Is High Speed Rail the new NBN?

The National Public Toilet Map - East Melbourne

The Federal Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, released the Terms of Reference on the weekend for the High Speed Rail (HSR) study promised during the election campaign.

I’m very disappointed with Mr Albanese’s approach. He says the first phase of the study, which will be completed by July 2011, will:

focus on identifying possible routes, corridor preservation and station options, including city-centre, city-periphery and airport stations. This will provide a basis for route development, indicative transit times and high-level construction costs.

That reads to me like a straight up and down business plan. The key questions it seeks to answer are nothing more than: is there a feasible route? is it affordable? and, where will the money come from?

This is most definitely not a cost-benefit analysis. We already know that HSR will never work without a heap of taxpayer’s money. Yet there’s no suggestion here that it should first be established whether or not it’s a good idea – do we need to do it? Why would we want to do it? What will the consequences be for other industries?

Since when did it become accepted wisdom that HSR is such ‘a good thing’ that it’s not necessary to make a case for it?

The more detailed specification reinforces the view that Mr Albanese has glossed over the ‘why’ and gone straight for the ‘how’. He says the study will:

  • Identify undeveloped land corridors and/or existing corridors that could be considered for a high speed railway, and preservation strategies;
  • Identify the main design decisions and requirements to build and operate a viable high speed rail network on the east coast of Australia;
  • Present route and station options, including indicative construction costs and interaction with other transport modes;
  • Provide costs estimates of undertaking the next stages of work, such as detailed route alignment identification and corridor resumptions;
  • Identify potential financing and business operating models for the construction and operation of a high speed railway;
  • Provide advice and options on relevant construction, engineering, financial and environmental considerations.

Many questions have already been raised about the sense of investing $80 billion or more in a national HSR network – see some earlier posts of mine dating back to April 2010. Apart from the almost certain massive call on taxpayers for funding and government involvement in land assembly and expedited approvals, it will, for example, have very significant impacts on landscape values and will emit high levels of carbon in construction. These impacts will be exacerbated by the need for large parts of the line to be elevated and in tunnel.

Another example is the risk HSR could end up substituting a monopoly rail operator for the existing highly competitive aviation industry with four major operators. Reductions in the profitability of airlines on major capital city trunk routes might jeopardise the provision of services on less profitable routes.

HSR might promote further sprawl on the edges of our cities and encourage the development of satellite cities with high levels of car use for non work travel. It could also compromise the efficiency of metropolitan passenger and freight services that are accorded lower operational priority than HSR.

Some of the alleged benefits also warrant closer examination. For example, claims that HSR will promote regional development or reduce traffic congestion in major corridors like Sydney-Newcastle have not been tested and are not supported by evidence. I’ve argued before that the likely reduction in emissions from HSR is small and could be offset for a song compared to the cost of high speed rail.

There are also a number of claims that need to be tested for robustness before they are assumed into the business case. For example, the assumption that business travellers will travel from CBD to CBD rather than home to CBD has not been demonstrated. Nor has the claim that HSR will always have lower security costs.

This study is putting the cart before the horse – it sounds very much like the NBN way of doing things. No need for an evaluation of the costs and benefits, just jump straight in. Perhaps the charitable view is that Mr Albanese has to make certain compromises with other parties given the finely balanced nature of the Gillard government.

Much of the appeal of HSR seems to be its supposedly ‘visionary’ nature. The boosters claim it will be a ‘game changer’ like the NBN. Were it to offer the sort of massive reduction in travel times that cheaper air travel offered over rail and car beginning back in the 1950s, then yes it would be a ‘quantum leap’. But as far as I can see it’s a train that can go surprisingly fast and promises to match, but not exceed significantly, the origin to destination times we already take for granted with flying.

8 Comments on “Is High Speed Rail the new NBN?”

  1. jack horner says:

    It’s amusing that sober Treasury guidelines usually call for cost benefit analysis of major infrastructure projects – with the unspoken rider, ‘except for the MOST expensive projects’.

    The most expensive projects don’t need CBA because they are regarded as ‘nation-building’, and the promoters are afraid that CBA might rain on the parade.

    It’s also interesting how you get this cargo-cultish enthusiasm about VFTs, when there are probably a hundred ways in which you could spend the same money on improving the existing regular railways, freight and passenger, for greater benefit. Opportunity cost again.

