The AECOM and its consultants have produced a report for the Infrastructure Department of the Government of Australia, that explores the creation of a high speed railway network. This railway network will cover a 1748 kilometers and will connect major Australian cities. It will be a phased project ensuring high speed connectivity between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Gold Coast and New castle.This will not only make transport by railway within Australia incredibly convenient and efficient, but is also expected to convert air travelers to the railways. The report studies the feasibility of creating such a network, and estimates costs and revenues. The report anticipates the final phases of the project to be completed by 2058.
The report estimates the railroad network construction costs at close to around $114 billion. It is a project that will take considerable time to complete (nearly half a century) and also requires considerable resources and comes at a very high cost. In this context views of certain exports who have examined the report has been sought on the report and the idea of a high speed railway network for Australia.
Almost all of us welcome more efficient and faster public transportation networks. High speed railway networks, have been very successful in Japan, and consequently adopted in several European countries. However does this make sense for Australia? Matthew Burke of Griffith University , believes that it does not. He argues, that while Australian cities themselves are quite small, the distances between them are large and the cost to link them up correspondingly high, and perhaps the cost outweighs the efficacy of a high speed railway network. Significant portion of users of the high speed rail network would be commuters who travel from the outskirts of Melbourne or Sydney to business centers. Are they the most deserving of such a highly subsidized form of transportation? Mathew also thinks that the report’s estimates of converting 40-60% aviation passengers is overly optimistic, and therefore misleading as to the revenues. While rail travel maybe as convenient and even as fast, there will still be a fair share of commuters who prefer air travel. He argues the resources can be used better by simply focusing on multiple local projects, like Brisbane’s cross river rail project or to create a fixed transportation network for the Sunshine Coast.
There are others who look at the project more optimistically. Rico Merkert, who lectures in Sydney Business School on Aviation Management, feels that while the cost and time involved in a high speed railway is considerable, it would be well worth it. He also believes that while it may not be a replacement to air travel, it will make a difference for travelers in a city with easy access to a railway station. He maintains that while an informed debate of cost and resources involved is essential, not subsidizing this type of rail travel will result in a situation where air carriers might even be cheaper than the railways.
Today, with the worlds oil resources fast depleting, Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University, who works in the area of sustainability, sees value in any transportation network that reduces our dependence on oil resources. He believes that governments need to seriously consider alternatives to oil to fuel our transportation. Therefore while he would gladly welcome a high speed rail network, that could use electricity, he is also skeptical of the report’s analysis of costs. While, being aware of the fact that a high speed railway network will need high and special quality railway tracks, Peter Newman states that a cost of $ 114 billion is excessive. He argues that, while railroad construction costs have spiraled and sometimes seems out of control, much of the costs arises from poor risk management and points out that there have been other railroad projects that haven’t cost as much, for example the southern railway in Perth, which cost $17 per kilometer.
Phillip Toner from University of Sydney, a senior research fellow, is also cautious about advocating a high speed railway system that comes with this price tag. He points out that less expensive innovations to existing systems, could profit everyone, like tilt trains. Further he says that we need to prioritize and re evaluate out need in the transportation sector. Perhaps, investing in better and faster freight railway routes, will bring in more benefits, diverting much of the polluting road and air freight movement to railways. He also makes an interesting argument that in time that setting up this network would take, there maybe technological advancements and developments in the area of renewable energy, that can make air traffic, or even road traffic, less polluting. This would result in questioning the very basis of setting up an alternative mode of transport, such as the high speed railway network.
High speed railway networks are not new, and have been adopted by several countries. However, Australia’s distances, and the high costs estimated in the report acts as a deterrent in considering it as ideal for Australia. However it is a grand nation building sort of project, which governments do love. A well informed, careful debate, analysis costs and proposed revenue is critical before such a project is implemented.