City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Southern Cross Line Shinkansen

There’s a lot of interest in high-speed rail networks at the moment, with good reason. European networks are beginning to form a continental grid of high-speed trains, and Japan’s supreme bullet trains of the Shinkansen are being exported. Interest in reinvigorating the USA’s Amtrak is being discussed seriously for the first time in decades. London’s St. Pancras finally delivers. (And what is the design of new Macbook Air, if it’s not a Shinkansen 500 nose welded to the backside of Porsche 928S, as if Luigi Colani was grinning away in some dodgy East End garage, glowing oxyacetylene torch in hand …)

Monocle’s latest issue covers many of the developments. Also, Treehugger just posted an interview with Andy Kunz, of newtrains.org, which covers the situation in the US in some detail and worth a read (if you skip past the New Urbanist bit at the start, which is woefully short of the kind of ambition and imagination that created high-speed trains in the first place.)

Meanwhile, Monocle also has a new film up – one of my favourites thus far, I must say – covering the train journey from Istanbul to Van, on the way to Tehran. Our correspondent Saul Taylor produced a wonderfully atmospheric little mini-doc, capturing exactly the dislocating sensation of those long train rides across Eastern Europe.

Istanbul to Van

Istanbul to Van

My own Eastern European train journey from Sheffield, via the Netherlands, to Budapest in 1991 is still a vivid memory. I’ve been lucky enough to experience many great rail networks. Doing a lot of business with the IHT last year meant many meetings in Paris, a very swift and easy ride away from London (it’s even faster now). I recall the magnifique TGV from the north, down to Marseille; extremely fast, through beautiful terrain, and smooth as silk. Getting the train down the north-west coast of the US, from Seattle to Portland, was a not terribly comfortable ride but through the most sublime landscape imaginable. A hot dusty train from Milan to Pistoia gave me a clear sense of Italy’s country and city, before I really set foot in it. The Shinkansen in the (entirely affordable) first class Green Car from Osaka to Tokyo was perhaps the pinnacle, sitting back in an armchair and watching Mount Fuji slide by, reaching phenomenal speeds yet gliding gracefully, attendants bowing to passengers upon entering and leaving the carriage. Yet Swiss railways, on simple trips along the edge of Lake Zürich, are the best examples of service design I’ve ever seen.

As a non-driver and only occasional flyer, the train is by far my preferred mode of transit. It’s easier to work on a train, to relax and read, to stroll to the restaurant car (again, watch the Monocle film on the journey to Tehran for a particularly fine, if old-fashioned, example of the restaurant car in action.) Sleeper trains, if operated by Deutsche Bahn and not the generally woeful British rail companies, can be a wonderful way to travel longer distances in real comfort. They’re safer too, if run well (the Shinkansen hasn’t had a single passenger fatality in shifting 6 billion passengers over its 40-year history, including through earthquakes and typhoons).

My European roots might be showing here, but the New Rail Revolution isn’t limited to that continent. Juergen Kornmann of Bombardier – one of the world’s biggest train manufacturers – told Monocle about the investment in rail elsewhere.

"It’s those emerging markets – India, China and Russia especially. They’re making huge investments in infrastructure. They have a big need for new material, and this means very good business. Russia has an urgent need for freight rail infrastructure because they have such huge distances within the country, from the mines in the east to the population centres, and Europe, in the west. In India, passenger traffic has increased as more people move to big cities. In China, it’s both."

The options for trains are increasing too. Over and above the Shinkansen, Deutsche Bahn has a fleet of ICE trains, which can reach speeds of 300km/h. Generally, an all-electric line would be the way to go.

ICE

So high-speed rail cuts across countries with vast open spaces as well as densely-packed Europe. And now we are either just post-peak oil, or thereabouts depending on who you read, the other benefits of trains over cars and ‘planes barely need stating. (Again, read the Treehugger interview with Andy Kunz if you do want the stats on how much more energy efficient trains are.)

But it’s not just about efficiency. There’s a romance to the train journey that has never been fully captured by the aeroplane, save those early heady days of flight, and the initial commercialisation of airways (see Evelyn Waugh’s Labels for an example). The road movie has a certain panache, admittedly, but is usually defined by an existential solitude. Flying is usually defined by anxiety and fear, whereas the train by intrigue, chance, possibility, cameraderie, romance, and travelling rather than arriving. Examples abound, from Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train to Georges Simenon’s The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By to Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, and many others. See also the films, such as Strangers …, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes from Hitchcock alone. You will have your own favourites.

The posters of Tom Purvis, those GPO films of the London to Brighton route, numerous great pieces of music. A nostalgic point admittedly, but what a different class of cultural production, as if the imagination is stoked by the train more than any other mode of transport.

