Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff?Posted: April 27, 2010
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.