Does Labor’s Sydney-Newcastle High Speed train make sense?Posted: August 5, 2010
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!