Tom Purvis poster for LNER restaurant cars

New Zealand school holidays by train poster

Moreover, trains can be amongst the most thrilling examples of industrial design, train stations our sublime secular cathedrals, rail bridges our finest creations in civil engineering, and so on. So this isn’t at the ‘knit your own scented mung bean’ end of sustainability; rather, gleaming future cities ascribed with high-quality, high-tech mass transit.

Except here in Australia.

Many think the Australian economy will be shielded from recession by China, and it’s currently running at a fairly hefty budget surplus. Either way, spending on infrastructure works is one way of dealing with productivity during global economic slowdowns. So there’s money. And sure enough, the Australian government is looking at infrastructure.

"Cabinet also decided yesterday to go ahead with plans to establish Infrastructure Australia, a body to co-ordinate public and private investment in areas such as ports, roads and railways."

Yet the train network has long since departed from the popular imagination, and that’s the major issue (economic capacity to invest in infrastructure is really a question of will, which is in turn a question of culture). In fact, Australia might just have been a little too new for it to really have ever landed, as a concept. Even though my initial observations suggest that large areas of Australia’s cities are given over to rail and related infrastructure, many will see this as ripe for redevelopment (e.g. the certainly very good CarriageWorks development of the Eveleigh Rail Yards.)

Certainly, this is a car-based culture, just as with the US. Yet it’s significantly without that cultural memory of the long arms of iron railroad, hardwiring America out of its mid-western plains (described most wonderfully in Jonathan Raban’s Badland.) The interior of Australia is still largely untouched by industrial development, and will always remain so. Politically, the governance model has been left in an unhelpful position, indicating the careless negligence with which rail has been treated. Rail networks were created and run by the states, rather than the federal government, even leading to different gauges of track being laid down from state to state, apparently. They’re still run by state-based companies, which means you sometimes still have to change trains to get from Sydney to Melbourne, an incredible state of affairs in 2008.

Of course Sydney to Melbourne is no small journey. Australia is such a vast country, based around effective city state economies, that a constant series of flights shuttle back and forth between cities almost every half-hour, providing hour-long journeys between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The iconic drives take a day or so, if done by car, which people seem happy to do.

But neither of those modes of transport are tenable going forward, for mass transit, from almost any perspective you’d care to mention. To be clear, cars and planes will still be valid options, just not for the vast proportion of the travel required. The road journeys – the Great Ocean Road, the Grand Pacific Drive, the Pacific Highway – will still be tourist experiences, quite rightly. Infrastructure like the Sea Cliff Bridge in New South Wales will always provide visceral experiences of Australia’s beautiful terrain, almost second to none.

Sea Cliff Bridge

Great Ocean Road

But the roads need to be replaced as as the platform, no pun intended, for mass transit. They’re barely suitable for freight, and certainly not suitable for business travel. A AUS$3.6 billion upgrade to the Pacific Highway alone is a lot of money to spend on a short-term solution.

In comparison, the train wins out in almost every possible future scenario. Leaving aside that small matter of peak oil, trains are far more comfortable to work in, as long as the space plan is generously laid out (again, don’t look to British trains here). Wireless and mobile networks are far easier to implement on trains than in the air. And they deliver you from city centre direct to city centre, as opposed to depositing you well outside the outer suburbs with another journey ahead of you (never fun rushing from the airport to a meeting in near-tropical conditions.) Moreover, as Kunz points out, it’s easy to integrate interstate trains with an urban light-rail/tram network, in a three-tier system of national, regional, local.

I see the opportunity for a primary southern- and eastern-coastline based network, connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, with a tangent shooting off to Canberra, and a possible stop at Newcastle. These are all classic ‘city pairs’, in the language of high-speed rail network planning. (Perth and Darwin are just too far to connect on this line directly, but should be served by long-distance high-speed sleepers, with the level of comfort and service achieved by the Deutsche Bahn City Night Line. Lines exist on these axes already, run by Rail Australia essentially for tourists – the Ghan (bottom to top, Adelaide to Darwin, 3000km) and the Indian-Pacifc (the 4300km from Sydney to Perth via Adelaide)).

Let’s call this new network the Southern Cross Line, as Melbourne’s excellent re-worked Spencer Street station could be its centre-piece (it’s a fine station by Grimshaw, and winner of the Walter Burley Griffin award for Urban Design in this year’s RAIA awards. It indicates the fine opportunity for quality in civic architecture the railway station presents).

Just as that station attempts to suture Melbourne’s CBD together with its Docklands, the high-speed rail network would genuinely connect most of Australia’s major cities. Roma Street in Brisbane and Central Station in Sydney would both need a re-vamp (yet Elizabeth Farrelly in the Herald suggests a way forward for the latter in Yuval Fogelson’s plan to sink Central underneath Sydney’s inner-west.)

