On Board With High-Speed Rail: But Will it Really Cost so Much?

highspeed rail australia

High Speed Rail. Reuters/Jason Lee

The release of the final report of Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese’s High Speed Rail (HSR) Study has been strongly supported by many sectors, but some have argued the project can be delivered quicker and cheaper than the Government thinks.

The proposed high-speed rail network would run between Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, significantly improving the long and medium-distance transport capacity for Australia’s east coast.

Engineers Australia chief executive officer Stephen Durkin said HSR would demonstrate a “clear commitment to Australia’s economic prosperity” and provide the engineering profession with significant opportunities in the planning and delivery of this major infrastructure project.

“As Engineers Australia alerted to in the release of its National Infrastructure Report Card Series in 2010, there has long been a need to expand Australia’s rail networks to enable access by a larger proportion of the population across urban areas. The proposed high-speed rail network would demonstrate a clear commitment to sustainable transport options,” he said.

“An efficient high-speed rail network for Australia’s eastern seaboard will encourage commuters to choose rail as their preferred method of transport, helping to ease road and airport congestion. This is imperative in light of the ongoing political indecision surrounding a second airport for Sydney.”

While the Federal Government has promoted the economic benefits of the planned high speed rail extending from Melbourne to Brisbane, Labor has yet to fully commit to the project, which is expected to cost around $114 billion and take more than four decades to finish.

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), an independent climate solutions think tank and high-speed rail supporter, has said however that Albanese has got things wrong when it comes to the anticipated high costs and the 45-year timeline.

High Speed Rail

High Speed Rail. Image Source: Better Nation

“When John F. Kennedy saw a challenge worth taking he decided to get on with it as quickly as humanly possible, and in eight years Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. On the other hand, some would have us believe building a high-speed railway from Melbourne to Brisbane will take 45 years,” said BZE high-speed rail researcher Gerard Drew.

BZE has done its own study on the HSR route in partnership with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). Their research, which will be published in full in May, indicates that the chosen HSR route could be built for under $70 billion, considerably less than the $114 billion quoted in the latest government study.

The BZE-DLR analysis makes significant savings by avoiding the most difficult terrain. A kilometre of track in a tunnel can cost more than 10 times as much as a kilometre of track on level ground, so every little bit adds up to big savings for a 1,700-kilometre alignment.

“We have mapped out our own route based on the limitations of high speed trains, and our analysis indicates that with this limited flexibility we could reduce the civil works cost of the rural sections by near 40 per cent of the government’s Phase 1 estimates, with negligible increases in journey time,” Drew said.

Another area for large cost reductions is the challenge of accessing the major city centres, which accounts for approximately one third of the total cost of the project in the government’s Phase 1 study. The reason this is so high is due to the very expensive approach of tunnelling from the fringe to the centre of each city, and to the creation of underground stations.

The BZE-DLR study shows this is largely avoidable, even in Sydney, by exploiting existing infrastructure corridors such as existing rail lines, freeways, or transmission lines, which would add markedly to the savings.

The plan already has an advocate on the other side of politics, with former National Party Leader and Howard Government Deputy Prime Minister Timothy Fischer voicing his support for the plan.

Fischer pointed to the remarkable safety record of Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train, which has incurred zero fatalities over nearly five decades of operation, and extolled the economic benefits of a high-speed rail link running the length of Queensland and Victoria.

By Justin McGar
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