Does Labor’s Sydney-Newcastle High Speed train make sense?

The car-eating "straddle" train

I watched Anthony Albanese foreshadow on Lateline on Wednesday night that the Government, if re-elected, would fund a $20 million feasibility study of a high speed rail connection between Sydney and Newcastle as part of a Sydney-Brisbane route.

The Minister’s subseqent announcement on Thursday puts more emphasis on an east coast Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne HSR but it seems clear the Central Coast is a key target of the initiative (Robertson is a marginal seat).

The announcement was greeted with some scepticism – an HSR link between Sydney and Newcastle was announced by Bob Carr twelve years ago. Crikey’s Canberra correspondent, Bernard Keane, reckons Labor isn’t serious about HSR and is only pretending.

Provided the focus is on Sydney-Newcastle, I think there are some reasonable aspects to this initiative notwithstanding its apparent political motivation.

First and foremost it is, like the Green’s HSR promise, just a feasibility study. Thankfully, Albanese and Gillard are not doing a John Howard and committing to a white elephant like the Darwin-Alice Springs railway under some specious rationale like ”national interest” or “visionary thinking” (which of course are synonyms for “political opportunism”).

Second, the two cities are only around 150 km apart. Experience in Japan and Europe shows that HSR is very competitive over short distances. In these situations the on-ground travel to airports is usually a relatively high proportion of total trip time. And I doubt I’m the only one who doesn’t feel completely relaxed in the sort of small turbo props operated by Aeropelican – a fast train would be a reassuringly attractive alternative.

Third, the East Coast Very High Speed Train Study concluded that the best prospects for HSR, both in demand and competitive terms, are shorter distance routes like Sydney–Newcastle, Sydney–South Coast, Sydney–Canberra, Brisbane–Gold Coast and Melbourne–Albury/Wodonga. Sydney-Newcastle is the busiest inter-urban corridor in the Sydney region.

Fourth, HSR would be competing primarily with cars rather than with existing public transport (as would be the case for a Sydney-Melbourne or Sydney-Brisbane line).

The key benefit of HSR on this route would mainly be faster travel times. The Minister says it will also reduce traffic congestion but that could only ever be temporary – as is the case with freeways, almost all of the road space liberated by public transport is eventually filled up by latent demand.

Some advocates will be disappointed that the East Coast Study concluded that 250 km/h technology is the most cost effective technology in short corridors like Sydney-Newcastle i.e. not 350 km/h or higher.

There are some disadvantages. For example, extensive tunnelling (Hornsby to Gosford?) would be required because of the difficult terrain linking Sydney with the Central Coast. Further, the East Coast Study concluded (albeit in relation to the entire Brisbane to Melbourne route) that “users enjoy a significant multiple of benefits 2.5 times their costs, whereas the ratio of public benefits to publicly borne costs is in the range 0.1 to 0.3”.

The key driver that might justify HSR is a second Sydney airport. That seems to have been ignored unless the Hunter is now the main contender.

Does Sydney-Newcastle HSR make sense? That’ll cost $20 million. Sounds a lot but we’ve all seen much more expensive political “decisions” than that. If the Government is returned don’t be surprised if in two years the recommendation ends up looking a bit like Victoria’s regional (slightly faster) rail project. Meanwhile, Sydney’s metropolitan train system staggers on.

UPDATE Sunday 15 August: LA plans bullet train for funicular railway!


9 Comments on “Does Labor’s Sydney-Newcastle High Speed train make sense?”

  1. Joseph says:

    Whilst the East Coast Very High Speed Train Study is probably the best source we have, the figures included may be long out of date. In particular “users enjoy a significant multiple of benefits 2.5 times their costs”, would this still be valid in an era of LCCs? With Sydney to Melbourne flights now costing $50 at most times of the week I would doubt whether this is still accurate.

    • Alan Davies says:

      It was submitted to the Department of Transport on 26th Nov 2001. Given the sorts of error ranges in these studies, I think it’s still very useful. I can’t,for example,see that the estimated range of public benefits would have changed significantly, much less moved from the estimated range of 0.1 – 0.3 into positive territory in the intervening nine years.

      I note that it was a key source for the CRC on Rail Innovation’s 2010 report on HSR.