Southerncrosslogo

(For fun, I’ve dashed off a simple identity, drawing on the best elements of the Australian flag set on the turquoise of the accompanying ocean, then indicating how an animation could warp the constellation slightly to indicate the major destinations (below), a sequence of pearls along Australia’s coastline. The Commonwealth Star remains on the logo, alongside the Southern Cross, indicating this wider national sensibility connecting the city states. This bending of the Southern Cross stars towards the cities relates to the maps of Europe warped by high-speed rail I posted about before. I’ve half a mind to re-draw Australia on that basis, indicating a pinning of the fabric pulling towards this densely-packed south-east corner. And of course a train with a hooter like the Shinkansen (top) surely deserves a pimple.)

Southerncrossonaustralia

Map of Europe after high-speed rail networks

It barely needs pointing out that this ‘Southern Cross Line’ would also instantly be amongst the most beautiful rail journeys in the world, particularly given a few show-stopping bridges and viaducts hugging the coast as much as possible, yet also easing through lush pasture and rocky outcrop, tinder dry plain and damp rainforest.

The trains should quite simply be imported Shinkansen bullet trains. Taiwan have bought the first exports (700 series) from Hitachi (video of Taiwanese tests below). Russia are interested, for their Trans-Siberian Railway. China has taken a joint-venture approach, modifying bullet trains built by Kawasaki. Even the UK has ordered 29 aluminium Javelin trains, from London to Ashford for the 2012 Olympics (possibly overkill given the UK’s small footprint. Unless they give it a bit more of a journey, it’ll be like tethering a greyhound on a very short leash.) So the Shinkansen import model is alive and well, and if elements of Japan’s service culture and attention to detail in branding and service design (certainly a little more thought than my five-minute sketch above) can be imported too, all the better.

Australia has imported wisely from its Asian neighbour in the past – its peerless architecture is heavily influenced by Japanese tradition through the work of Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds et al, and its cuisine likewise. There’s no harm in doing a bit more importing here.

From Tokyo to Fukuoka is 1,174km, and the N700 bullet trains do that in five hours. Melbourne to Sydney is roughly 900km and currently takes around 10 hours. Sydney to Brisbane is 1000km and currently takes around 13 hours. Both services run essentially 1 train per day. With Shinkansen, and newly built track optimised for high-speed, you might guess that Melbourne to Sydney would take around three and a half hours, and Sydney to Brisbane around four hours, and you could run them on the hour. That’s getting comparable to flying time, as trains have far quicker check-in and can deliver you from city centre to city centre.

This ‘Southern Cross Line’ can run alongside the Gahn and the Indian-Pacific, which remain great tourist services. And of course, cars and planes are still part of the mix. It’s just that, given the circumstances, the balance now has to shift heavily, back towards the train.

So I call on Mr. Rudd’s administration to spend some of that budget surplus – which could be around AUS$18billion – and build a national high-speed rail network. Reorganise the governance to be a federal network, as rail is inevitably an interstate issue. Buy the trains from Japan and lay down the track. Create a network that people would be thrilled to use; would be proud of, as the Germans, French and Japanese are proud of theirs; that would ultimately make them leave the car at home and the plane on the runway. Rudd is right to have made broadband networks one of his administration’s priorities, but this is a different network, a different level of investment – and return on investment – altogether. It’s a new network for Australia.

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20 responses to ““The Shinkansen to Melbourne is now boarding at Central Station, platform 27 …”: A new high-speed rail network for Australia”

  1. Stan Lee Avatar

    Excellent post Dan. I’m a massive Shinkansen fan. Your idea for an Oz network needs looking into I think.
    Any loss of time compared to flying is more than made up for by city centre to city centre convenience. Not to mention the cost of taxis to and from the CBD at each end.
    When I worked in London we always took the train to paris meetings rather than the plane. Door to door, it was quicker in most cases.

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  2. A guy and his mac Avatar

    You tricked me with this post’s title! I got all excited thinking Australia was actually doing something exciting infrastructure wise.
    Oh well, I’ll keep hoping.
    You’re right, Australians love to drive. But we also like to think of ourselves as world class. A high-speed rail link like you’re proposing would certainly stroke egos.
    I think it’s a great idea.
    And, while on the topic of railway links, Melbourne needs to sort out its transportation issues to and from Tullamarine (it’s a disgrace). Geez, even Brisbane has a rail link to the city centre (albeit infrequent and early to bed).

