AusRAIL, Market Sectors

High-speed rail: the Green alternative

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> In between salary cap breaches and tax reviews, for a brief moment the Australian Greens managed to gain a few column inches in the media with their call for a $10 million study into the future viability of high-speed rail in Australia. </span> <p>By Mark Carter<br /><br />With the Melbourne to Sydney corridor the fourth busiest domestic air route in the world, Australian Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown is calling for work to begin on establishing a high-speed rail link between the nation’s biggest capital cities.<br />Launching the Greens proposal for a major concept study into an east coast link, Senator Brown said, “A high-speed rail link on Australia’s east coast would provide fast, reliable and sustainable transport for 75% of our population. Newcastle and Canberra could be connected to the network.”<br />“It would reduce greenhouse emissions from transport and congestion on the high demand Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane flight routes and accident-prone Pacific, Hume and Princes highways. Construction of a high-speed link would also generate thousands of jobs and promote regional development.”<br />There might be many obvious synergies between high-speed rail and the Greens, but neither are they the most immediately recognisable of bedfellows. Previous high-speed rail proposals in Australia have failed for many significant reasons, but popular myth has always seen ‘the greenies’ as being a major impediment.<br />This was more the case with the earlier VFT proposals where environmental concerns were raised over the proposed route, which seemed to gain bigger headlines than the obvious failure of the project’s proponents to get along with each other. <br />Another possible stumbling block for the Greens is that any honest assessment of the potential for high-speed rail in Australia would have to come to the conclusion that the numbers just aren’t quite right yet, though if population growth and travel patterns continue their current trends they are not that far off. <br />Unfortunately the Greens have never been that happy about population growth with Bob Brown saying only recently, “Australia cannot support a population of 35 million by 2050 as discussed by both the Prime Minister and the Opposition.”<br />That said, the support of the Greens for high-speed rail is to be welcomed and their push for further investigation into the technology has been backed by the Australasian Railway Association and follows on from the release of the January 2010 report by the Cooperative Research Centre for Rail Innovation (Rail CRC) High-speed Rail: Strategic information for the Australian context’.<br />Australasian Railway Association chief executive Brian Nye says, “Rising fuel prices, costs of congestion and our major airports reaching their capacity, are all clear signs that Australia needs to start investing in smarter and more sustainable modes of transportation.” <br />“The rest of the world is rapidly moving towards the adoption of high-speed rail, and Australia should not be left behind. The next step is to conduct an in-depth study which examines issues such as the reservation of rail corridor, route options and technology requirements for train and infrastructure.” <br />CEO of Rail CRC, David George agrees that there are numerous economic and social changes that are expected to strengthen the case for the introduction of high-speed rail. <br />“Our understanding of high-speed rail technology has matured a lot since the original Australian proposals back in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a mature technology that is particularly being seen as an alternative to carbon-intensive air transport around the globe,” he said.<br />A recent BITRE report, Airport movements through capital city airports to 2029-30, predicts that airline passenger numbers in Australia will more than double over the next 21 years, from the current 98.3 million to 235 million in 2029/30, with around a third of these passing through Sydney.<br />Data from the Paris-based International Union of Railways (UIC) shows that high-speed rail on average generates less than 25% of the CO2 associated with air travel and has less than half the total of all external costs.<br />Head of Alstom Transport Australia, Jean de la Chapelle says that if a decision on high-speed rail had to be made today then it is likely the cost of financing would still be a key stopper for the project, but he still feels it is a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. <br />“Our latest trains run commercially at speeds of up to 360 km/h, around a 20% improvement on ten years ago. This means a Melbourne to Sydney transit time of less than 3 hours could be achieved,” he said.<br />“The location of a second Sydney airport could be a major trigger for any high-speed project as any new terminal will need to be connected to the CBD’s of both Sydney and Canberra by efficient transport links.”<br />There is a general consensus within the rail industry that further research is now required and that steps need to be taken to determine and safeguard possible high-speed rail routes. There also needs to be a robust and honest debate on the most appropriate method and mix of public and private financing. <br />&nbsp</p>