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http://www.theage.com.au/national/melbourne-to-sydney-in-3-hours-with-a-bullet-20100917-15gdl.html

It seems that a public transport lobby group has commissioned AECOM one of the world’s experts on modelling fast trains for governments” to write a report on the viability of a Melbourne-Sydney high speed rail project.

The report is very useful for setting out some key data required for a cost/benefit analysis of this project. In particular:

  • At 350km/h (a 3 hour journey from Sydney to Melbourne), high speed rail will be competitive with air travel. The assumptions leading to this conclusion were not stated.
  • The project will cost $13.7 bn in land acquisition costs alone but will balloon to $57bn by 2030.
  • There is a 83% chance Australia will require a HST by 2030 and a 93% chance it will require a HST by 2050
  • There are side benefits:
    • It will reduce road congestion (which costs $10bn/year, Australia-wide)
    • It will avoid the $15 bn cost of building a second airport in Sydney (which has also been problematic from a planning POV)

The other major contribution the report makes (and I missed this on my first reading of the article) is that it suggests staggering the building of the project – so building Sydney to Canberra first. In the interim, it suggests placing legislation to designate particular rail corridors. I think that’s a very useful contribution.

Curiously, the report only covers the construction aspect of building the HST (omitting the overall costs of building the HST, just the land acquisition costs). Importantly, this means there is no data on potential usage of the HST, the price of the HST for travellers (and the subsidy required to make it competitive with air travel). This makes me heavily doubt the first assertion by the report – that 350km is sufficient to make it competitive against air travel. How can you say that when you have no data to base your argument on?

As I have said, I am a big fan of HST in appropriate circumstances. It is very appropriate in Europe where the population is decentralised into clusters here and there rather than huge cities with gaping expanses of desert or farming land between them. It is appropriate in the New England region of the US, which has a similar landscape. It is not appropriate in the New England region of Australia, which is dotted with rural communities none of which is dense enough to host a major rail station (notwithstanding the local Federal MP, Mr. Windsor). Nor is it appropriate in California or the Midwest where there are major population centres like LA, San Diego and San Francisco with much smaller communities between them.

The crux of the question is patronage. As I argued before, the Sydney-Melbourne air link is dominated by business travel who like the convenience of a half hour flight. Security isn’t a major problem for domestic air travel, so a flight would only take 1.5 hours at most. A three hour train trip is double that speed – and more importantly, it’s not possible to travel to Melbourne, have a meeting then return to Sydney in one day. Major corporates are not price sensitive enough to make that sacrifice (though perhaps small business may be).

An associated problem is that if you don’t have patronage, you will find it hard to justify running sufficient trains between Sydney and Melbourne each day. If that happens, that decreases the choice and flexibility of trains vis a vis air travel, further reducing patronage. Long distance travel has peak seasons – but it is much harder to rearrange your infrastructure on yearly cycles. Air travel copes with it by altering their prices. A government-funded rail network cannot.

The only solution (again, as I said before) is to combine holidaying travellers with daily commuters between Sydney and Wollongong (or other regional centres) and perhaps also with commuters between Sydney and Canberra. That would make the HST a viable project, but at a large environmental cost which undercuts the original rationale for building the HST. Plus, how much of the HST is removing excess demand for a second airport in Sydney and how much of the HST is creating new demand?

(Actually, the IPA/Aecom report anticipates this – noting that it leads to potential for future regional development and that it would allow a ten minute trip to Campbelltown (per the SMH).

I think anything that can reduce road congestion within greater Sydney is to be commended. I’m just dubious – you’re redirecting traffic from going into Sydney CBD to these stations in Campbelltown. But will there be sufficient parking there? Plus, what are the benefits of making Sydney larger?

Personally, I think that Sydney needs to increase its population density. Our environmental footprint is already far worse than many other cities because we are so spread out. Increasing population density will require political courage (which is why it will never, ever happen) as well as great political planning because you need to support that extra density with further infrastructure. The solution is not to encourage people to move to Wollongong with the hopes of commuting daily to Sydney to work. It is on the other hand, an excellent incentive for people to move to Wollongong or Canberra to work – knowing they can visit their friends in Sydney on weekends.

All that said, I think having a debate on a HST is one of the more useful contributions the Greens have made and this looks like a very informative report by the IPA. I look forward to the scoping study the government will soon begin on this project.

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