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  3. James Andrewartha Avatar
    James Andrewartha

    I hate to be a downer on this, but estimated costs in 2002 for a Melbourne to Brisbane line were between A$33bn and A$59bn with at least 80% of that being government funding. On the one hand 2002 was the time when oil was $US20/barrel, but on the other construction costs have only gone up since then. The 700T Shinkansen only goes 300 km/h, so it’ll still take 4-5 hours for both Melbourne to Sydney and Sydney to Brisbane. The estimated NPV varies from -$15 billion to +$73 billion with the “comfort bonus” estimated at 20 minutes. The place to attack this NPV calculation would be the comfort bonus, and also the opportunity savings offered by not having to build a second airport in Sydney.
    More likely than a high-speed rail network is a freight link between Melbourne and Brisbane as the study says it’ll be needed by 2019, and will cost as little as $3.1 billion. Australian railway history shows that freight and passenger lines don’t mix, and the two large countries you mention getting high-speed passenger rail both have more than 1 billion people, two orders of magnitude more than south-eastern Australia.
    Oh, and South Australia had both broad gauge and narrow gauge railways, with the line to WA being standard gauge.

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  4. Andrew Avatar

    Great post Dan. Many of we Australians (and especially our governments) are completely obsessed with the motor car. Once we were going to run a high speed railway line between Sydney and Melbourne and (this is an apocryphal story) and if memory serves – one of the biggest anticipated problems was… wombats. These smallish but very solidly built marsupials, if hit by a high-speed train, had enough mass – it was thought – to derail that train. It was then thought that the rail line could be elevated (costs much more) – but then kangaroos would be jumping into the way of the trains. Perhaps the trains could go underground…. but wombats burrow too…
    But yes – a ‘super train’ linkage as you suggest – wonderful. PS – The Ghan – Adelaide to Darwin – is wonderful (from all reports).
    http://www.gsr.com.au/our-trains/the-ghan/the-journey.php

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  5. Timo Avatar

    Great article Dan.
    Andrew: In Norway we have Moose-train crashes every five hours, I’m sure they are larger than Wombats or Kangaroos 🙂

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  6. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks for all the comments, much appreciated. Thanks in particular to James, for that excellent follow-up, which I found anything but a downer. It’s made me think there’s more possibility in a very high speed train (VHST) network for Australia, rather than less.
    I think there are two sides to these kind of arguments, and both have to be locked down, in tandem, in order to make the case. The first side is slippery; the second rather more hard-headed.
    Firstly, there are problems with NPV (net present value) calculations for assessing the viability of public-private infrastructure work.
    As an economic forecasting tool, it’s essentially about likely financial return on investment of a scheme. Government role is wider than that, and this has to be a government-led scheme, even if delivered via a public-private partnership. But the real problem with purely economic modelling – just as with simplistic environmental models like LEED – is that they don’t take into account any wider concerns, particularly those around the way people feel about schemes, or how their imagination is stoked by public or civic infrastructure, or measuring an increase in quality of life or public value, or other apparently nebulous matters.
    Equally, it doesn’t appear to take into account the opportunity cost of not doing a VSHT network. In this case, how are people going to get between these five cities? Planes are not economic right now – minus subsidies – and certainly not sustainable. Banking on aircraft technology finding a green solution in the next twenty years is a bit hopeful. The train has a head-start there, already using a fraction of the fuel and producing 90% less emissions than planes – and with potential to be largely powered by renewables, should they seriously emerge as viable energy sources. (Incidentally, that’s another candidate for re-investment, after the last 15 years of almost criminally pulling out of R&D into things like solar energy.)
    Cars might well be more energy efficient than they are now (electric, biofuel etc.), but the knock-on impact of cars on the built form is not taken into account with these economic calculations either. Trains can reinforce urban density – and density is another infrastructure issue our cities need to embrace due to climate change – whereas cars tend to reinforce urban sprawl. 50 people = 50 cars or 1 train carriage. Simplistic, yes, but the patterns are self-evident. There are already major problems with congestion in these cities, and these cities are growing. As some form of congestion charging therefore becomes inevitable, how can it prove to be economically viable for individuals either? Never mind the cost of running a car – as noted, the report mentioned was written when oil was US$20 a barrel. At US$100 a barrel, and probably rising from now on, we might expect a different nuance there. I’d love to see projections or models for transit in which cars or planes are tenable for mass transit in the medium-term. As I said originally, both have a place as part of a rich transport mix, but a lesser place than in the last century.
    NPV projections naturally don’t take into account how people feel about their transport – which is surely a rather profound aspect of transit. It’s why I added those few cultural references in my original post. Not as window dressing, but in order to suggest that the cultural imagination behind infrastructure is surely as relevant to how it’s perceived as the ticket price and travel time. How to measure pride in a world-class VHST, for instance? How to denote the increase in quality of life in our cities? How to measure the beauty glimpsed from that train ride, or in the bridges and viaducts built as a result? The Sea Cliff Bridge I referred to is thrilling but then so is the Ribblehead Viaduct or Channel Tunnel Rail Link. There are measures emerging around these things, but as I said, it’s slippery stuff. It doesn’t mean it’s not important – it means we have to find new models for these things, new ways of researching.
    Engineering can lift the soul, capture the imagination, enliven the spirit – particularly around public works. But how to measure this? Or rather, appreciate it, as measurement may reduce its value (versus the ever-attractive pseudo-science of other projections.) The cost of the Sydney Opera House was around $100m. NPV calculations might have struggled to justify that at the time (even on its estimated costs of $7m). Yet how much is it worth to Sydney and Australia now? Off the scale. The building helped create an entirely new Sydney, a world city. Few would be able to extrapolate its ultimate value using NPV calculations, but they’d have no problem with the idea that it’s now essentially priceless.
    So we’re left with ephemeral aspects on this side of the argument – culture, imagination, public value, quality of life. Yet as the precursor behind a scheme like this would be capturing the public’s imagination in order to justify the costs and change, we’re certainly in that business.
    This isn’t counter to the work of government economists, traffic engineers or urban planners – rather it is the new work of those functions. If, as architect Louis Sauer has suggested, innovation in urbanism and building needs to be led by innovation in financing, then the corollary is that financing needs be become more imaginative than NPV calculations would suggest.
    (It has to be said that either way, if I understand NPV correctly, a positive score means the scheme should go ahead, and that range of -$15bn to +$73bn thus looks a decent bet?)
    The second aspect is this question of journey times, possibility of successful implementation, logistics and so on.
    In terms of journey times, 4 to 5 hours sounds fine. First of all, as above, shortest possible journey time is only part of the issue. There’s more to life than that. But secondly, appreciating that argument won’t hold sway without some smart marketing, I’d suggest 4 to 5 is close enough given the current and imminent conditions.
    I’d estimated a flight from Sydney to Brisbane, the one I’ve done most frequently:
    30 mins – to airport in Sydney
    60 mins – check-in time (the minimum allowed)
    90 mins – flight time
    30 mins – baggage collection/security
    30 mins – to destination/city centre in Brisbane

