All We Need For Christmas Is A Very Fast Train

The concept of some sort of very fast train (VFT) service connecting major cities is endlessly discussed in Australia, but nothing ever seems to happen. Why can't we get this concept moving?

Last week I travelled to Perth to attend the Ausrail conference, the annual gathering at which Australia's various rail industry companies and bodies get together and discuss the state of railways. There's a lot of bodies to represent, because rail in Australia still largely runs on state lines, reflecting the unfortunate decision made in the 1800s to install different gauges across the country. That lack of Victorian-era foresight is still impacting on rail planning in the 21st century, despite the recognised benefits of trains in terms of environmental impact compared to most alternatives.

While there are railway lines of some description in every state of Australia, it would be hard to describe us as a model of efficient train usage. Once you leave the eastern seaboard, there are no train services which passengers can take outside of a capital city which offer other connections within the same state. The Indian Pacific, Ghan and Overlander services offer interstate connections for tourists, but don't remotely resemble a general use service. Within capital cities, there's something going in in every mainland state, and even a handful of free options, but no-one who lives in Melbourne or Sydney would argue that those public transport systems work particularly well.

The bulk of Australia's $35 billion rail industry comprises freight, and that makes sense — anything that can remove trucks from the roads is a good idea. But one of the more compelling ideas pushed at Ausrail is also one of the oldest: introducing a high-speed train service to connect our capital cities and other major centres, enabling passengers to skip long drives or cramped flights to move around.

Using fast train systems developed elsewhere in the world, a high-speed line between Melbourne and Sydney could run in just three hours. For all practical purposes, that's faster than flying (given the need to get to the airport and to arrive considerably in advance). And there's plenty of demand on the route: Sydney-Melbourne is the fourth-busiest air route in the world, with more than 950 flights a week. Sydney to Brisbane and the Gold Coast isn't far behind, with a combined total of more than 830 each week.

In global terms, introducing a simple service connecting two or three capitals is remarkably unambitious. China's plans for a national fast rail network, which it only began planning in 1994, includes 16,000 kilometres of new lines and aims to connect every city with a population of 200,000 people or more. An equivalent list of cities in Australia would include Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, Newcastle, Wollongong and the Central Coast. There are trains of some sort in all those cities, but nothing resembling a high-speed connection between any of them.

As I've said before when discussing public transport, it's unlikely and unfeasible that Australians can abandon their reliance on motor vehicles. But if we can reduce our usage, it will make a difference. To note another figure often quoted at Ausrail: transport is responsible for 15% of Australia's carbon emissions, and 89% of that figure comes from motor vehicles.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman likes a slow train trip as much as the next tourist, but not when there's stuff to do and no 3G signal to be had. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    If we are announced to host the world cup in 2012, come december 2, then this concept will happen.

    One of the big obstacles to the introduction of a fast train service here (or even making the current mess of interstate trains faster) is the unquestioned assumption that any such infrastructure project must 'pay for itself'.

    Given the climate disaster we're failing to respond to, the huge expense of road transport in financial terms (large government subsidies included), in pollution terms and in human lives too, as well as the massive cost of air travel in financial and environmental terms alone, it's time we grew up and realised that expecting rail to 'pay for itself' when no other form of transport does is madness.

    the problem lies with the people of australia who keep electing the wrong parties into office.

      Huh? Both Labor and the coalition governments have "failed" to invest in this tech. Which party should we vote for? :P I guess the third option is the Greens but I can't see them delivering this tech either. So, who should we vote for? Please give us some of your infinitely awesome wisdom.

        From The Green's transport policy on their national website:

        "33. raise the rail network to a standard which enables the operation of fast freight and passenger trains, including between mainland capital cities."

        It's a pretty fleshed out policy. Public transport is one of The Green's main platforms (heheh), I think that given the power to do so, they would definitely go ahead with intercity fast rail.

      Completely agree. Unfortunately Victoria has just shown how full of mindless idiots it is. I wonder how many of those who voted 1 Libs/Nat and preferenced The Greens last fly regularly between Melbourne and Sydney. I wonder how many of them bitch and moan about airport parking etc whilst also ranting about the lack of sensible ideas coming from The Greens.

        exactly. there is also a housing affordablity crisis because everyone wants to live closer to the city; because few to no amenities exist on the suburban fringes. It seems total common sense to start opening up devopment to areas that are serviced by regular fast train services & people may start wanting to live further from the city again.

        Perhaps this kind of change can only be made by a new party. I guess the next few years will tell.

        What, like Death Duties and Estate Taxes...

    You said it at the start of the article, "There’s a lot of bodies to represent". Everybody has an opinion, point of view and will want a slice of the pie. Then throw in both the federal and state goverments and nothing will ever get done.

    No one state is going to want to deal with the gauge issue, cause it would cost to much to upgrade there existing infrastructure (and while the VFT wouldn't need to run on the existing infrastructure and probably shouldn't given the state of it, most people won't hear that argument...besides, we can't add to the existing network because "there's no room"...)

