AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Australia?s HSR future: the great debate

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> Unlike the national broadband rollout that is proceeding without a feasibility study, the economic potential for high-speed rail (HSR) in Australia is under intense scrutiny – and justifiably so, writes Francis Dwornik* </span> <p>By putting HSR though a financial analytical rigour, the scope and benefits will be determined long before the first passenger sets foot in a carriage.</p><p>However, the result of this debate – driven by various business agendas – is a massive variance in opinions and outcomes that creates a confusing picture.</p><p>The current push for HSR has been driven by the marriage between the minority Federal Government, the independents and the looming Greens’ power in the Upper House after July 1 2011, with the Opposition also indicating its support.<br /><br /><strong>Feasibility</strong><br />In the most recent events, the Federal Government has released its terms of reference which will guide the $20m feasibility study to determine the economic benefits and financial viability of a multibillion dollar high-speed rail network between cities along Australia’s east coast.</p><p>Tenders will be called for geotechnical investigations and financial and economic modelling in the coming weeks, minister for transport Anthony Albanese said recently.</p><p>“The feasibility study will build on previous work by determining the optimum alignment of a high-speed rail network after taking into account the needs of potential users as well as possible engineering, planning and environmental challenges,” Albanese said.</p><p>The study 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.</p><p>The Newcastle-Sydney “spine” of the proposed high-speed rail network will be a central aspect of the study. Options for links northwards to Brisbane and southwards to Canberra and Melbourne will also be considered.</p><p>The study will be conducted in two stages with the first to be completed by July 2011 and the second by the middle of 2012. <br />The final work and report will take approximately 12 months to complete.<br /><br /><strong>Battle Lines</strong><br />But the battle lines between those who support the imperative of such a study and those who consider it undesirable are being drawn. The internal briefing paper, “A Profile of High-speed Railways”, was released to <em>Channel 7</em> under FOI in September and the first shots were fired.</p><p>The report was written about the same time as the Federal Government announced their initial feasibility study.</p><p>The report by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), which is part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, comes down against HSR.</p><p>According to the BITRE report’s summary “current demand is well below the minimum needed to provide a viable, dedicated high-speed rail service”.<br />It also cites the “high construction and operating costs” of HSR, saying HSR requires at least 6-12m passengers a year and cities of well over 1m population that are separated by travel times of less than three hours.</p><p>Given that a HSR service is envisaged between Melbourne and Sydney – which currently constitutes the third busiest air corridor in the world – the HSR route is on the threshold of viability depending on cost, it says.</p><p>The report estimates the cost of building HSR infrastructure is between $16m and $110m a kilometre – a huge variance, with trains costed at $30m-$40m.</p><p>An 1800km route from Melbourne to Brisbane constitutes a cost of either $28.8bn or $198bn. My figures, based on recent international construction costs, puts the cost of constructing the line at between $40.5bn and $64bn.</p><p>On a more positive note, the report does acknowledge that the potential future viability of HSR lines needed a strategy of safeguarding future corridors.<br /><br /><strong>To read Part Two of this story see next week’s <em>Rail Express</em></strong><br /><br />*Francis Dwornik is rail engineering director O’Donnell Griffin Rail<br />&nbsp</p>