Monday 28th May, 2018

Let’s get moving with the affordable medium-speed alternatives to the old dream of high-speed rail

Photo: Bombardier
Photo: Bombardier

COMMENT: High-speed rail for Australia has been on the drawing boards since the mid-1980s but has come to nothing. Three states are developing medium-speed rail with federal funding, but NSW is missing out, Philip Laird writes.


More than half a century has passed since high-speed rail (HSR) effectively began operating, in Japan in 1964, and it has been mooted for Australia since 1984. I estimate that the cost of all HSR studies by the private and public sectors in Australia exceeds $125 million, in today’s dollars. But the federal government is now less interested in high-speed rail (now defined as electric trains operating on steel rails at maximum speeds of above 250km per hour), and instead favours “faster rail” or medium-speed rail.

The 2017 federal budget provided $20 billion over the next 10 years for rail, with more allocated in the 2018 budget. It is now time for Australia to commit to medium-speed rail (trains operating on new or existing tracks at speeds of between 160km and 250km/h).

Indeed, three states have made progress in developing trains at 160km/h, with Victoria leading the way. New South Wales has failed to keep up with these states.

What happened to high-speed rail in Australia?

The first high-speed rail system dates back to 1964 when the Tokaido Shinkansen started operating between Tokyo and Osaka. At first, it took four hours to travel 515 kilometres; now some trains take two-and-a-half hours. Japan’s system has an impeccable safety record and the network extends for over 3,000km.

France was next in 1981 with its TGV trains. In 1984, high-speed rail was first proposed for Australia. This was the CSIRO’s Very Fast Train proposal to link Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne using TGV trains.

At all levels, government was not supportive. The private sector, after a series of studies, found it was viable and could work with different taxation arrangements. This was not forthcoming and work stopped in 1991.

A more modest proposal, called Speedrail, to connect Sydney and Canberra was proposed in the mid-1990s. With some federal government encouragement, it was studied, with detailed design. It was costed at about $4.5 billion, with finance arranged for some $3.5 billion. The Howard government would not fund the balance and commissioned yet another HSR study.


More studies have followed. One study in 2013 put a price tag of $23 billion on a Sydney-Canberra line involving much tunnelling in Sydney. This was part of a 1,750km high-speed rail corridor linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. The total estimated cost was A$114 billion.

Despite many studies recommending the need to identify and protect a corridor for a future high-speed rail network, government has failed to reserve any land corridors (with the exception of part of a future Melbourne outer metropolitan ring road).

What about the alternatives?

Many countries do not have high-speed rail, but have medium-speed rail (MSR) instead. These countries include Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and Canada.

Three Australian states have trains operating at 160km/h. These are Queensland, starting in 1998 with its Electric Tilt Train service between Brisbane and Rockhampton, Victoria, with its Regional Fast Rail project using V/Locity diesel multiple units, and Western Australia, with the Prospector train.

Victoria’s service originated in 1999 when the then Labor opposition promised a new deal for regional Victoria, which included new trains and upgraded tracks on four lines to Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and Gippsland. The ALP won government that year. By 2006 the track upgrades were delivered along with new trains made in Victoria.

People liked the faster trains. Patronage went up by more than 15% in each of the first three years of operation. More trains were ordered and further major track upgrades followed.

Victoria was assisted by $3 billion in federal funding for a Regional Rail Link program. This was to provide new intercity tracks in Melbourne so suburban trains did not slow down regional trains.

Due to good ongoing planning attracting more federal funding,
further track upgrades are under way. The 2017 Victorian Infrastructure Plan outlines priorities and funding for projects over the next five years, with longer-term policy directions.

So what’s going on in NSW?

Questions are now being asked as to why Victoria and WA are doing do well with federal funding for passenger rail at the expense of NSW.

The rail situation in Australia’s most populated state is not good for its regions. By far the most NSW government attention and funding has gone into the Greater Sydney region.

Between the 2011 and the 2016 Censuses, Greater Sydney’s population (including Gosford) grew some 10% from 4.39 to 4.82 million. Rail patronage on the Sydney and intercity network had even stronger growth of some 15% from 2011 to 2016.

