to/from the suburban trains MUCH easier) we found the platform for our train home. I was just checking the departure board when I heard a shout of “Hey Daniel!” It turned out to be former Public Transport Minister Martin Pakula, on his way home. We chatted on the train for a little while, as far as Flinders Street where he changed. I assume in opposition he doesn’t get the use of a driver and car, so he might actually be on the train more often than when he was the minister.

It was smooth sailing from there; we finally arrived home around 8pm after a long day of travelling.

Brisbane day 1

Saturday 1st October

It’s probably almost inevitable that when leaving on an interstate holiday, you will head for the airport and reach the point of no return before remembering some vital thing you’ve left behind. In my case, it was medication — sitting on the bedside table at home — which is prescription-only and for which I didn’t have the paperwork. Happily I was able to convince my sister to bring it for me, as she and her family were heading up to Queensland a day after us.

Other than that the trip to the airport was uneventful — train to Southern Cross and Skybus as usual. It may not be as cheap as the train/Smartbus combo via Broadmeadows, but it’s frequent, quick from the city and doesn’t drop you in the boondocks at the airport. In fact the Skybus was as popular as ever, with virtually all seats taken.

We met Marita at the airport, and checked-in at the automatic kiosk thingy, failing to comprehend the full meaning of the warning about emergency rows. I assumed it meant just two of us would be in the emergency row, but in fact it meant it wanted to put all four of us in the emergency rows, and this is a No No according to CASA, who want all occupants of emergency rows to be over fifteen. Fair enough, but I suspect Qantas need to make the booking kiosk text clearer on this point.

This caused some disruption as we boarded, with the gate staff swapping us to different seats, but we still departed the gate more-or-less on time… which was where the punctuality ended, as the poor weather and a terminal security breach earlier in the morning had caused a queue of planes for take-off. I could see them all in a row in front of us, and it took about an hour to actually get airborne.

On the flight, which had personalised screens for every seat, I watched the movie Source Code, which was quite good (though rather far-fetched), and a couple of episodes of Parks And Recreation, which was very funny. (Though I was slightly miffed by a character claiming a loud noise was setting off her cluster headachethat’s not how they happen.)

Despite being a scheduled 11am-1pm flight, there was no lunch served — thanks Mr Qantas — just a fruit cake and an optional apple — which I took, thanks very much.

Brisbane AirTrain at the Domestic Terminal

We flew into Brisbane about an hour late. Fortunately the checked bags turned up pretty quickly, and we collected our pre-booked Airtrain tickets and made it to the platform with five minutes to spare — unlike Skybus, it only runs every half-hour. (More about Airtrain vs Skybus in another post in the near future.)

Twenty-five-ish minutes later we were stepping off the train at Central, and despite taking the wrong exit out of the station, found the hotel without any trouble.

I say hotel, but I mean serviced apartments: The Republic Apartments in Turbot Street. I assumed the street name was some sort of sophisticated silent-trailing-T name, pronounced Turbo, but my uncle reckoned it was the rather more conventional-sounding Turr-butt.

The check-in desk had a pleasant surprise for us: we’d been upgraded from a two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom, complete with en suite for the adults, and on the very top floor of the building, providing rather splendid views.

View from our hotel window

By this point it was almost 4pm, and we were pretty hungry, and went out to find some lunch. A noodle place was open across the road, and we devoured some food, then bought some supplies from the Woolworths in the Spring Hill shopping centre, next to the apartments.

I made a mental note of the Woolworths’ curious and slightly restrictive hours: until 5:30pm Saturdays, 6pm Sundays, and 9pm weekdays — a far cry from the usual midnight closing times back in Melbourne, but not impossible to work with.

After a little TV (including the penultimate Doctor Who of this season) and a quick dinner (roast chicken, potato and salad from the supermarket) we had a walk down to the riverfront, snapping pictures of passing ferries and the very impressive Story Bridge… though actually I think it looks more impressive in the daytime:

Brisbane Story Bridge

Then we headed back to the hotel to watch Big Bang Theory and/or The Simpsons… I can’t actually remember which, but found during our stay that the two are almost interchangeable — when you have Fox8 and the Comedy Channel as well as Channel 9 and Go in a hotel room, one or the other is almost always on… before heading for bed and a well-earned sleep.