Do the numbers support the Very Fast Train?

I’ve run some numbers on how a Very Fast Train in the Sydney-Melbourne 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 Edward Glaeser to evaluate high speed rail projects in the US (here).

I estimate the economic and environmental benefits of carrying all current Sydney-Melbourne air traffic by VFT rather than plane at around $840 million p.a. (although this does not include the cost of GHG emissions from construction of a rail line  – this would be large).

Table by Booz Allen

At first glance a VFT looks unpromising, since I estimate the capital cost of constructing and maintaining a VFT line from Sydney to Melbourne at about $1.5 billion per year. This is well in excess of the benefits.

However this assumes Sydney can accommodate passenger growth by using larger planes. It quite possibly can, but if it can’t and a second Sydney airport has to be built, a VFT starts to look viable if the cost of the airport were to come in at around $15 billion.

Let me emphasise that this is a simple analysis. I’ve left out many complications, including Canberra passengers and car traffic on the Hume.

The only environmental issue I’ve included is (operating) GHG. And of course I’ve made assumptions on things like construction costs and future interest rates.

Starting with capital costs, estimates of the cost to acquire land and construct a VFT line range from $14 to $82 million per km in Europe and the US (Japan is much higher because of earthquake risks). I assume a middling cost of $30 million per km, giving a total cost of $27 billion to build a 900 km line (the existing Sydney-Melbourne rail line is 950 km). I’ve assumed an interest rate of 5% p.a. and annual track maintenance cost of $124,000 per km. These assumptions give a total capital cost for the line of $1.5 billion per annum. Read the rest of this entry »