Sunday, August 7, 2011

High speed rail in Australia

This week the government released stage 1 of a detailed study into high speed rail (HSR) for the east coast of Australia that would eventually connect Brisbane-Newcastle-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne.

The major findings of the study, which were widely reported, were:

1) That the entire project would cost between $61 and $108 billion dollars (spread over several decades).
2) Train journeys between Bris-Syd and Syd-Mel would be ~3 hours, while Syd-Canberra and Syd-Newcastle would take an hour or less.
3) Trains would travel ~200 km/h in urban areas and up to 350 km/h elsewhere
4) Fares could be similar to air travel (eg: Bris to Syd from between $75 and $177 for non-business and business class respectively)

This report investigates potential routes and station positions, project costs and likely passenger numbers at various fare prices. It didn't conduct a detailed cost benefit analysis of the entire project (this will be in stage 2 to be released next year).

The idea is to have stations in the city centres of Brisbane, Sydney etc. From here trains will exit the city by tunnel (allows higher speeds, better safety and less resumptions). Near the city edge the trains will emerge, speed up to ~350 km/h and head to their destination with a small number of stops at major populations centers in between. For example Brisbane-Sydney would likely stop near the city outskirts (say Logan) and then at the Gold Coast with a total of 5-7 stops between the cities.

The passenger demand modeling in the study has some interesting findings:
1) Modeling predicts 54 millions passengers a year by 2036.
2) City terminus stations should be in the city center, moving them outside of city center decreases demand significantly.
3) The "rural" and commuter city (ie: Newcastle, Gold Coast) stops are important to patronage numbers with the majority of total journeys not being between the major cities. A lot of patronage will be from Canberra - Syd and Newcastle - Syd etc.
4) HSR would move a lot of people from plane travel to train travel, as well as stimulate extra travel because of the new opportunities available to people.
3) The Brisbane to Sydney route isn't predicted to have huge patronage numbers. Given the long distance and large cost of this route compared to other connections, it suggests to me any Brisbane to Sydney link would be last to be completed.

Overall high speed rail offers the chance to have a more sustainable, but still convenient, transport option for the east coast. It also offers a possible solution to Sydney's current need for a second airport for which there is no politically acceptable place to put one.
The cost of HSR is obviously large but would be spread over 10-20 years and it is likely any HSR would be built in stages. It is unlikely that HSR would ever repay the building cost but would be expected to run at a profit. Over decades we spend similar amounts of money on road transport without any second thoughts or demands that many of our road make a profit.
Moreover, as well as being a good way to get around, HSR would bring economic benefits to those areas connected to it.

The report identifies the cost of buying the land along the preferred route at $6 billion dollars, purchasing this would be a good start for government action, so that even if only some of the sections are economically viable now, the land for the rest will be available in the future.

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