Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff?

The idea of a very fast train (VFT) connecting Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne is gaining momentum (again). The CRC for Rail Innovation launched a pre-feasibility study earlier this year; veteran journalist Brain Toohey expressed his enthusiasm for the idea on Insiders on 11 April; and now the Greens are calling on the Federal Government to fund a $10 million study into a new scheme they are proposing.

The idea of a VFT has a long history in Australia, dating back to the first serious proposal put forward by the CSIRO in 1984. The key drivers of the current proposal are environmental and resource efficiency and support for expanded regional centres.

I don’t have access to whatever technical analysis the Green’s are relying on, but this seems an unlikely idea. The fact no project has yet been shown to be viable should be a warning to tread warily. I have some doubts.

First, I wonder how a VFT could make economic sense in competing against air travel on the Sydney-Melbourne corridor. There are currently more than 70 flights per day each way. From time to time fares are discounted, especially for those who aren’t time sensitive. The Airbus A380, which can seat over 800 passengers in all-economy configuration, is now being touted for the Sydney-Melbourne route.  Investing in a $40 billion rail project when the airlines have scope to price out new entrants seems risky.

Second, it is not at all clear that there is a pressing need for more competition on this route when we already have four carriers. However even if the case can be made for more competition, it would be much, much cheaper to promote the setting up of a fifth (and even sixth) carrier. And the public subsidy would be less.

Third, the environmental advantages of a VFT over new generation planes is not clear. Air travel is actually reasonably fuel-efficient on a passenger per km basis (see here) but presents a problem because we use it for very long trips. Will fast trains with very powerful engines and facing high levels of wind resistance at speeds of 250-350 km/h have a significantly lower environmental footprint over such a long distance? I don’t know but it’s a fair question. I don’t really see shortages of jet fuel as a likely constraint – I’d expect enough oil for aviation would be released by countries shifting their ground travel from oil to (hopefully low carbon) electricity.

Fourth, the idea that a VFT could support the growth of regional centres is at odds with the idea that it can compete in time and fuel consumption with planes. Each stop will involve a significant loss of time and each acceleration from standstill will reduce whatever fuel and emissions advantage a VFT has over planes. Assuming one stop at a suburban station in both Sydney and Melbourne (in addition to the CBD termini) and one stop in Canberra, that’s already four accelerations and decelerations.

Fifth, a related issue is the sort of businesses a VFT could potentially foster in regional centres. A VFT seems to only make sense for transporting people, not freight. High human capital businesses however like scale and density. What a VFT might do is simply encourage long distance commuting and the growth of associated consumer jobs with little evident advantage over further suburbanisation of Sydney and Melbourne.

Sixth, while a VFT would be very convenient for business travellers located in, or destined for, the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne, it might not be any more attractive than air travel for business trips that start and/or end at home i.e. overwhelmingly in the suburbs. I don’t know what proportion of trips fall into this category but I expect from my own experience and observation that it would be large, probably the majority.

Seventh, the time savings in waiting at the station for entry and baggage pickup might not be appreciably greater with a VFT than with air travel. Security should be just as important with a VFT as with a plane. Baggage could presumably be carried in-cabin on a VFT but that is also the case for most business trips by plane, which are either same day or overnight.

Eighth, a key benefit of air travel is that over 70 services per day are offered each way on the Sydney-Melbourne route. This gives travellers considerable choice and flexibility. There are a host of unanswered questions here in relation to a VFT. How many very fast trains can be run per day – what is the minimum headway? What’s the optimum number of trains that can be operated? Planes like the A380 are produced for many buyers and the producer enjoys economies of scale in production. Is that the case for VFT trainsets?

Finally, while rail and plane can both be closed down by station/terminal incidents, the entire VFT rail line can be stopped by blockages from mechanical breakdowns, accidents, hoaxes, etc. In contrast, while one flight might be delayed or cancelled, passengers can take a later flight or use an alternative carrier. Aviation companies experiencing problems can always rent planes from other carriers. A VFT system is simply not as robust.

