Is High Speed Rail the new NBN?Posted: November 3, 2010
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.