Take the plane? My kingdom for a train!
Traveller’s Check with Clive Dorman
March 15, 2010
When the Chinese Government last week unveiled a plan to build the world’s longest fast train route – more than 8000 kilometres between China and Europe – the reaction wasn’t “what the …”, but “when?”.
That’s because China is becoming the new Japan, where as soon as a great idea was hatched (at least in the 1960s and 1970s), someone was stumping up the money and it got built.
The idea of jumping on a train in London and being in Beijing two days later is an outlandish fantasy, but no-one dares call it a fantasy, because China is fast becoming an economic powerhouse where the money can be found if the business plan says it works.
Of course, big ideas don’t get done in Australia; our engineers and inventors generally export them and watch other people do it. But we should dream big … if the business plan can be made to work.
Very fast trains have been mooted in Australia for decades, especially since one of our major trading partners, Japan, has had clean, modern very fast trains for 50 years. You can get from one end of the main island, Honshu, to the other in just a few hours.
France has had its 320-kmh TGV network criss-crossing the country for decades. Germany has them, too. And the moribund US state train operator, Amtrak, has discovered it can actually make money if the trains are fast in the east coast corridor between Boston and Washington. Fast train services are also planned in Florida and on the west coast.
The biggest problem in Australia is its comparatively small population. However, the Australian population tends to be concentrated along the coast with a series of cities of between one and four million people and others (Gold Coast, Canberra-Queanbeyan) of half a million or more. More than half Australia’s population of 22 million lives roughly in a line between Melbourne and Brisbane.
Now we get to the hard bit:
1. A dedicated fast train line between Melbourne and Sydney capable of trains that could do the trip in three hours or less – the same as the plane from CBD to CBD – would cost around $60 billion on the latest estimates (about $6000 for every household in the country).
2. With Tiger Airways recently joining the fray on the highly competitive Sydney-Melbourne route, current regularly available air fares start at $28 one-way.
It seems to me the only way a fast train in Australia will ever stack up is if the country decides to modernise the steel goat tracks that are Australia’s ramshackle, century-old rail system – not build a $60 billion white elephant.
For goodness sake, the railway between our two biggest cities is a single track with passing loops that guarantees the minimum travelling time between the two cities is around 11 hours on the twice-daily Countrylink services.
The line mainly exists to service very slow freight trains.
If it was done properly, frequent fast passenger trains, travelling at 200 kilometres an hour on upgraded standard gauge lines, could do the trip in five hours; $60 billion seems an excessive markup to reduce the travelling time by two hours.
It seems to me, if the train took five hours and discount fares were around $50 one-way (already available every now and then on Countrylink services) without all the tiresome airline restrictions, you would have a viable market, backed up by stopping trains that would put the big regional centres like Canberra-Queanbeyan and Albury-Wodonga within a couple of hours of the big smoke.
The same would go for Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, the Gold Coast and other big regional centres between Sydney and Brisbane. If it’s simply fast standard gauge, other routes like Melbourne-Sydney to Perth also start to stack up.
It makes sense but would require us to give up our national can’t-do mentality.
March 15, 201011:54 AM
Yes I would. Why? Because the trip time would hopefully be shorter with more productive time available.
With the flight time between say Melbourne and Sydney being under 1 hour the ACTUAL time CBD to CBD is closer to 4 hours.
Get taxi to airport 1 hour in peak. Minimum wait (waste) time at airport (queuing, security, the 30 min before check-in) 1 hour.
Flight 1 hour.
Unloading, baggage collection 20 min.
Taxi to CBD 30 min.
So a 5 hour train would stack up, but we will never have a political party with the balls to implement something like this. The airport cartels are too well entrenched. We can’t even get a Melbourne airport train link as it would put too many cabbies out of business, What chance a fast train, zip.
PS: feasibility studies were carried out as long as 10 years ago and probably prior to this.
March 15, 201002:24 PM
Surely a sensible and cheaper option would be to import all the labour from China as they have the skills and experience now. Of course, that will never fly politically.
March 15, 201002:33 PM
As one of the designers that worked on the VFT 1 & 2 (Very Fast Trains) consortiums, the biggest problems are the economic rationalists and the governments of the day for not having the foresight and the intestinal fortitude of the Joe Cahills of the world. (Joe Cahill was Premier of NSW in the 1950s – Ed.)