If a case is going to be made for a VFT it will have to depend very heavily on the congestion at Sydney Airport resulting from the city’s inability to construct a second airport. But the alternatives would have to be examined and dismissed first before a VFT connecting Sydney and Melbourne emerged as the best option. One approach to Sydney’s problems could be larger planes like the A380. Another could be construction of a second airport at a more distant location such as Bowral and connected to Sydney via a VFT. The latter would of course enjoy a near-captive market and on the face of it would probably make economic sense – it’s just that extending it to Canberra, much less Melbourne, seems to make no sense at all.


22 Comments on “Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff?”

  1. TomD says:

    Much of what you canvass raises meaningful challenges to the cost/benefit equation and arguments being applied to a VFT option, so should definitely be part of any ‘comparative debate’.

    It is interesting to note that when European flights shut down because of the recent volcanic ash activity, it was the fast trains that met the normal travel demands of people and commerce. (Although the airlines are now disputing whether the safety issues were real of not.) Behind this shutdown was a relatively minor Icelandic eruption, whereas a major one of the kind that happened in Indonesia long ago, if it was to reoccur, would presumably have a much longer and more substantial impact on the need for alternative transport options.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Not to mention the great pilots’ strike in the 80s which closed most air travel for weeks! Good point, having more modes adds to the robustness of the system.

      Fortunately I think we already have a pretty good freeway for almost the total distance between Sydney and Melbourne as well as a good, if conventional, rail system (which carries more freight than most people realise and last I heard was increasing its share)

  2. Moss says:

    Hi Alan,
    It’s always good to hear the other side of the argument, given the overwhelmingly positive response on The Age Website (94% in favour from 13,000 votes!). However some of your arguments are contentious…
    First of all though, it is important to make this point: It is a major mistake to characterise the VFT purely in terms of competition against air travel on the SYD-MEL route alone. One must also take into account the economic growth of centres along the way – in fact that is probably the most important aspect. Convenient, fast connections between major cities can offer economic synergies that are difficult to predict from the outset. This HAS to be seen as a “Nation Building” exercise, it offers the opportunity to truly “decentralise” from Melbourne and Sydney, amongst many other benefits.

    i) Economic sense – nearly 10 million individual air trips in the SYD CAN MEL corridor. Over 7 million of those are direct SYD/MEL flights. European (and now Chinese experience) shows that for journey times of 3 or less hours rail is successful versus car or plane. Overwhelmingly so if the trip is less than two hours. Interestingly, this market is actually geared towards the high end business market due to continuing productivity whilst on trains but not planes. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/related_reports/europe_by_train/article6925464.ece
    ii) Competition – as above, if the route is selected for point to point speed between MEL and SYD and travel times were less than 3 hours, expect rail to take a majority share of the market. Although the market is the same it allows people to consume differently – and I would bet that a lot more people would select rail, possibly even to the point of shutting down almost all flights on the route.
    iii) Environmental impacts – you mention fuel efficiency of aircraft, however the real effects of air travel have to be taken into account: release of GHGs at altitude, widely acknowledged to be more potent than CO2 emissions at sea level. And an electric train can run on (hopefully eventually) sustainable energy such as wind, solar (even nat gas would lower carbon emissions significantly). A more pertinent question would be the embodied energy of that length of track in terms of concrete manufacture.
    iv) Would be crazy to stop at every city, or even any for the majority of trains. Why? Most people just want to get to SYD or MEL.
    v) This is the biggy – regional development along the route. This idea offers a huge long term opportunity for the development of a corridor through central Victoria right up to Sydney. Worth exploring in further depth I think, especially with population predictions as they are.
    vi) Business travellers – As noted in the airport train post, most business travellers would be going to the cities I think. Six of one and half a dozen of the other probably. I think the key here is “productive time”(laptop, mobile available) = train wins.
    vii) See i)
    viii) Flexibility? Have you ever tried to get to Sydney for a 7am meeting? Ever tried to fly out after 10 (or whenever the curfew starts? Trains can run all night, with minimum headway in rushhour (Shinkansens run a 10 minute headway I think – much higher capacity than air). Oh, and an A380 is still gonna set you back an odd 350 million. Even capital cost for a maglev train is a third of that (seat to seat cost).
    ix) Cant believe you would post about the reliability of the SYD MEL route (or of air in general after Europe’s recent disaster!). Well acknowledged to be the Achilles’ heel of air travel, not a strength!
    Oh, and a decent high speed train would make Canberra SYD’s second airport (think german Maglev tech).
    Apologies for the rant. I feel passionately about this, as you may be able to tell!

