– Are we too smart for High Speed Rail?

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Fairfax’s on-line publication, The National Times, posted a feature on High Speed Rail (HSR) on the weekend under the heading, Is Australia too big for a high-speed rail network? The paper gives space to four viewpoints: Peter Moore and Stephen Byron are unashamed HSR boosters, Gary Johns is sceptical and Saul Eslake sits on the fence.

I’ve written about HSR before (see the Categories list in the side pane) and, with the Federal Government’s feasibility study due shortly, it’s timely to take a look at the issue of a Sydney-Melbourne HSR service again.

As usual, all sorts of benefits are claimed for HSR, such as greater comfort, quicker check-in times and the ability to use laptops and mobile phones in-journey. Saul Eslake brings a new perspective — he reckons the conventional wisdom that HSR only works over short to medium distances is outdated. He cites the Barcelona-Madrid-Sevilla AVE system which runs over 900 km, considerably further than the 700 km airline distance between Sydney and Melbourne.

As I’ve pointed out before, most of these sorts of claims are exaggerated or misapply foreign examples — and Saul Eslake’s argument is no exception. Spain’s AVE system is in effect two medium-distance services, not one long one.

The airline distance between Barcelona and Madrid is 506 km and thence from Madrid to Sevilla is 391 km. The population of metropolitan Barcelona is 4.2 million and Sevilla 1.5 million. But most importantly, Madrid is in between these two and has a population of 5.8 million. The prospects for HSR in the Sydney-Melbourne corridor would be a lot more attractive if Canberra or Albury/Wodonga were the same size as Madrid!

But these sorts of arguments are beside the point. Notwithstanding all the claimed advantages and suitabilities of HSR, travellers in the Sydney-Melbourne corridor are simply not prepared to pay enough to make HSR viable – or even remotely competitive with air – without a subsidy. This is not unusual in the world of fast trains as the great majority of HSR systems throughout the world operate with public assistance.

That might make sense in some countries where there isn’t an alternative form of public transport for inter-city travel, or if HSR provides a significant advantage in travel time. However the key to understanding the relevance of HSR in Australia is recognising that we already have an efficient and competitive airline industry providing transport for people and high value freight between Sydney and Melbourne. This is an industry that provides a fast service and pays its (financial) way.

HSR, on the other hand, is unthinkable in this corridor without government assistance to meet revenue shortfalls and to compulsorily acquire land and obtain various planning and environmental approvals. Nor does it offer a significant time saving over air. That’s why the market hasn’t just gone ahead and built a very fast train.

There have to be very, very good reasons why taxpayers should be called on to help replace a highly competitive industry with one that (a) would require a significant financial and in-kind subsidy, and (b) would very probably be run by a monopoly operator. There would also have to be good reasons to replace one form of public transport with another – and for promoting it to the top of the transport infrastructure priority list.

Putting aside political convenience, the only rational basis for subsidising HSR between Sydney and Melbourne would be to deal with the unpaid external costs of air travel.  Public funding might be justified if the benefits of HSR in terms of factors like reduced carbon emissions, noise and traffic congestion, exceed the cost of the subsidy. Read the rest of this entry »

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