Why a very fast train system will never fly
There's this scene in the film The Castle where Eric Bana and Sophie Lee get back from overseas and immediately start telling the family about the movies they saw on the plane, the complimentary sleeping masks - "they were for free" - and the selection of beef wellington or fish the stewards were offering.
It's funny - and it's kind of true. People do often want to talk about their plane trip; I often do. If you don't catch planes all the time, how you spend the hours and what you watch when you're tucked into those weird little unnatural plane-spaces seems to matter more than it should.
But the plane trip as a staple of post-holiday conversation is probably, and perhaps sadly, drifting from fashion in this part of the world. People are travelling more. The dollar is high. A lot of us can at least pretend to be more sophisticated and knowing.
What hasn't gone from fashion is the inevitable post-holiday comparison of how they do things overseas and how we do things here.
For Australians, one of the main subjects of comparison - the deficient state of transport in this country - was placed in the foreground this month with the release of a $20 million government report into high-speed rail down the east coast.
They've had these fast trains in Japan for decades. You couldn't get around the place without them. They've got them in Europe and they're the best way to see the continent. But why, in a place like Australia, are they seemingly no chance to happen?
First up, and to be clear, no one is going to be building high-speed rail in Australia any time soon. The Gillard government isn't putting up any money. And Tony Abbott seems to have the misguided view that the motor vehicle is the last word when it comes to moving people around. He's not going to stump up the billions. But the fact is, we taxpayers spent $20 million on this report that looked into the economics, the finances, and the engineering required to get a high speed rail system up. We might as well see what it says.
One point that emerges from the study is that, in convenience terms, the fast trains would be brilliant.
The study compared the experience of a business traveller making their way from Melbourne's inner east to Sydney's central business district on train and plane. At the moment, that traveller would need a taxi or to drive to Tullamarine Airport. At the airport, checking-in and waiting around would take about an hour or more. The flight would be about 85 minutes. After landing at Sydney, you'd be lucky to get into the CBD by train or cab within 40 minutes of touching down.
But the experience with the hypothetical fast train could be about 20 per cent faster. You could take a much shorter cab ride or public transport to Melbourne's Southern Cross Station, arriving there within 15 minutes or less to departure. The trip would be longer, at about 2 hours and 45 minutes. But if the fast train made it all the way to Central station, the business traveller could get from there to Sydney's CBD in 10 minutes or so.
In fact, the report pretty much shows that if a system like this were ever erected, the domestic airline industry would be gutted.
If it was ever built, high-speed rail between Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney would attract 84 million trips a year by 2065, the report predicts. Of these, about 46 million of them would come from trips people would otherwise have flown for. (At the moment, the Australian domestic aviation industry carries about 56 million trips a year.)
The study argues that if high-speed rail did pose a threat to airlines, they would not compete by lowering prices. There has been so much discounting anyway that prices are probably low enough.
Instead, airlines would fly fewer planes on routes that compete with high-speed rail. They would shrink as businesses. This was the response in France when the Marseille to Paris TGV opened: Air France cut services, and easyJet left the route.
According to the study, the airline industry would cop a $9 billion hit to revenues from a high-speed rail line, using 2012 dollars. (The report assumes no second airport will ever be built in Sydney. This is strange because Anthony Albanese, the Transport Minister who commissioned the study, insists one is needed. The assumption also helps to make high-speed rail more commercially viable.)
There is no need, however, for Qantas, Virgin and Tiger to embark on a lobbying campaign to knock off the possibility of very fast trains. The study shows that if it were built, a fast rail network would be able to pay its way - including maintenance - charging fares comparable with those on domestic airline routes. But it wouldn't be able to pay off the estimated $114 billion in construction costs (again in 2012 dollars) needed to build the system. And a price tag this big will ensure that articles like this one will remain projections of something many people would like, but governments are unlikely to ask them to pay for.
Ross Gittins is on leave.
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