    • Benno says:

      Following up on Moss’ rant:

      350km/hr should be the minimum top speed capacity for the rails.

      Only stops should be Melbourne (30% Canberra) and Sydney. Slower capacity auxilary lines can take the stopping all stations stops to the regions (perhaps 220 km/hr).

      Scope for extending the line to South East Queensland after a few years of operation – 5 1/2 hours Melbourne to Brisbane.

      Melbourne and Sydney metropolitan PT systems to be made more efficient like Lunden Tube i.e. won’t matter if your final destination is not the CBD, will only take you 20 minutes to get to where you want to go.

      Air will still be there.

      And just to reinforce one of Moss’ points, time spent on a train is so much more productive than time spent in a cab or on a plane.

      No PPPs. Federal Government funded. Federal Government subsidised. Even so it will be a case of high fixed cost, low maintenance cost, passenger price competitive with airlines and will eventually start making money for the government.

      Environmental potential over air travel is substantial. Not at the moment as Alan points out. But the potential is substantial.

      P.S. Good post Alan.

    • Alan Davies says:

      They say it’s dangerous to get between a man and his passion! I’ll admit I’m not passionate about the VFT but nor am I against it. I’m just taking a cool and dispassionate look at it on the basis of the info available to me at this time. Right now I’ve got more questions than answers and remain unconvinced (but open to new info if and when it’s forthcoming).

      Some points in response to both Moss and Benno:

       The Times Online uses research done for Eurostar, which is a train operator – question of credibility

       All the routes cited by he Times Online where train has a high share are short e.g. London-Paris is 340 km; London-Brussels is 198 km. Sydney-Melbourne is 712 km. On-ground travel time is more significant for short trips

       London (8 m) and Paris (10 m) are very big cities compared to either Sydney or Melbourne. They also have huge numbers of business and leisure travellers (London is an ‘Alpha’ world city). Congestion in the air and on the ground makes air less competitive in those cities, particularly for short trips

       Laptops and even Verizon Airphones can be used on planes in the US. Note however that the DC to NY train has ‘quiet cars’ where cell phones are banned. Business travellers don’t like them

       Business travellers can carry hand luggage on to planes. Can’t see why security delay would be significantly less for a VFT than it is for a plane

       Aircraft GHG emissions are proportional to fuel consumption, just as they are with cars. Lower fuel consumption, lower emissions

       Regional development potential of a VFT is limited because too many stops make it a VST (very slow train)

       No one has indicated what sort of businesses would supposedly be attracted to regional centres by a VFT. This is a dead end e.g. Canberra has very good air connections but hasn’t really flourished as a business centre independent of the Government market

       Much of the argument in favour of the VFT assumes perfect speeds. Need to look at achievable performance. I see the London-Cologne trip by train takes 5 hours yet it’s only 495 km (after allowing for a changeover)

       Volcano is irrelevant – events on this scale are rare (excluding war). Same could happen to a VFT e.g. Melbourne has had minor to moderate earthquakes

       The ability of a VFT to operate at night is a good point. A VFT should also unload it’s passengers quicker than a plane (although not as quick as a suburban train)

      It’s not a matter of just having enough business travellers to fill a VFT (we already know there’s a market there) – a VFT has to be able to out-compete the four existing carriers who it must be assumed will respond aggressively to a new entrant.

      And perhaps the number one question – why should the tax payer subsidise a VFT? Since I’m already spoiled for choice in how I travel between Sydney and Melbourne, I think I’d rather see any spare funds going to converting electricity generation to low carbon sources.

