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The Greens have been promising a feasibility study into a high speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne (and apparently both the ALP and LNP as well).

For the life of me, I can’t see how the numbers add up from the Greens’ POV. The primary difficulty is finding a market large enough to justify the enormous expense of building this high speed rail network. The Greens are interested in promoting sustainability and reduction of carbon emissions, but not interested in urban sprawl. High speed rail only makes sense if there is urban sprawl. It is only cost-effective if you want people to commute daily from Newcastle or Wollongon to Sydney. And the Greens surely do not want that.

Firstly, almost no one would travel by train (even if it only takes 3-4 hours) if its more expensive than the plane which is certainly faster. There are certain advantages for those who get airsick, who hate being treated like sardines and being anal probed and who have too much baggage for air travel. But it’s certainly not enough to justify building a whole new rail network just for them. It’s a particularly large problem because, I imagine, the majority of Sydney-Melbourne flights during non-holiday periods will be business travel. And no business is going to waste an extra day of travel to save $20 – they’d rather jet in in the morning, then jet out at night. Why take an 8 hour return journey?

Price subsidies are certainly a quick solution to this problem – but if we compare prices to the US Amtrak system, which would cost around $80-$100 for a comparable distance – it becomes quite unviable to justify such a huge subsidy. (I use the US and not Europe as a basis for comparison because the geography is more similar. Europe is filled with many largish cities in close proximity. Australia and the US are filled with large cities with a few larger townships in between.

Secondly, if a market is to be found, it will ironically cause more environmental problems than the one it purports to fix. The rationale for a high speed rail is not primarily a business case, but to stop the huge fuel wastage and the global warming effects of air travel. And yet, the only viable market I can see is to encourage daily transport between Wollongong and Sydney for workers. It’s creating a new market that encourages urban sprawl to an extent undreamed of by environmentalists.

Yes, yes, I’ve skipped over a few of the other rationales – reducing road traffic (which leads to fewer deaths), building infrastructure, trains are cool etc. But ultimately the cost is not justifiable. You don’t build infrastructure for infrastructure’s sake. You build it because it adds to the economic capacity of the nation (which, actually, a Wollongong-Sydney raillink would do). I would fully agree with building a freight rail link between Sydney and Melbourne which would reduce road traffic and is investing in productive infrastructure, but that is a wholly different business case to building a high speed passenger network.

Then thirdly, there’s the implementation difficulties. It was hard enough to build a rail line between Chatswood and Ryde because you had to excavate a whole new tunnel, have pollution controls etc. How are you going to find the space to build a rail line out of Sydney to the south? I imagine running the rail line through the country shouldn’t be a problem (that already exists and you can just build the tracks next to them) – but you can’t just run the high speed rail on existing tracks. They probably use mag-lev tracks for one thing, and for another, if there are slow trains on the network, the high speed trains will just get bottlenecked by them.

A simple cost-benefits analysis more or less dictates that a high speed rail policy is a dumb policy if your only interest is reducing carbon emissions. Trust the Greens to promote it as their big idea for Australia.

Edit: http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2010/08/infrastructure_investment&fsrc=nlw|gul|08-31-2010|gulliver

I randomly bumped into this article today whilst browsing the Economist.

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One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] of posts I wrote on high speed rail in Australia, especially as proposed by the Greens (originally here, followed up on here). Before the election, the Federal Labor Government had conducted a […]

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