HSR - High Speed Rail or Highly Sceptical Rip-off?

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Like clockwork, the bi-annual debate on the merits of High Speed Rail is upon us again.  Usually coinciding with elections (state and federal) the debate is policy gold for the Greens as it's a big ticket item that, as a minor party, they'll never have to fund.  Likewise for the major parties, it will take so long to become a reality, it's never part of their forward estimates either.  Notionally it sounds like a good idea - Melbourne to Sydney in less than 3 hours.  It looks like a good idea - all those pretty renders of blurry trains going so fast it sweeps the hair off the heads of the models standing in the vicinity of a space age looking station.  But is it actually a good idea?

The Melbourne - Sydney flight route is the third busiest in the world, carrying over 8 million passengers per annum.  That's no mean feat for a country of only 23 million, especially when you compare the population and densities of other countries also in the top 10 - South Korea, Japan, China and India.  With such high passenger numbers, you'd expect competition to be high.  And with the first 3 mentioned, not only are there several airlines servicing those routes, but also a high speed rail link which leaves Australia - with four major domestic airlines and no high speed rail!

Melbourne - Sydney route is of course serviced by standard rail - the XPT link, although with a travel time of roughly 11 hours its hardly a direct competitor for a 1 hour 20 min plane ride.  And at $110 for a mid week economy fare, its not really price competitive either; though kids 15 years and under currently travel for $1 - Bargain!  However through a combination of high fuel prices, a crowded airspace (as evidenced by Sydney's increasingly desperate search for a second airport site), and a growing national environmental conscience, the thirst for a high speed rail link has become greater and greater, so much so that there was even a political party solely dedicated to the cause during the recent Federal Election - The Bullet Train For Australia Party!

Despite millions of dollars being spent over the last few years on various feasibility studies (Phase 1 report released August 2011, Phase 2 report released April 2013), Australia is still no closer to HSR becoming a reality and with good reason -  an estimated price tag for a complete Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne link of $114 Billion.  It's no wonder transport experts such as Alan Davies have said the project is starting to smell awfully like the 'B' word - Boondoggle (for those unsure what a 'Boondoggle' is, see Melbourne's planned East-West tunnel).  

Various experts agree that the CBR is break even at best, and that in order to keep fares at a competitive price, we'll never actually recoup the $114 Billion price tag.  That's copious amounts of your and my money potentially spent with no real ROI, and would almost certainly mean that private investors would balk at getting involved, leaving the Federal government to foot the entire cost.

In order to make these numbers viable the train would have to take an awful lot of mode share away from planes.  Whilst theoretically possible, I can't see what the incentive to change would be given the price is unlikely to be orders of magnitude lower, and the projected travel time is still more than double than that of air!  Even taking into account travel time to and from the airport, its still unlikely to be better, so as much as I love the idea of a train link, my assessment of the HSR plan as it stands remains - Boondoggle!

But fret not.  Before you decide to give in and strap on the reflective vest and help Tony Abbott build yet another pointless freeway, it doesn't mean HSR is not possible under a different guise.  My biggest concern for the current plan is this: Whilst it is not planned to be fully operational until 2065, the technology is outdated now!  If technology allowed us to cut the journey time considerably, then perhaps the incentive to switch is much more substantial.

Shanghai's airport link train, the Maglev, uses magnetic levitation technology and travels at approximately 400 km/h.  However the Japanese are currently working on an improved unit, with their planned Tokyo - Nagoya Maglev train to be operational by 2027.  A 24 km test track exists and planned speeds are apparently 581 km/h; to put this into perspective the 900 km Melbourne to Sydney journey would take a mere 1.5 hours!  Now that's a serious saving yet before you throw your stop/slow sign away and abandon your post at the construction site of the East West Tunnel to run home and buy shares in the company that builds Maglev trains, there could be an even faster solution!

Last month Tesla Motors Inc CEO Elon Musk, unveiled a a new mode of super fast transport called the Hyperloop.  Described as "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air-hockey table", people would travel in pods in a tube at speeds up to 1100 km/h, thus reducing a Melbourne to Sydney trip to a mind boggling 50 minutes!  Add to that Musk's claim that it could run on solar power and that construction cost would be only one tenth of current HSR solutions and it certainly provides some food for thought, even if it is still at a conceptual stage.

Whilst HSR may currently look like a pie-in-the-sky proposal, rapid technological advances certainly suggest there is hope for the future.  Whilst the current plan may be too slow to make it feasible, that's not to say we should at least prepare for the future.  Ensuring we make the necessary reservations for the route is paramount - the last thing we need is to blow out any future cost due to expensive land acquisitions.  Train technology is currently moving at an extraordinary pace and it's not out of the question that any of the above proposals, or maybe even something faster, would be available in the coming decades.  

So next time you're being thrown all about the place whilst standing in a packed Hitachi train on your commute to Flinders Street, consider trying out your train surfing skills on a train going 10 times as fast!  Or on the roof of a building in Collingwood for that matter...

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