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 »


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? Read the rest of this entry »


HSR feasibility study: what should it address?

What is the What?!!! Wau, Southern Sudan

There’s a long history of rent-seeking in Australia over major projects. Business puts a lot of effort into lobbying government and the media to subsidise projects the private sector wouldn’t otherwise touch with a bargepole.

So when IPA (Infrastructure Partnerships Australia) – the nation’s peak infrastructure lobby group – releases a new study calling for land to be reserved for a High Speed Rail (HSR) service from Brisbane to Melbourne, I don’t immediately assume it’s an impartial assessment.

However that didn’t bother The Age, which ran the story as the lead on the front page of Saturday’s issue. The paper reports that AECOM, who prepared the study jointly with IPA, was involved in France’s TGV and Britain’s HS2 HSR projects.

The Chairman of IPA, Mark Birrell, is also on the board of Infrastructure Australia, the body established under legislation to advise the Federal Minister on infrastructure needs and priorities.

No, rather than assume the report is impartial, I thank the angel of small mercies that the only promise on the table from the Greens and Labor is for a $20 million feasibility study of HSR. There may be a thousand more welfare-enhancing ways that $20 million could be spent, but it will well and truly have earned its keep if it leads to the right decision on what could be a $40 – $80 billion investment in HSR.

I’m not going to reiterate the many and varied problems I see with HSR, since I’ve covered them before (see here, here, and here, ). What I do want to address however is the way the planned feasibility study will be conducted. Read the rest of this entry »


What will high speed rail do for regional development?

Albury-Wodonga

Yesterday I looked at the carbon reduction justification for high speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne. Today I want to discuss another argument – that high speed rail will promote the development of regional centres. It is argued that this could in turn relieve capital cities of much of the burden of projected population growth.

I have no doubt that improving connection times between regional centres like Albury-Wodonga and Melbourne will benefit both.

But if regional centres are to be a serious alternative for growth, they will need to provide new arrivals with jobs. The question I ask is: where are those jobs going to come from?

One way could be that regional centres provide a “dormitory” for workers who can live in the country but commute to work in capital cities like Melbourne by high speed rail. Read the rest of this entry »


High speed rail – are the Greens as shallow as the rest?

Bob Brown let us know yesterday with his call for a high speed rail link from Brisbane to Melbourne that the Greens are just as susceptible to populism as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

In April he costed a Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne link at more than $40 billion. Yesterday he pointed to a survey commissioned by the Greens showing 74% of Australians support high speed rail. That’s not surprising because it is an attractive and beguiling idea – 94% of readers of The Age support it. After all, China and Europe can’t seem to build enough high speed rail and President Obama has grand plans for an extensive network in the US.

The idea of some form of very fast train service connecting Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne has been around at least since the 1980s. A number of feasibility studies have been undertaken, all of which concluded that it wouldn’t be feasible without massive Government assistance. So it’s worth asking a few questions:

  • why would we want to commit billions in Government subsidies to replace one form of public transport (planes) with another (trains)?
  • why would we want to replace the four airlines that currently compete vigorously on price and service on this route with a single monopoly rail operator? Read the rest of this entry »

Forecasting patronage: it’s easy, isn’t it?

We’ve seen some high profile examples in recent years of how hard it is to forecast patronage on new transport infrastructure.

The Cross City tunnel in Sydney and the Clem 7 in Brisbane, for example, have both performed well below forecasts. Even when it was free, the Cross City tunnel did not approach the forecast volumes of 90,000 vehicles per day. Traffic volumes on the cross-river tunnel in Brisbane fell from almost 60,000 during the free period to around 20,000 in the first week of tolling.

Click to enlarge interactive map

California’s planned $42 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) project provides another example of the difficulties of forecasting demand. Although there are important differences between the design of the California HSR system and proposals for a Very Fast Train (VFT) between Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne, the former nevertheless has important lessons for us. I have previously discussed the VFT here, here, here and here.

A new analysis by the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California Berkeley, found significant problems with the demand modelling and analysis undertaken for the California project by Cambridge Systematics (CS) “that render the key demand forecasting models unreliable for policy analysis”. Read the rest of this entry »


The VFT and Green’s preferences

This blog has devoted a fair bit of attention to the proposed Very Fast Train between Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne (here, here and here), wondering what warrant there is to replace one form of public transport with another.

More attention in fact than any of the mainstream papers or denizens of the blogosphere have mustered, as far as I can tell.

So readers might be interested in this article by Gary Johns published in The Australian last week. It’s notable because he conjectures that the VFT might be the price the Government has to pay to secure Green preferences in this year’s Federal election.

Don’t think I agree with his analysis of the Greens mind (this is the former Special Minister of State in the Keating Government, isn’t it?) but I think his sources on the economics of the VFT are impeccable. Here nevertheless is a less-than-complimentary take on Johns. Read the rest of this entry »