    Which is 4 hours, door-to-door, via plane, and luckily with no delays, But how did the experts calculate it, on a 350km/h train (i.e. newer Shinkansen 360Z)?:

    “4.1 – 4.5 hours between Melbourne and Sydney and 4.4 – 4.6 hours between Sydney and Brisbane for 350 km/h trains”

    This from a the government study on this very issue, which is utterly fascinating. Here, most of the maths has been done properly – though few of the arguments I’m made earlier are addressed, perhaps reasonably given the scope of the study.
    Still it’s a great paper on the basic numbers of chucking various high-speed trains through VIC, QLD and NSW, considering the terrain and the cities.
    The report (prepared by Arup-TMG), show tables of data and they’re worth poring over. They compare head-to-head travel times for the business traveller leaving at 0630 for a morning meeting with no en route problems, via air and VHST. The slightly confusing tables end up with:
    Sydney to Melbourne
    Air 185 mins – Rail 185 mins
    Sydney to Brisbane
    Air 180 mins – Rail 180 mins

    (Looking at the actual tables, the ‘car to airport/station’ figure could/should also include ‘light rail/tram/walk’ to station in the case of the train (you can only walk to an airport if you’re the family in The Castle). Journey to train station should be less than to airport, as even given Sydney and Brisbane’s sprawl, Central and Roma Street will have a far great population within range. Also not sure how ‘terminal wait’ at airports is only 20 mins, though this may have been modelled before the current security measures. They underestimate the “comfort bonus” too, taking my earlier point about working on the train being more comfortable. But let’s leave those quibbles aside, as I’m sure that will have been modelled properly.)
    Given those figures, the conclusion is:

    “If the objective of an EC VHST is to be competitive with air services between those cities then the times offered are at least 45-60 minutes too long, even after train travel is allowed a comfort time bonus of, say, 20 minutes as compared to air. Even MagLev, the fastest mode, could not offer competitive limited-stops travel times over the routes and the scope for high speed traverses of the metropolitan entries and exits, the slowest portions of any train’s journey, is limited by the physical and environmental constraints of the settlement patterns of the three cities.”

    I’d disagree on two connected counts. Firstly, unless I’m missing something the table appears to indicate exactly the same travel time by VHST as for air – though the figure for MagLev does look confusingly higher (can anyone explain?). Either way, at the same travel time or 45 mins. more, I suspect people could be convinced to switch, for a comfortable journey. As secondly, when you take into account other factors that might initially appear more ephemeral – such as quality of life or energy efficiency or impact on urban form; actually rather more profoundly affecting than travel time – then the train certainly wins out. The “comfort bonus” should be ramped up, or at least transformed into a “quality of life bonus”. (When did minutes become the international standard unit of measurement for comfort?)
    The report concludes:

    “In summary, for journeys between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, air travel will retain a significant time advantage until such time as the ground access component becomes prohibitive … The issue then for a VHST is not so much whether it can compete “head to head with air but whether it can develop a unique and sustainable market from the populations and conurbations that lie along its route.”

