Fly by rail: 5 reasons fast trains have an Aussie future

On five key measures – including comfort - high speed rail shines as a public transport panacea. After 30 years, it's time Australia finally got on board.


What goes up must come down. At least in the case of airplanes, that's true. But as airplanes keep going up, so do greenhouse gas emissions – these emissions stay in the atmosphere and do not come down.

High speed rail, on the other hand, is on the up and up, and can run without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Europe has had high speed rail since the 1960s. China, Japan and Korea all have high speed rail. India has this year announced it is investigating the feasibility of building high speed rail.

Australian governments have for over 30 years toyed with the idea of building a high-speed rail line on the east coast, and there are finally moves underway to set aside the corridor in which a system could be built. This follows the previous federal government’s $20 million high speed rail implementation study which found a significant economic benefit to Australia returning $2.30 for every $1 invested.

Think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions has just completed a two-year study into HSR in Australia which shows that rail can not only dramatically reduce transport emissions, but also be built for $30 billion less than the most recent government study.

High Speed Rail stacks up for five key reasons: emissions, economics, regional development, convenience and comfort.

1. Emissions

Aircraft manufacturers and airlines have been steadily improving fuel efficiency, and this has lowered the emissions per passenger kilometre significantly. But the growth in air travel at the same time has meant that emissions from air travel are still increasing.

Australia does not account for the full impact of our aircraft emissions. Emissions at cruising altitude have an enhanced greenhouse effect (“radiative forcing”) – but this is not accounted for in the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

The UK's Department of Environment and Climate Change guidelines do account for the radiative forcing amplification caused by combustion of fuel at altitude: the effect is approximately double the equivalent emissions at ground level as considered by the Australian NGGI.

What this means is that, even when burning biofuels, the extra radiative forcing at altitude will be approximately equal to today’s misleading account.

And HSR can be run on renewables

BZE’s motivation for recommending high-speed rail is that it runs on electricity, which can be supplied by 100 per cent renewable energy more easily than any other motive force for travel. Air travel, on the other hand, cannot be zero emissions with currently available technology.

If the HSR network proposed by BZE were constructed, it would use around 2.2 terawatt hours of electricity in 2030. That sounds like a lot, but in fact, it's roughly equal to what was consumed in the voluntary GreenPower initiative, nationally, in 2012.

 2. Economics – HSR will pay for itself

Many say the costs of high speed rail are too high. But let's compare the costs of high speed rail versus roads. Australia currently spends $18 billion annually on roads. Our research shows that we can build a high speed rail system in Australia for the equivalent of five years of expenditure on roads. With government financing, like many other key infrastructure projects, a high speed rail project could repay the capital investment in around 40 years, in monetary terms.

This finding is different to the previous government's study, which made the assumption that HSR tickets would only compare with today’s lowest cut-price airfares, and that electricity prices for traction power will skyrocket beyond the electricity industry's wildest dreams.

In addition, the costs involved with building and maintaining airports are substantial. The costs associated with the second Sydney airport at Badgery's Creek is estimated at $2.3 billion. High speed rail would mean that Sydney Airport would see around three million fewer domestic passengers in 2030 than it does today, minimising the need and expense of a second airport.

3. Regional development

BZE's HSR study models Australia's regional transport patterns in detail – how many people travel where, when, and what proportion are likely to use the HSR service if it were available.

BZE's proposed route connects 12 major regional towns, and the cities of Brisbane, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. About 45 per cent of the regional travel in Australia occurs within this corridor. Sixty per cent of Australia's population would be within one hour of a HSR station.

Building the high speed rail would also bring jobs to regional areas.

4. Convenience

The experience with HSR in Europe is that it competes very effectively with trips taking less than four or five hours, and for distances between 450-950km. This is because high speed rail does not need the time to catch a taxi to the airport, to check in luggage, go through security and wait for the flight. High Speed Rail goes from city centre to city centre and minimises the need for other forms of transport to and from the airport.

With Sydney-Melbourne being the fifth busiest air route in the world and Sydney-Brisbane the 13th busiest, HSR along the east coast of Australia remains a very real solution to reducing transport emissions and increasing the number of transport options for travellers.

Madrid to Barcelona used to be the busiest air shuttle route in the world. Since HSR has been built in Spain, the busiest European city route is now ranked 49th busiest in the world (and it isn't Madrid to Barcelona).

5. Comfort – It will make travel pleasant and safe

The non-monetary benefits of HSR, and some monetary benefits not accounted for in our study, include long term employment, enhanced connectivity for regional towns, significantly reduced greenhouse emissions, less road accidents, less aircraft noise over cities, and more.

Rail travel allows passengers more seat room and comfort. Passengers can walk up and down the aisles or to the restaurant. Rail offers private showers and bathrooms. These are only a few of the qualitative factors to consider.

The mode shift from air and road to HSR won't just happen because of emissions or travel cost. It will happen because HSR is also more convenient and more comfortable for so many trips.

Like most good ideas, it's time is bound to come.

Dr Stephen Bygrave is CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions. BZE is launching its high-speed rail study on April 9 at Melbourne University and April 30 at the University of New South Wales.

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