High speed rail – are the Greens as shallow as the rest?Posted: August 1, 2010
Bob Brown let us know yesterday with his call for a high speed rail link from Brisbane to Melbourne that the Greens are just as susceptible to populism as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.
In April he costed a Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne link at more than $40 billion. Yesterday he pointed to a survey commissioned by the Greens showing 74% of Australians support high speed rail. That’s not surprising because it is an attractive and beguiling idea – 94% of readers of The Age support it. After all, China and Europe can’t seem to build enough high speed rail and President Obama has grand plans for an extensive network in the US.
The idea of some form of very fast train service connecting Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne has been around at least since the 1980s. A number of feasibility studies have been undertaken, all of which concluded that it wouldn’t be feasible without massive Government assistance. So it’s worth asking a few questions:
- why would we want to commit billions in Government subsidies to replace one form of public transport (planes) with another (trains)?
- why would we want to replace the four airlines that currently compete vigorously on price and service on this route with a single monopoly rail operator?
The key reason usually advanced is that trains produce less carbon per passenger kilometre than planes. By my calculations, if all of the existing seven million annual passenger trips on the Sydney-Melbourne air corridor were completely replaced by high speed rail, it would save 756,000 tonnes of carbon every year.
That’s a lot of greenhouse gas – the Government says its proposed ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme would save one million tonnes over the entire life of the scheme. But if it costs $40 billion as Senator Brown contends, then high speed rail would be a very expensive way of eliminating even 40 years worth of carbon. It would make ‘cash for clunkers’ look efficient!
And consider that even at the Greens own stated price for carbon of $23/tonne, all of that 756,000 tonnes p.a. could be abated by other means for less than $20 million per annum. It would, moreover, take many years for the project to pay back all the carbon released during construction of an 800-900 km rail line.
Proponents of high speed rail are inspired by the success of this mode elsewhere. They point out that it has successfully out-competed air on routes like London-Paris (340 km) and London-Brussells (198 km). But what characterises most of these routes is that distances are short and land uses are congested.
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).
The warrant for Government assistance for high speed rail on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor is weak. The only potentially plausible argument I can see would be if it could be shown that it would be an effective substitute for a second Sydney airport. The only approximation I’ve seen however puts the cost of a new airport well below the Green’s estimated cost of high speed rail.
I applaud the Greens for bringing a ‘big picture’ perspective to the election. However rather than play the populist card they should give more attention to maintaining their integrity. They should look at other truly visionary initiatives like drastically improving outer suburban public transport or speeding up the rate at which coal-fired power stations are retired in favour of low carbon generation.