      • Moss says:

        Alan, I think our disagreements/discussions fall into a few categories:

        – Travel time and dependant uptake: I was merely using the Eurostar data as an example (but why would they delude themselves with non-credible data – they are running a business after all?). There is plenty of other research on this, including recent experience from China eg http://tinyurl.com/32d3rgx
        800km is generally acknowledged to be the upper limit of the route and time for high speed rail uptake, granted, however Melbourne to Sydney in 2 and a half hours (express CBD to CBD) should be achievable, particularly with the most recent technologies.
        – Potential Market: You can argue about the “world status”, population and air congestion of European cities all you like; the fact is that MEL-SYD is the forth busiest air route in the world, and it is growing significantly. And congestion? Look at the slot availability at SYD…
        – Convenience: This is a no-brainer in my book, and probably the biggest plus of travelling by train. The fact is that whilst in the air, you get a max of maybe 45-50 mins of cramped, unconnected “productive time”. The rest of the time is spent boarding, waiting, queuing, sitting awaiting takeoff and packing up/unpacking due to Australian electronics regulations on flights. Compare this to a rail journey, where you can be productive 98% of the time, almost as soon as you get on, fully connected via wireless and mobile phone, with elbow space. And you could not expect every business person to be locked in to a certain model of laptop or phone just because they fly every now and then! Plus, a business traveller is unlikely to book themselves into a “quiet car”.
        – Security: Why would VFT need to be a stringent with security as an airport? There is no indication from any high speed rail system in the world with that this is the case.
        – Aircraft emit GHGs at altitude. Trains do not. What is the point of comparing to cars? Fuel efficiency is a bit beside the point. As mentioned, we should be more concerned about the emissions from the construction of a VFT route.
        – As mentioned, the idea that the train stops at every station along the way is ridiculous. This does not hamper the regional development along the way, because for smaller centres the headway can be higher due to lower passenger numbers.
        – The volcano is not irrelevant – it is an example of the fragility of air as a mode of reliable travel. Weather is notorious for delaying flights or leading to flight cancelations, not to mention air congestion, security threats, maintenance delays and late passengers. NONE of these have a significant impact upon rail (except for possibly the security threats – however given rails significantly higher capacity potential, recovery would be much quicker than air). Reliability? 2008 was a bad year, admittedly: http://tinyurl.com/2eav9l9 with “nearly four in 10 flights from Tullamarine to Sydney — a route operated by Qantas and Virgin Blue — arrived late or not at all” during November. Compare this with high speed rail routes such as the Japanese Shinkansen: lateness of trains is measured in SECONDS.
        – Regarding the regional development potential, this needs further thought, but if population predictions are anything to go by, shifting people and also some industries into areas along the route over the next 30-40 years makes a lot of sense, just needs a bit of vision from our pollies (admittedly in short supply).
        – Subsidies? Should aim to be limited, but what do the government spend on road subsidies over the Hume, and what would a new airport for Sydney cost the taxpayer?
        All very interesting stuff. Thanks for the provocative post!

      • Benno says:

        Just don’t get between me and a chocolate croissant when I’ve only had four hours sleep!

        “And perhaps the number one question – why should the tax payer subsidise a VFT? Since I’m already spoiled for choice in how I travel between Sydney and Melbourne, I think I’d rather see any spare funds going to converting electricity generation to low carbon sources.”

        Because Trains are totally awesome. I still maintain that railway travel is the most efficient form of transportation yet invented. High fixed cost, low ongoing costs, as contrasted with air travel; high fixed costs, moderation ongoing (including environmental) costs.

        With appropriate metropolitan connections train travel is also more time efficient. Plus time spent on train is more efficient than time spent in cab and on plane.

        Don’t rely on economics to provide figures to convince you of this. Just look into the physics and logic of it.

        The taxpayer funds bazillions in roads; freeways, highways, motorways, bypasses, distributors etc… VFT is more worthy of tax payer dollars than many of those roads. Not that I’m arguing that the roads aren’t worthy of tax payer funding.

        Also consider that a VFT would take a fair proportion of traffic off the Hume Hwy. There’s another example; roads are high fixed cost and moderate ongoing costs.

        God I’m boring. Sorry about that.

  3. lock says:

    I guess the elephant-in-the-room is the price of oil. Thanks to the GFC it seems to have gone off the boil somewhat, but it is clawing its way up slowly again.

    It may not make any economic sense now, but in 10 years? How long would it take to build a VFT?

  4. Alan Davies says:

    Can someone please explain to me why security is a very serious issue for planes but apparently not for VFTs? I’d have thought a train moving at 350 kmh would be a very inviting target for a terrorist. I know trains aren’t pressurised but that didn’t deter the London bombers.

