Do Tiger Airway’s woes mean we need HSR?

Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) High Speed Rail network, Spain

I guess it was only a matter of time before someone would see Tiger Airway’s current troubles as evidence Australia needs High Speed Rail (HSR) between Sydney and Melbourne.

That someone is a Mr Peter Appleton of Brown Hill, who wrote to The Age saying “with the halt of flights, we are back to Third World trains service – Sydney to Melbourne, 800 kilometres in 11 hours. French, German, Japanese and Chinese trains would cover the same distance in 2½ hours”.

It’s evidently escaped Mr Appleton’s attention that there are three other airlines still flying between Sydney and Melbourne – Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar. Mr Appleton doesn’t need to use the train. It’s puzzling why The Age even published this letter given there’s no logical connection between Tiger Airways current troubles and the “Third World” train service between the two cities.

Indeed, another interpretation is that Tiger’s troubles are evidence of effective competition in domestic aviation, leading to lower prices for consumers. Tiger’s particular mix of price and service evidently isn’t proving attractive to enough travellers (big surprise!), but even if the company withdraws permanently from the market, we still have three operators. History suggests the possibility of another entrant to the market can’t be discounted.

Of course three operators isn’t as good as four (and Qantas and Jetstar are related), but any High Speed Rail service on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne route would almost certainly be provided by a single (i.e. monopoly) operator, as is the case elsewhere.

The first stage of the Federal Government’s HSR study is due this month so there are likely to be more tall stories as the lobbying intensifies. The Age ran what was in effect an advertorial on June 24 for French electricity and transport company Alstom. Just what disinterested contribution the paper expected would be provided by a company that claims to have built 650 high speed trains over the last four decades is anyone’s guess.

The Age was happy to run with the line of Alstom’s Australian chief executive, Chris Raine, that “events such as the volcanic ash cloud from Chile (have) made it all too clear Australia could not rely on aviation alone to meet its transport needs”. Unless Mr Raine has evidence that global warming is somehow leading to more volcanic eruptions, he should acknowledge that the number of flying hours lost to volcanoes in Australian aviation history is miniscule. This reminds me of those who imply earthquakes are caused by global warming! Read the rest of this entry »


Why does Canberra have more social capital?

Newly elected Labor member for the seat of Fraser in the ACT, Andrew Leigh, argues that Canberra has the highest level of social capital of any of Australia’s capital cities.

The former ANU economist contends that social capital – essentially the level of trust and reciprocity within communities – has declined in Australia. He points to declines in active membership of associations, in religious participation, and in membership of political parties and unions.

We even have fewer close friends now than in the 80s – we’ve two fewer friends who could keep a confidence and we’ve lost half a friend who’d help us through a hard time.

Andrew concludes that there are several plausible explanations for this decline, including people working longer hours, the feminisation of the workforce and greater ethnic diversity. In addition, more time spent watching television, using a computer and commuting means less time spent face-to-face with others.

Most of these changes also have benefits, so he cautions against trying to return to the past. We need new and innovative ways to build social capital. He argues that the place to look for how we might increase social capital is Canberra. This is where it gets really interesting. Read the rest of this entry »


Has the very fast train run out of steam?

The idea of very fast trains on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor seems to have run out of steam after an initial flurry earlier this year when the CRC for Rail Innovation and the Greens both called on the Federal Government to fund a major concept study.

There has been very little in the popular media since that opening blast. Hence it was interesting to see author, educator and consultant, John Legge, arguing in The Age on Saturday that the figures on very fast rail add up.

Note the extensive green areas near Canberra

He asserts that: (a) high speed rail works in Europe, China and Japan, (b) the US is now building high speed rail projects, (c) rail is faster, more comfortable and more convenient than flying, and (d) it can be built for a mere $15 billion. Ergo, it will be an unqualified success on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor. But he provides little in the way of evidence or argument to support these claims.

Surprisingly, Legge makes no mention of what I think is the best argument for the project – constraints on Sydney Airport’s ability to expand capacity. Even more surprisingly, he doesn’t mention the environmental benefits of rail over air until the very last line and then just in passing. His key argument is that rail would out-compete air simply because a very fast train is a more attractive product.

I don’t want to deal with everything Legge says because I’ve covered most of the arguments for and against high speed rail here and here. But I do want to take issue with a couple of the points he makes.

First, what works in other countries won’t necessarily work in Australia. Most of the routes in Europe and Japan where high speed rail is strong are relatively short e.g. London-Paris is 340 km; London-Brussels is 198 km. London, with a population of 8 million and Paris (10 million) are very big cities compared to Sydney and Melbourne. They are world cities that have huge numbers of business travellers and tourists compared to Australia (London is an ‘Alpha’ world city). Congestion in the air and on the ground makes air less competitive in those cities, particularly for short trips. Read the rest of this entry »


Is the Very Fast Train all huff and no puff?

The idea of a very fast train (VFT) connecting Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne is gaining momentum (again). The CRC for Rail Innovation launched a pre-feasibility study earlier this year; veteran journalist Brain Toohey expressed his enthusiasm for the idea on Insiders on 11 April; and now the Greens are calling on the Federal Government to fund a $10 million study into a new scheme they are proposing.

The idea of a VFT has a long history in Australia, dating back to the first serious proposal put forward by the CSIRO in 1984. The key drivers of the current proposal are environmental and resource efficiency and support for expanded regional centres.

I don’t have access to whatever technical analysis the Green’s are relying on, but this seems an unlikely idea. The fact no project has yet been shown to be viable should be a warning to tread warily. I have some doubts. Read the rest of this entry »