    I’d argue that the “unique and sustainable market” exists here and now, as there is frankly no alternative for a sustainable mass transit system that reinforces our cities and improves the quality of life for people living within them. That’s where the bulk of Australia’s population lives, and will continue to grow. Given the overlay of this country being the world’s petri dish for how a developed nation should react to climate change, I can think of no more ‘unique’ condition than that.
    The related report James links to is good reading too. I’ll pull out a couple more paragraphs:

    “The scale of an East Coast VHST must not be underestimated … (L)inking Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane is on the same scale as all of the Japanese Shinkansen constructed to date or the whole of the German High Speed Rail program and greater in length than the proposed California High Speed Rail project”

    To me this is cause for optimism, in that it both describes an opportunity to join the ranks of world leaders in this field, whilst indicating that such schemes are entirely possible – as they already exist elsewhere, in equally complex conditions. (The Californian project is estimated at about US$40bn, by the way, and is probably a decent comparison.)
    From the conclusion:

    “(An) EC VHST could have a place in Australia’s transport future. The securing of a place for an EC VHST in Australia’s transport future would be dependent on whether or not it could become an integral part of a vision and action plan for a new paradigm of development, mobility, and transportation connectivity in the East Coast corridor. An EC VHST will not achieve such status in the absence of political vision and leadership, long-term bipartisan political commitment, the full participation of all Governments and the collective will and skills of Australians.”

    To me, that’s an optimistic message too. It’s a challenge to Australia, yes, but not a reason to cringe from the possibilities.
    Finally, I also take the point on the obvious population disparities with China and India (even if the distances are equivalent). But if Australia’s not like Europe or America either, is it to be the only major developed country in the world left pursuing mass transit by road and air? No matter what the cost, that’s an odd conclusion to arrive at, in a country in which climate change is now the greatest single issue. With the change of government, I perhaps optimistically detect a change of attitude too, swinging back towards innovation in infrastructure. (And as such, maybe we can even find a way to deal with the wombats, Andrew.)
    Thanks again for posting the links to the data. Extremely useful. And thanks all for the other comments. Keep them coming.

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  7. James Andrewartha Avatar
    James Andrewartha

    You make good points, the core is that the VHST could be made to work, but requires political will and a wholistic view, which I am yet to see from either party. The Rudd Government is still new, so I grant that it’s not proven which way it will go, I prefer to not get my hopes it.

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  8. lauren Avatar

    fabulous post, as usual, dan.
    having recently returned from uk and europe, the transport system in australia drove me mental for the first 3 months. i would love to see a wholistic approach to train travel here.
    another aspects of a HSTN to consider is increased accessibility for passengers in wheelchairs/other mobility issues. i have a dear friend who is in a wheelchair and for her, train travel is king – no transferring into degrading wheelie-highchair type devices, no rigmarole checking in and no stressed-out staff when she takes her working dog onboard.
    unfortunately, convincing the CEOs, shareholders and labour force of the 3 major airlines here that train travel does not equal death of airline industry will be key. if they’re smart, they’ll invest in both (not that i’m wishing virgin trains on anyone).

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  9. Nick Avatar
    Nick

    Wow… I just returned from Japan a couple of weeks ago, and these are my thoughts exactly.
    Fast trains to the centre of the major cities would much more convenient for east coast travel than aircraft (after you include the time to/from airport, going through security etc) (and I am an aero engineer – I don’t hate air travel!)
    It could also return relevance some of the towns along the way – short stops would make such places highly accessible to the larger cities, and perhaps ease the ‘fear’ of isolation that city people have of moving to the regional centres.
    Unfortunately I feel that the cost of such a project would be prohibitive for any given the size of the market in Australia, and of course there is the general apathy towards such projects =(
    So for now we can only dream on…

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  10. John Avatar
    John

    I have just read your site for the first time, having come to the same conclusion as you independently. having travelled in France numerous times on the TGV, I despair coming back to Oz and chugging along on a primitive network. I also have drawn up a detailed network which differs a little in that it gives Canberra centrality in that the 2 principal intersecting lines pass through it. The benefits to the regional stops on my route would be the way to help sell the concept – each of the stops would attract significant support form the population in those towns which would then have the opportunity to become centres of decentralisation. The tourism benefits would be enormous. I have written to Mr Rudd and his relevant ministers for some input to the 2020 conference: this would be an inspiring new piece of infrastructure – the Snowy Mountains Scheme of the 21st century.