March 15, 201002:41 PM
From Mebourne, I have done the airplane sums and yes, its about 4 hours door to door. Fast train (based on my European experiences):
Leaves from the CBD (30 mins to get there average)
Can be at station just 15 mins before departure. Can be out of Sydney CBD ASAP and home in another 30 mins. So that is about 1 hour and 15 mins not including the trip time.
Given the airplane takes 4 hours door to door, a trip time of 3 hours is needed. This would require an average speed approaching 300km/hr (i.e. TGV technology).
Big boost would be to the Albury-Wodonga region 100k+ and ACT 350k+. These centres are about equal distance between Melbourne Sydney so about 1 hour travel time between them. Providing the trains stop there, of course – which would add more time.
Conclusion: need VERY FAST train, at a CHEAPER price than most air fares (i.e. $50 or less one way. Business Case suggests it not going to happen (much as I would like to see it)
tram I am
March 15, 201002:41 PM
It’s a really nice idea but if it’s going to cost $60 billion then I’d prefer to see governments invest that in public transport in the major cities as a priority over a fast train. More people would benefit from it, it would support liveability and the economy as well as the environment.
You’re right, unlike China we really don’t have a population to support such a huge project and I think you will also know that they have invested heavily in localised public transport,too.
March 15, 201002:42 PM
I’d love to see Australia develop a fast train service. Do $28 fares factor in the cost of carbon? How long can we expect them to last? As your article suggests, the Japanese system has been running for decades – so the initial cost of the infrastructure can be amortised over time.
The main benefit is massive increase in the capacity of transporting freight – meaning reductions of road use, cheaper transport costs, etc.
Plus, if you think in terms of convenience, kit out business-class carriages with desks and internet connections – and you can keep workin
g throughout the trip – none of this “turn off your electronic devices” at every possible step.
March 15, 201002:42 PM
I recall reading that the Sydney Melbourne route is the second most flown in the world. Surely there is a market for it. I know that I would use it even if three times the price. When you include cabs that still makes it cheaper.
Nobody flies London to Paris anymore.
March 15, 201002:45 PM
Whatever happened to those VFTs (or was it FFTs – fairly fast trains). I live in Melb, work in Geelong, catch the train occasionally and have not noticed any difference in time.
March 15, 201002:48 PM
The reason why we can’t build anything good is because the Government have to paid everyone who are affected by the project. The consultation process take ages and so many lobby groups have so many different voices and everyone wants to be heard.
In China, no problem, the Government rules. And if you are affected but the project, you just need to move somewhere else. Building the fastest train only took 3 years over there in China. Building the train line between Epping and Chatswood takes nearly 10 years and half of original line between Parramatta and Epping got chopped as well as the UTS station got removed.
You tell me why.
Australia slipping behind
March 15, 201002:48 PM
Sydney to Melbourne was the world’s third busiest air route. Airlines provide an unreliable, second-class service.
A high-speed rail transit time of five hours from (say) Melbourne’s Southern Cross railway station to Sydney Central is not marketable.
We must go for three to three and a half hours.
A Very Fast Train between Melbourne and Sydney would not necessarily cost $60 billion: it may be $10 to $15 billion less.
Taiwan constructed its equivalent from Taipei to Kaohsiung (339 kilometres) for about US$15 billion.
A Melbourne to Sydney route should be 800 to a maximum of 850 kilometres, and must travel through Albury, Wagga and Canberra.
The world technology is constantly improving for high-speed rail.
TGVs have achieved up to 575 kilometres an hour in testing in France, and countries such as South Korea are now achieving 350kmh in everyday service.
Spain is a poorer country than Australia with higher unemployment, yet it has successfully opened a number of links including Madrid to Barcelona.
Clive, you are incorrect to bring in the example of Tiger Airways offering fares at $28 one way.
There are other costs: for instance, credit cards invoke a $6 per person per sector fee, and a traveller must get to Melbourne or Sydney airports and (if going to the CBD at the other end) use a train (in Sydney), Skybus (in Melbourne) or expensive taxis to do so if private transport is not used. So that $28 fare suddenly becomes about A$61 one way minimum.
High speed rail overseas has managed to either kill off or substantially eat into the market share of both legacy and so-called low-cost carriers.
There are also side benefits with high-speed rail that airlines will never match.