    Garbage. If you don't want to change the current infrastructure and the VFT won't run on your infrastructure and you don't have the room to add more capacity, then go under ground.

    We need less government!

    Good Background Briefing Podcast here on the state of VFT

    (Also has a transcript)

    I was at Ausrail in Perth last week too (am based in Sydney).
    I flew there, and flew back.
    No 3G signal on the plane either.

    All aboard woowoo

    In the Morning to all you good slaves ;-)

    From what i understand a VFT network will require a new straighter line anyway... so the issues of the differing guages between the states is irrelevant.

    Like many i know, I have moved to Sydney to Newcastle for work opportunities, further clogging up an already full sydney.

    The 2 & 3/4 hour train ride is hardly appealing for a daily commute nor is the slightly shorter F3 freeway trip and the environmental impact that goes with it. However, if you could do the trip on a fast train in an hour (probably less) i'd quite happily live in my home town and catch it in to work every day. It would turn places like Newcastle and the Central Coast into wider Sydney, and reduce the congestion issues in Sydney.

    Unfortunately I cant see it happening in my life time.

    IMHO, I cannot see anything happen unless there are a few paradigm shifts happened.
    Our governments are too debt-adverse, which already meant we have been paying dearly with all those PPP toll road projects.
    For those government organisations which look after our rail system, such as ARTC and Railcorp, their organisation structure and the bureaucrats to run them are to inept to deal with any changes effectively.
    Take an example in NSW, our signalling system is over 50 years old and it is so antiquated that in order to change a signal junction, you have to shut down an entire line for a day or so to change it. You would have think that with computers and being in the 21st century and in a 1st world country and all, this will not be the case.
    Trusting ARTC to look after a project like VFT will be no better, just check the number of projects that they has which overrun in time and costs, or the potholes that is not becoming an issue at the line between VIC and NSW after ARTC changed the sleepers. In some section of the tracks between Melbourne and Sydney, the speed is currently limited to 20km!!!
    There is NOTHING too be proud about regarding rail for Australia.

    Sydney's rail infrastructure is incredibly dense, and essentially at capacity. Pushing the line anywhere inside outskirts would be rather expensive and intrusive. That is fixable but makes the prospect much less attractive

    Even if that could be addressed, it doesn't look like much of the air travel market is particularly contestable anyway given the degree of subsidies required to make rail price competitive. Yes, I think there are hidden externalities in air and road, and that the oil companies/ govts are telling fibs about strategic reserves, but until this becomes more transparent I can't see the appetite developing anywhere in government.

    We'd be better video conferencing for most work travel anyway

      People keep saying that we are at capacity in Melbourne and Sydney. There is no such thing. Look at some of the bigger cities (London, Paris) and see how they do it there - a number of large stations at the edge of town and connect everything up with a proper underground. In Melbourne you terminate at North Melbourne and Richmond.

    Fast trains are more expensive to take than airplanes in Japan. Just saying.
    The trains go to much more places though

    I'd use it all the time
    I hate flying

    Vic Govn contracted the upgrade from melb to Albury, and couldn't get that right for a centry old line. How on earth can we trust them to pick the right people to put in VFT.

    You shouldnt just be thinking about the governments that have an impact on this. Alot of Australias Railways are privately owned. For instances the connection to sydney airport and with the sell off of Queensland Rail then maybe we would see a fast train service created. It would be so cool not to mention cheap. Would be such an innovative step.

    The problems are cost and time when compared to flights. Hundreds or thousands of kilometres of rail track, plus the land to put them on, plus maintenance, costs more than a couple of airports and planes. Planes are also generally faster, even taking "turn up an hour before takeoff" into account, when you look at CBD-to-CBD timeframes.

    Additionally, if you want to add another port to the air travel infrastructure, you just find a bunch of flat land and tarmac it. It's a fixed cost, no matter how far away from current travel routes it might be, or what the landscape is like between it and other airports.

    The niches for trains are "cheap and relatively timely, if destination-limited, inner-city transport" and "moderately cheap-in-the-long-term but slow long-distance mass transport". About the only time city-to-city would be cheaper than flight would be at medium distances where the cost of land in the cities was stupendously greater than the cost of land (and construction) in the area between them.

      CBD to CBD on London-Paris is way faster on a train than a plane.

    There was a feasibility study done that concluded that it wasn't cost effective to start building one now but that the government should start purchasing land now so that one can be built in ten years time linking Melbourne to Sydney. If the land isn't purchased now then the costs would skyrocket because of urban sprawl, inflation etc.

    It's sad because I doubt that any current government would invest in buying up land now when the government in the future will get all the credit for it. It's a different political landscape to the past when people had the foresight to build things with the future in mind, all those phantom platforms at Central Station etc.

    I take the Eurostar between Brussels and London all the time and it is way more convenient and faster than flying. Considering growth along the east coast line of Australia a high speed train makes sense and can be used for commuters to get into the sydney cbd quickly. The environmental costs are also much less, even with all the track maintenance, besides which there wouldn't be any of the problems associated with putting in a new airport/runway. Remember Badgery's Creek/ the third runway?

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