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  11. Roland Avatar
    Roland

    Considering the entrenched nature and high quality of air travel on the East Coast, and the cost of building VHST lines over such a great distance, the Melb/Sydney/Brisbane thing is a hard sell at least initally. But maybe a good place to start is with shorter high speed lines, like the ones suggested by Noel Child and Bruce Judd (original proponents of the Sydney-Canberra VFT I think):
    http://www.10000friends.org.au/reports/Docs/45/VHST%20-%20Draft%20Discussion%20Paper%20Bruce%20Judd%20-%20270707%20(2).doc.
    The NSW State Government is (supposedly) considering the Western FastRail proposal of dedicated express tracks to Penrith. The idea in this report is to use that as the core of a high-speed commuter system, with a line branching off Parramatta to the Hills District, Central Coast and Newcastle, and another going to the Airport, Southwest and then on to Wollongong. Passenger numbers on these lines would be much greater because you’re tapping into a commuter market – and it would allow a new international airport for Sydney in the Central Coast, Newcastle or somewhere else.
    But the big plus is you would then have dedicated fast rail lines going into the Sydney metro area, which could by used by a future intercity service. The most obvious start would be a link to Canberra, and then the network could grow from there. But you start off somewhere with a huge and easy market before chasing the difficult air-travel convert crowd. If people are willing to do a 2-hour car or train commute from the Central or South Coast then imagine how big the market would be for a service that took 40 minutes.
    This would be a great thing for Sydney by extending its commuter reach in a sustainable and positive way, taking population pressure off Sydney itself and giving the city a really cool, world-class piece of transport infrastructure.
    I agree too that central needs a big upgrade. Like the idea of burying the approaching rail lines — it also needs seriously revamped and expanded upper and lower concourses. The fast rail should have its own, new, underground platforms.
    Preserve the heritage part of the building but make it the core of a massive modern upgrade like Southern Cross. Central station is huge, it’s got 30 platforms … just doesn’t feel that way because it’s an unplanned rabbit warren.

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  12. Gavin Avatar
    Gavin

    Dan, while I am a fan of high speed rail, I think the govt report effectively rules it out. It is simply too expensive for the govt to construct and would take too long to become financially viable for a private venturer to invest in.
    You asked about the travel time table; I presume you mean the one indicating travel times of 185 minutes Sydney to Melbourne, and 180 minutes Sydney to Brisbane. I think you have misread this table – the figures in the air column are representative of actual times, but the rail times are an estimate of the times required in order to match air. The important figure here is the gate to gate time, for example for Sydney Brisbane it says 140 minutes for rail. This is not the estimated time a VHST would take, but rather what it would have to take to match air. Next to it it says best time for Mag Lev is 200 minutes (ie 1 hour longer), equivalent to the 3.4 hours shown in the table above as a limited stops train. Given a 350km/h train takes 4.4 hours, it is demonstrated that this type of train would take 2 hours longer door to door, than air travel. Also the travel times were presented in the best available light: “Thus unconstrained transit speeds have been used throughout the remainder of travel time estimation to present the best possible picture of VHST performance.” Bear in mind even today, 6 years after this report, there are still no long distance trains achieving 350km/h in commercial service (the new Spanish trains on the Madrid – Barcelona line may be prevented from doing so as well).
    One of the more important things to come out of the study is this comment: “The issue then for a VHST is not so much whether it can compete “head to head” with air but whether it can develop a unique and sustainable market from the populations and conurbations that lie along its route.” I think it is much more likely a moderately high speed (but much slower than Europe or Japan) regional services will develop in concert with high speed freight, and eventually link up, but a true national system won’t develop until the regional service is at capacity.
    And Rudd won’t spend the surplus until inflation is under control, if not longer, and that may take a while.