      • Russ says:

        The problem with using the ECVHST Study is that it made poor service assumptions that led to poor benefits. Notably, it assumed that even an “express” train would stop at 6+ stations between Melbourne and Sydney. That inflated the fastest journey time to more than 6 hours, which led them to believe the train could not compete with air-travel between the major centres, and therefore, would primarily compete with the comparatively small regional flight market. Needless to say, the public benefits of that project, as defined, were pretty low.

        On the speed issue, naturally 250km/h is better for short corridors (or trains that stop relatively frequently), because the total distance covered at full speed is limited by acceleration/braking. But that is only relevant if we were to only build short corridors; if the network was to expanded to a mix of shorter and longer corridors, then it would be complete madness to cripple the long distance service to save money on the short corridors.

        The key term here Alan is “network”. I doubt you can make an economic case for a single use, single line railway anywhere in Australia. They are only valuable insofar as they serve multiple uses, and connect to multiple places with varied, tailored, service patterns, just like every other piece of transport infrastructure.

  2. Chris says:

    I think you’re right that this will end up just being a better passenger service rather than HSR. They’ll build their already planned (?) works for the North Sydney Freight Corridor and then use the existing/new tracks for a better passenger service, which actually could be good (hopefully they’ll take the opportunity to build a better alignment with tunnels) and probably very sensible but I just hate the political cynicism and the general lack of professionalism from the public service.

  3. jack horner says:

    It is fascinating how governments/opinion leaders who have spent decades running their Volkwagen [existing rail system] into the ground with inadequate investment suddenly become besotted with Rolls Royce solutions [Very Fast Trains].

    Whatever its merits it is hard to believe that anything will come of this – a study will find that in the extremely rugged terrain Sydney-Gosford a VFT alignment is not affordable.

    It is most regrettable that this hype draws attention away from the need for continuous improvement to the existing rail network in line with an orderly long term regional transport plan. For many people the subtext must be ‘we need something completely new because the existing system is hopeless’. For rail as a whole that is a negative message.

    For Sydney-Newcastle a moderately fast train based on the existing aligment and signalling with a few key deviations and a max speed of say 160kph should take no more than 90 minutes.* This should be the regarded as the base case. You then have to consider whether the incremental gain to take this down to say 60 minutes with a VFT is worth the very large incremental cost of a complete new alignment.

    * Details (approximate):
    Wynyard-Hornsby requiring 4 tracks to Chatswood and probably 3 from there: 23km in 20 minutes.
    Hornsby Gosford with new line Berowra-Hawkesbury River and possibly new tunnels Wondabyne-Koolewong bypassing Woy Woy: about 45km in 30 minutes.
    Gosford-Broadmeadow with general curve easing and cut off the loop at Fassifern: about 78km in 40 minutes.

  4. jack horner says:

    PS. A moderately fast train would also be more suitable to make a suburban frequency limited stop service promoting shorter trips within the corridor (eg Gosford-Wyong-Morisset-Fassifern-Glendale-Broadmeadow).

    Firstly because at the lower speed the time lost per stop is less. Secondly because it would use existing town centre stations; whereas a VFT would have to have town bypass alignments like the freeway, and that would greatly complicate providing connecting buses to town centres as well as the other places the buses now go to.

    Given likely Central Coast population growth the shorter trips probably have more growth potential than end to end Sydney-Newcastle trips.

    A fast frequent limited stop service with connecting buses will do more for the region’s public transport network as a whole than would be achieved by providing a super-duper Sydney-Newcastle non stop express while all other services, presumably, remain at their present level of mediocrity.

  5. […] to reiterate 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 […]

  6. […] Seventh, it’s also highly unlikely that any new train line would be high-speed. That would be very expensive as it would require a dedicated line and rolling stock and higher engineering standards. Those who hold out hope that it could be part of a Sydney–Melbourne High Speed Rail (HSR) project ignore the fact that numerous studies have found HSR is not viable on this route (the Commonwealth is undertaking another study at the moment). Even if political considerations were to drive a start on HSR, it is far more likely the first stages would be constructed around Sydney, probably in the Newcastle-Sydney corridor. […]

  7. […] still an option to locate a second airport within 60-100 km of Sydney. There could well be a case for providing HSR to such an airport but political failure is not a good reason for building an entire HSR system along the eastern […]


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