    You would think the VFT boosters, being interested in trains, would consider this aspect, but they don’t seem to. The fact that railways exist already on similar routes, and would benefit from more investment, is completely ignored. (NB I realise that regular railways and VFTs have different markets and technical paramaters, and are not interchangeable).

  2. Chris says:

    I lived in Oxford UK for a couple of years, and used rail to get into London where I was working for a few months. The journey took just under an hour, and was very pleasant until they ripped out the more comfortable seats, and replaced them with more narrower ones so they could fit more people in.
    In contrast, travelling by car would have taken anywhere from one and three quarter hours to three hours during peak traffic times. The cost of the train travel was a bit restrictive at 100 pounds a week, but no sane person would have considered travelling into London any other way, on a day to day bases.

    In France you can travel from Le Man to Paris on a TGV ridiculously fast train in just under an hour, where’s car travel would take over 3 hours. This was an even more expensive journey then the Oxford London line, and would probably only suite people on high incomes for a regular commute. If you booked ahead you could get good weekend deals. You wouldn’t opt to fly from Le Man to Paris, you would take the train or drive.

    I think the point I’m making is you don’t need really fast trains to link up towns, i.e. Geelong to Melbourne, Melbourne to Balarat and Balarat to Geelong. You do however need efficient services that make few stops and run on time. If you could reduce travel time from Geelong to Melbourne to within 40 min this would make Geelong an attractive proposition for many people.

    Also, high speed rail seems (to me)to work better over shorter distances. A fast train from Melbourne to Adelaide, could not compete with a budget airline.

    • Joseph says:

      But why would you want to encourage / subsidise people to move to Geelong and commute to Melbourne? The usual, and dubious, assumption around long distance rail is that it is more environmentally friendly. But the opposite is true if replacing a short commute by car by a long distance trip by rail.

      • Chris says:

        I’m not sure if this would be the net result. Sure to some degree people who have an eye for Geelong would consider this an option, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I think the questions we should ask ourselves are what do we expect to achieve by providing such a service. The ultimate goal would be to encourage growth of Geelong, and alleviate pressure on Melbourne.
        Ultimately employment dictates where people put up sticks. I can’t see any train service being a sufficient reason to move to Geelong on it’s own merits, but inclusion of the service could have a flow on affect of job creation in Geelong, which would vindicate the decision.

        Really, how many people or governments make decisions bases on environmental friendliness! Show me a government with the bottle to price energy use accordingly, and then we can talk environment.

  3. Riccardo says:

    The problem in this country is land transport is too cheap, and hence over demanded and under provided.

    HSR would get a fair run against its alternatives if transport were properly priced. The competitor is not air on the 300-500km range but road; air transport is very poorly provided in Australia on these legs.

    HSR is also posited as a potential long distance option eg SYdney to Melbourne which would have been like starting with Paris to Nice or Tokyo to Fukuoka; which of course it wasn’t and was never intended to be in these countries.

    It was always intended for shorter routes where air wastes a lot of time; both land-side times but also lots of time reaching cruising altitude and descending from it.

    Australian cities are some sort of freak show where the urban accretions are far too large, and much larger than would be counted in Europe; yet the transport within these accretions is very poor.

    And the edges of these accretions are very poor. You could build a large city out of Pakenham or Campbelltown if you wished; you could then build a decent fast rail service, as well as the slow one, and charge a realistic amount to use if, especially for business people doing business in these places.

    But the fantasy ends. There is no business done in Campbelltown or Pakenham, these places are poor, the people won’t pay the realistic cost of transport and the freeways are underprovided, overused and subsidised against the train.

    To reiterate, HSR is a non-argument about a non-issue in Australia. A flag flown up the pole for people to either salute or shoot at.

    The price of land transport needs to massively increase in Australia. This would support better urban planning decisions, but making people pay the true cost of transport. It would reduce transport congestion by removing excess demand, but would also assist transport supply through better cost recovery.

    But this is probably ‘casting pearls before swine’ in any event as Australians seem to enjoy living in squallor, and regularly vote for the 2 political parties that keep them that way.

  4. Why the National Public Toilet map picture? Funny.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Entirely unrelated to the main article (as most of my pictures nowadays are). It means I have two stories – one written by me, one visual by someone else.

      I posted this one primarily because it’s a map and because public toilets are a key amenity issue in cities, especially for tourists.

      The great example is NY’s much vaunted subway system. Millions of human beings use it but it can’t deliver on one of humanity’s most basic needs – no pissoirs!

  5. […] 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 […]

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