    • Moss says:

      Maybe you would have to ask a terrorist- eek! Probably has something to do with historical hijacking scenarios – much harder to hijack a train full of people than a plane, at least back in the 70s or whenever it started. But then you could ask about the security of big public gatherings and sporting events etc – where do you stop?

    • Benno says:

      I agree. Security would still be required. If only because a fast train with higher patronage would be a high profile target. Not for so much for train jackings, more so for suicide bombing I would have thought.

  5. […] corridor would stack up against planes in order to flesh out the questions I posed last week (Is the VFT all huff and no puff?).  I used a simple “back of the envelope” methodology adapted from that used by Harvard’s […]

  6. alanz says:

    I have traveled on just about every VFT in Europe.

    Firstly, compared to london/paris, the Eurostar is much faster than travel by plane when you take into acocunt that you can travel inner city to inner city (which is where most people on that route would want to go). There are no costly and time consuming trips to airports at either end, plus the obligatory 30-40 min wait at the departure end. There is no check in, baggage drop off or collection or long secutiry queues. Let’s compare that to a melbourne to sydney or sydney to brisbane trip. about 900k give or take either way from Sydney (CBD to CBD). That’s 2.5 – 3 hours by train city centre to city centre. To do the same trip by plane means a 30-40 min trip cbd to airport at either end (total 1-1.5 hours), at least a 30 wait at the departing end (total 1.5 – 2 hours) and a terminal to terminal time of 1.5 hrs (total 3 – 3.5 hrs) if everything goes well, plus the swolen ankles to those prone to that sort of thing. So, the train is either the same time or a shorter time depending on the delays at the airports not to mention the outrageous fees for everyting to do with air travel (food,parking,drink, and eveything in the terminal shopping area). The cost for food etc is not inflated as the train stations are not owned by Macquarie bank. Get on the train and enjoy a trouble free journey watching a movie or reading book for the entire 3 hours as opposed to the flummery involved in air travel. There is no choice in my opinion, and to top it all off, the train could be completely powered by green energy eventually. The aircraft will always burn something to get it into the air. Currently, the cost in carbon per passenger is FAR lower by train than aircraft. I won’t bore you with stats. Finaly, the trains are far more comfortable than anything in the air, except for first class, and not many of us are likely to see that!

  7. […] Legge says because I’ve covered most of the arguments for and against high speed rail here and here. But I do want to take issue with a couple of the points he […]

  8. […] devoted a fair bit of attention to the proposed Very Fast Train between Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne (here, here and here), wondering what warrant there is to replace one form of public transport with […]

  9. […] California’s planned $42 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) project provides another example of the difficulties of forecasting demand. Although there are important differences between the design of the California HSR system and proposals for a Very Fast Train (VFT) between Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne, the former nevertheless has important lessons for us. I have previously discussed the VFT here, here, here and here. […]

  10. […] However there are always dangers for the unwary in extrapolating overseas experience to local circumstances. Australia is unusual because most of its population is located in a small number of big primate cities separated by long distances. For example, the existing rail line from Sydney to Melbourne is 950 km and the flying distance is 750 km. Longer distances favour air’s higher speed (I’ve looked at this and other issues in greater detail here, here, here and here). […]

  11. steven says:

    There needs to new thinking. The usufully fast VFT (over 200 kph) needs good straight lines, all the exsisting alignments are impossible. New routes are needed. New routes open the possibliuty of new towns in new locations – towns designed around a railway hub with “park and ride” and concentric circles of decreasingly dense deveolpment. A interlinking commuter train could run on the same line given devations and modern signaling. And there are possiblites of new reouts – Sydney to Nowra, and up to Canberra and down to Cooma. Goulburn to WeeJasper and Adelong to Albury. Brisbane to the Grafton – all easy, cheap to build routes with good locations for new towns – not all need to be residentail! Money wise, propery development rights could go with “hub” towns along the new route – the railways went through the American west in this way.

    We have given thought to the concepts, written a 15 page proposal and will email it to anyone interested. Steven. Email, guthltd@comcen.com.au

  12. […] Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff? 473 reads […]

  13. […] I’ve pointed out before, most of these sorts of claims are exaggerated or misapply foreign examples — and Saul […]


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