High-speed rail has been an elusive dream for Australia, but some experts believe the path to net zero should start with a better connection for the nation’s most-travelled route.
When it comes to developing a high-speed rail (HSR) network, Australia falls far behind the curve.
The International Union of Railways defines HSR as a dedicated new track supporting trains moving at least 250 km per hour, or an existing upgraded track carrying trains up to 200 km per hour.
According to that definition, 20 countries have HSR networks, with construction underway in seven more, including Indonesia, India and Thailand. A further seven are in the planning stage.
However, Australia is only in the long-term planning phase, said University of Wollongong Associate Professor Philip Laird, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.
“We’ve conducted a lot of studies, at an estimated cost of $250 million, but not only do we not have one km of track, we don’t even have one km of reserved corridor,” he told create.
There are historical reasons why rail projects continue to hit the skids, according to Curtin University Professor Peter Newman, the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Transport Chapter.
“Around the world, bus, car, road and oil lobbies have constantly tried to undermine rail,” he said.
In Australia, the political struggle also concerns the current composition of federal and state governments, with the Coalition less enthused by HSR development.
However, a major second rail revolution is now happening around the world due to the superiority of rail solutions, particularly as countries pursue net zero carbon emissions.
“They’re faster, better in terms of ride quality and safety, and you can build around them so you don’t sprawl your city,” Newman said.
With rail-oriented Prime Minister Anthony Albanese now at the nation’s helm, Laird thinks the planets are beginning to align.
“It’s not going to come cheap or easy, but to make progress towards a 43 per cent reduction of emissions by 2030, we’ve got to move more freight and passengers by rail,” he said.
And with every state besides Tasmania under a Labor government, Newman agrees now is the time for HSR.
“If ever there was going to be a chance to do it, it’s when you’ve got a federal and majority state Labor governments.”
An east-coast route
To demonstrate its commitment to HSR late last year, the Albanese government passed the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022.
This entailed establishing a High Speed Rail Authority, formed on 13 June 2023, with the independent body first tasked with advising the government on planning, development and oversight of the construction of an HSR network along Australia’s east coast.
The authority will build on a 2013 feasibility study led by Albanese, who was Minister for Infrastructure at the time, that found it would cost $114 billion to construct a 1750 km east coast HSR line linking Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
This network, estimated to require 15 years of planning and 30 to construct, could allow passengers to travel between major cities and regional locales at speeds exceeding 250 km per hour.
“HSR will revolutionise interstate travel on the east coast, promoting sustainable settlement patterns and creating broad economic benefits for regional centres,” a spokesperson from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts told create.
The authority’s first order of business is planning and corridor works for the Sydney to Newcastle section of the HSR network, backed by $500 million in government funding.
However, in Newman’s view, the only way to ensure an HSR project of this magnitude has legs is through a value-capture model.
With funding for infrastructure projects increasingly hard to come by, coupled with governments’ lack of expertise in land development, he believes private-public funding mechanisms are the way to go.
“There’s an important principle about the requirement of private sector funding, so we can get proper development of stations both in cities and along the way in regional areas, and really good town developments around them,” he said. “There’s also plenty of global money for net-zero projects, and all of these HSR proposals can be net zero.”
In Australia, domestic aviation was responsible for eight per cent of total transport emissions in 2019, and the Sydney to Melbourne route was the nation’s most travelled.
In fact, this route was the second-busiest air corridor in the world pre-COVID, Laird said.
More than nine million passengers flew between the two state capitals in 2019 alone.
“If we’re serious about net zero by 2050, we have no other option than to build a Sydney to Melbourne HSR to reduce transport emissions,” he said.
However, Australia’s steam-age alignment could throw a spanner in the works for developing an HSR line along this route.
Curvatures abound along the east coast, with the rail line between Sydney and Melbourne plagued by tight radius curves, along with 60 km of superfluous length.
“Much of that track was put down about 100 years ago to ease the gradients for steam locomotives, which had difficulty carrying heavier loads,” said Laird.
“However, the gradients on many NSW lines slow down modern diesel or electric locomotives.”
One link at a time
Arguments against an Australian HSR network, including a 2020 report by the Grattan Institute, say the nation’s cities are too small and dispersed to justify the financial and emissions expense of constructing bullet trains.
But Laird agrees with proposals to develop a faster Sydney to Melbourne rail line through a step-by-step process, where deviations eventually form part of an HSR network.
“One link can be done at a time, tying in with the existing one, with the old line left for freight or local passenger trains,” he said.
Upgrading routes to allow for medium-speed rail could take just four years, and significantly cut travel time down between the two cities at a fraction of the cost.
“Detailed simulation by the University of Wollongong, reviewed by the Australian Rail Track Corporation in its 2001 Track Audit, found that if we construct three major deviations — from Macarthur to near Mittagong, Goulburn to Yass, and Bowning to Cootamundra — we only need 200 km of new track,” Laird said.
“But you can bypass 250 km of steam-age railway.”