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  13. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks everyone, fantastically useful and interesting comments, and good to see the debate.
    Roland, that’s a great comment. Although I’d disagree that the air travel here is high quality. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane airports, while perfectly serviceable, aren’t anything to write home about (say compared to other similar size airports like Helsinki, Munich or Zurich, say). And Sydney is about to get a whole lot worse with the closure of one runway for at least a year. Flight delays have shot up in the last year, even before this.
    And it certainly isn’t high quality compared to the comfort of travelling by the VHST I referred to (Shinkansen, TGV, Deutsche Bahn etc.). Air travel never can come near, even given the promise of Dreamliners (which wouldn’t do these routes) – it’s intrinsically a more uncomfortable experience.
    Moreover, the quality argument also pales into insignificance compared to the sustainability argument, where this is absolute no chance that mass travel by air will be sustainable any time soon. Roads are the same. Even if all projections about fuel efficient cars are taken into account over the next 15-20 years, the most it can do is alleviate reliance on fossil fuels by 4%. That’s best case.
    But I completely agree it’s a tough sell, as I don’t know how many Australians have experienced that quality differential (despite being inveterate travellers) and we’re yet to be truly tested on sustainability.
    VHST happens to be a double whammy of increasingly sustainable whilst increasing quality and comfort .
    And thanks to you too, Gavin – really useful comments.
    I think there are a few issues here too, though. Firstly, that it’s no longer a question of simple economics. The true externalities imposed through sustainability now being a priority, and presumably the Rudd govt’s own challenging targets for those, mean that air or road travel doesn’t come out well at all. Whereas VHST, with a possibility of being powered even by renewables, would score so highly compared to those that it would outweigh any economic disparity. Car plus air travel must be used a lot less, not more, surely. And all these cities are growing.
    So the cost argument gets put to bed by a measure of the true cost – not a simple financial model anymore. There’s a Sir Nicholas Stern quote about global warming representing the greatest example of market failure in the history of humankind. It’s time for a new set of models with which to take decisions.
    Secondly, the time taken is clearly an issue. And that table was horribly confusing, so thank you for clearing that up. I knew the report couldn’t come to the conclusion it did, given the figures, so your explanation makes sense (though it’s an odd way of conveying that. What terrible information design).
    But I think there’s an important question here: why is gate to gate the key measure? Gate to gate will privilege planes, of course (given their unparalleled speed between the gates). But why not door to door? Or centre to centre? That’s where the figures seemed to go a bit awry.
    Further, reliability of service is easier to achieve with trains than planes. It’s a far simpler networking problem to solve, and can be run at near 100% efficiency (cf. Germany, Japan). Whereas air travel is hardly ever at that rate (cf. Sydney airport, where the last 6 months had 4 per cent flights cancelled on Melbourne-Sydney route, and only 64.3 per cent of flights arrived on time.)
    I think the economic return would be key in determining the implementation model, but not a deciding factor in whether to do it. These are only cities of around 5, 4, and 2 million, say (projected), but that’s pretty good, and far higher than the European counterparts in most cases. Still, this comes back to subsidies for sure, as a PPP model – there is no other way to deal with sustainable transit and urbanism on this scale. The market won’t do it alone (see above). You’re right about the surplus, and inflation – entirely right – but the money is there if there’s the desire. Australia is richer than most.
    Obviously, it’s a huge ask to build this, and the steady roll-out you hint at (regional, incl. freight, and then intercity) might be the prudent approach. But this is a scheme to be ambitious about, not cautious. Again, I’m yet to see any projected alternative based on rail and air, cautious or ambitious.
    Thanks v much for the insight, though. Again, all very interesting.

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  14. Tim Avatar

    You might like to join the high speed rail australia Facebook group – sounds like it would be right up your alley!
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=5575251926

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  15. Dan Hill Avatar

    France’s efforts were in the news a few weeks ago. Now it’s clearly Spain’s turn, with the launch of the AVE:
    Can Spain’s AVE kill the airplane? [Inhabitat]
    High Speed in high style [Dwell]
    Some more thoughts on the matter, posted a few weeks later.
    (Ongoing linkage on these issues collated here and here.)

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  16. Lesley de Voil Avatar
    Lesley de Voil

    I’m surprised, having only just now found this entry, that noone has mentioned the advantage of travelling overnight.
    Surely it is not beyond the wit of railway planners to incorporate some of the advances in seat and cabin design that enable airline business class to be so attractive. I would be happy to come on board the Sydney Shinkansen in the late evening clad in a comfortable tracksuit, then sleep in my reclining chair, until breakfast before arriving at a refurbished Central, where a quick shower before changing into fresh clothes would be available.
    Further, there’s really not much point in knowing that one has just travelled 1200km in 3 1/2 hours if one arrives at a quarter past four in the morning, long before the doors open at one’s eventual destination.
    Pressure to complete the journey in the shortest time possible would be thus lessened, enabling the train to take advantage of such conservation features as adjusting the velocity to maximise the efficiency of energy transformation.

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  17. Jason Avatar
    Jason

    Maglev travels at 500km per hour and takes 1 and a half minutes to reach 500km and looks to be a superior technology. Without friction it almost reaches speeds planes fly. Diversify Virginblue!!!
    Google “Japan Maglev You tube” and watch the video

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  18. Rex Avatar

    hi, I am wondering if anyone knows how to contact Yuval Fogelson. I’ve know him from Germany, and wants to get in touch with him again.

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  19. Great Ocean Road Tours Melbourne Avatar

    Hi!
    Its really good because the high speed rail is cover the distance in few minutes so its saving of time.

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