To try to cope with this increasing demand for rail a new Metro section is due to be completed in 2019. Light rail is also being introduced in Sydney, Newcastle and Parramatta.

Sydney continues to have serious road traffic problems, which are unlikely to be solved by WestConnex Stages 1 and 2 that are now under construction. The proposed Stage 3 received over 7,000 objections, including a sensible alternative proposal by the City of Sydney, but the NSW government has approved Stage 3 and even more motorways. This is despite overseas experience for cities the size of Sydney pointing to the best solution being a much-improved rail system with road congestion pricing.

Regional NSW is also growing in population, albeit not as quickly as Sydney. In spring 2017, Transport for NSW released a draft regional servicea and infrastructure plan not for the next five years, but out to 2056. However, these plans were very vague as to what may be delivered in the next five or even ten years.

The plans also omitted earlier Infrastructure NSW goals for Sydney-Gosford and Sydney-Wollongong trains to take one hours (instead of one-and-a-half) and Sydney-Newcastle trains to take two hours. In addition, there are calls for more and faster trains linking to each of Goulburn/Canberra and the Central West of NSW.

Clearly, NSW is facing major transport challenges to overcome rail infrastructure backlogs and meet the needs of a growing population.

The state government is getting new intercity electric trains and has committed to buying new regional trains. But it’s yet to commit to track upgrades to help the new trains go faster than the present slow ones.

The NSW ALP opposition is also yet to present detailed policies of how it would meet the transport challenges in Sydney and in regional NSW.

The ConversationThe people of NSW must hope the state budget due June 19 and the opposition leader’s reply will address these issues.


Philip Laird is Honorary Principal Fellow at the University of WollongongThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

  • Geoff

    A Fairly Fast Train (FFT) from Sydney to Newcastle (Broadmeadow) should be achievable
    in 90 to 100 minutes based on the existing alignment but with some

    – in the Sydney metro area: enough track amplification to avoid delay by suburban trains.

    from Berowra to Hawkesbury River: a new, straighter route of about 12
    kilometres with some tunnelling. This would have the very valuable side
    benefit of easing the Newcastle-Sydney ruling gradient for freight
    trains from 1:40 to about 1:65.

    – from Gosford to Newcastle:
    curve easing to create a minimum curve radius where possible of say 800
    metres (the speed limit on such a curve would be about 120kph). This
    would need about 20 kilometres of new route in or near the present rail

    – outside the Sydney metro area: raising the maximum line speed to about 160kph where the curvature permits.

    much straighter line required for a French-style Very Fast Train would
    be fantastically expensive in this rugged country, and over that sort of
    distance the time saving from extra speed is quite small.

    Fairly Fast Train can be delivered in affordable stages and (unlike a
    completely separate VFT line) every stage can be connected to the
    existing line and improving the service as soon as it’s finished.

    We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • Neil Hamilton

    * Passing loops at all stations is one of the key features of the Shinkansen in Japan.
    4 tracks but only 2 platforms at minor stations.
    4 tracks and 4 platforms at major stations.
    This allows Express Trains and Local Trains to share the one pair of tracks between stations.
    * Grade Separation (now level crossings) is the another important feature.
    * Having the platforms long enough for 8 and 16 carriage trains
    All the above means that the one pair of tracks can large numbers of people at moderate / high speed.
    Having trains that can lean 1 degree when going around curves is an enhancement to get around tight curves at higher speeds.

  • Rusty Freemantle

    A moderately fast train can easily out perform a VFT that has poor connections, frequency or reliability.

  • Col Cole

    I have been advocating for a long time that we should build very short High Speed Rail Links and create “Twin Cities” to double access to water catchments, reduce congestion, build second international airports, join the High Speed rail manufacturing ‘club’ and allow smaller provincial cities to grow (opening land for dwellings with quick big city access). The debt is smaller – as you pay for railways ‘per km’ and we maximise the triple bottom line benefits.

    Our children will thank us for responsible debt and future thinking.

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