High speed rail – are the Greens as shallow as the rest?

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 hereherehere 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.

12 Comments on “High speed rail – are the Greens as shallow as the rest?”

  1. TomD says:

    The true champion of counter-political correctness.

    Good issues well raised Alan. But are you asking too much of people when seeking common sense responses over emotional responses. Didn’t we all want train sets as kids …

  2. Joseph says:

    That is a useful summary of just how irrational this project is. The statistics on popularity illustrate that 74% of Australians are ill informed about the costs and benefits of such a project. But who will inform them? Surely not the politicians who will fear an anti-environment label if they speak up against so foolish a plan. Your column in The Age recently concerning the Melbourne Airport rail link seemed to attract widespread interest. Hence any chance of trying to get another column in the paper along the above lines and calling on Bob Brown to put a $/tonne of carbon on the project? Would also be interesting to know what % of Australia’s carbon emissions could be abated by $40bn, I would guess you could replace most of Australia’s coal fired power stations with gas.

  3. Matthew says:

    I do think the idea has quite a lot of merit.

    I’d advocate an Adelaide Airport-Adelaide-Bendigo line meeting the Melbourne-Tullamarine-Wang-Albury-Canberra-Wollongong-Sydney Airport-Sydney-Newcastle-Coffs-Lismore-Gold Coast-Brisbane-Brisbane Airport line. With new decentralised cities planned (on new Urbanist/sustainable ideals) on the route, and CBD + a smattering of suburban stations, integrated into the existing suburban public transport patterns. With a single decent helmetless bike hire scheme at every station, and integrated smartcard ticketing of all public transport at every end. i.e. one national smart card in all cities for all trains, buses, bike lockers, trams, ferries and bike share.

    The Melbourne Urbanist always thinks too small 🙂

  4. Moss says:

    Alan, provocative as always. But every time you visit this issue you tend to think “too small” as Matthew points out. When you reduce the argument for high speed rail down to a few “reasons” you limit the debate to your own terms.
    The major reasons for this project (despite what the greens may propose) are not co2 emissions, or even to replace a second airport at SYD.
    In order to make this project make sense you need to define it by using a couple of the biggest issues facing Australia in the next 20-30 yrs: Booming population and the consequences of that, and the price of energy from hydrocarbons.
    Where on earth are those extra 10 or 15 million people going to go? Into our outer suburbs? Into the increasingly congested and infrastructure-stretched inner suburbs? No. The answer (as Matthew outlines) is to build true high speed rail to the regions: link denser, walkable, mixed use, sustainable new cities and revitalised existing towns. Put those centres along the route from Melbourne to Sydney and suddenly you have your answer.
    And add to that the likely coming increase (and fluctuations) in jet fuel costs versus the fact that electricity is a steady price (although increasing slightly), and that energy from renewables is expected to reduce significantly over the next 20-30 years. Business loves stable prices.
    In fact, upon reflection, it would be an amazing way of giving a state a significant economic advantage to build a high speed rail net work internally, with the possibility of extending between capitals. All we need is some vision (ok, I guess sadly we’re not gonna see this any time soon given the current crop of politicians!)

    • Moss says:

      Sorry, typo – should have said the COSTS of renewable energy will reduce.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Yes, I acknowledge that I only addressed the GHG issue, but I linked to my previous posts on HSR to cover off other issues. One of the downsides of blogging is that you have to squeeze time in between everything else so you have to take shortcuts.

      I think I’ve dealt with both the issues you raise before (see links above) although probably mainly in the Comments section so I’ll think about writing something more extensive shortly (maybe tonight in fact).

  5. Matthew says:

    $40 billion for Melb to Brisbane for true HSR isn’t that much. It’s $2 billion per annum for 20 years. That’s only 60% of the $3.1b annual road funding.* Adding on to Adelaide wouldn’t cost much more, as the route through the Wimmera and Mallee is flat and cheap.

    I imagine the steel, coal, cement, engineering, mining and construction industries would have a very good few years.

    It would be totally transformative of the country. It would change aviation, freight and land use, and could make our economies more sustainable.

    At 360km/hr I guesstimate:
    2hrs Adelaide to Melbourne. Running every 30 minutes.
    2.5hrs Brisbane to Sydney. Running every 15 minutes.
    40 minutes Melbourne to Wodonga.

    Melbourne to Sydney is the 4th busiest air route in the world.

    Alan, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it.

    *Source 2008/2009 http://www.alga.asn.au/policy/finance/federalBudgetAnalysis2008/factSheet03.php

  6. Benno says:

    Would only be cost effective if the trains could run on renewably sourced energy.

  7. […] the many and varied problems I see with HSR, since I’ve covered them before (see here, here, and here, ). What I do want to address however is the way the planned feasibility study will be […]

  8. MysteryIdiot says:

    I love the fact that most people talk about the cost and the speed – it’s not just about supply. Yes the speed might look attractive (particularly when you abstract from the slow urban ingress and egress), but there is competition for that demand and you won’t get all of it. Particularly since most customers will look at door-to-door transit time, frequency of service, consequences of any accident/failure ahead (worst-case scenarios are much more bearable for planes than trains – just look at the freight trais delayed for 2 days Melbourne to Brisbane), etc.
    HSR would operate by offering a few large trains at the popular times and then being empty at other times (ceding most of that demand to planes). That would leave the asset empty (and don’t suggest putting freight or slow stopping services which would completely screw a HS service if they are delayed, unless you build a lot of expensive passing lanes/duplication). Alternatively they would offer costly empty services throughout the day wich would be mandated by the CSO which comes with the huge government subsidy.

    I would much rather the government stopped spending my money on crap and gave me a tax cut – then I would spend it on Australian produced leisure services which I actually WANT.

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