For a country that aspires to being clever we seem remarkably gullible when it comes to reports by people said to be experts. It has been happening for years on climate matters, and now much the same trusting reaction has welcomed the proposal for a high speed rail (HSR) route between Brisbane and Melbourne.
One might understand the ill-informed public being gulled, but journalists, who are supposed to wear scepticism as a badge of honour, seem equally untroubled by any hint of professional curiosity. The "High Speed Rail Study – phase 2 report – key findings and Executive summary" is loaded with assumptions, questionable claims and serious omissions. Here are some of the issues:
Business passengers are estimated to account for just 35% of all passenger traffic, leaving 65% as "non-business". The latter group seems to include tourists. It’s not a Very Fast Train so much as a Very Fast Tourist Train, one that would rely heavily on an influx of tourists and a big demand for visiting the relatives.
The HSR is proposed at a time when video calls, via Skype and more advanced videoconferencing for businesses, are becoming easier and cheaper. The demand for travel to see friends and relatives may diminish, but the business world is already well aware that a physical presence is no longer a prerequisite for meetings.
The study predicts that more than 50% of passengers would otherwise have travelled by air, seeming to believe that the airlines will follow the European pattern of reducing capacity on the route. It fails to recognise that the Melbourne-Sydney and Sydney-Brisbane routes account for a huge percentage of airline profits (exceeding 50%?), and that operators will not concede defeat as easily as did their European counterparts, which didn’t have so many eggs in so few baskets and took up the option of opening plenty of other routes.
One way to compete would be the method Qantas already uses: selling international visitors discounted domestic-flight deals when they buy their tickets to Australia. The report comments, almost as an after-thought, "Additional aviation capacity also reduces the financial return [of the HSR] from 0.8% to 0.3%", which should ring plenty of alarm bells. A financial return estimated at the larger number of just 0.8% on something 50 years into the future goes beyond crystal-ball stuff.
The cost of building the HSR system is estimated as $114 billion, in 2012 terms, and is projected to take 50 years to build. In the last half century the prices of houses, cars and many other things have risen by a factor of 15. If that rate of increase continues, the HSR will cost $1.71 trillion dollars in 2064 dollars — and that’s without the almost inevitable blow-outs in large construction projects. Stating that figure might have scared the punters if journalists were up for doing more than re-writing press releases. Then again, maybe not. Increasingly, Australians seem to think that "someone else" pays for infrastructure like this.
The distances-and-travel times shown in one of the report’s charts appear to be saying that if you are travelling express from Sydney to Melbourne you will stop at Albury-Wodonga before the Melbourne leg, which is estimated at a further 49 minutes. Travel express from Canberra to Melbourne, again stopping in Albury-Wodonga, and the Melbourne leg will take 54 minutes. Travel on a "regional" train from Sydney and the Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne leg will take 68 minutes. But if you travel from the Southern Highlands to Melbourne it is 58 minutes. From Canberra the same leg is 72 minutes, while travel from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne and it’s 69 minutes. I assume this "regional" train stops at Shepparton, but that doesn’t account for the variation between trains designated "express" and the trains designated as "regional".
In the same table, the distance from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne, via Shepparton, is 285km. The road distance from the border stop via Shepparton to Southern Cross station in Melbourne is 365km. One would expect the train route to be shorter, but 80km (26%) seems a lot of saved miles over this route, especially when the more direct Hume Freeway route from Albury to Southern Cross is 327km. I am yet to be convinced that the report’s figures are correct. And if its numbers are wrong on the simple matter of distances, how accurate is the report on more complex matters?
The economics of building the HSR rely on passenger numbers and "how much each passenger values their trip, often termed their ‘willingness to pay’." We are told little about the fares, save this: "For the purpose of assessing demand, average fares for business and leisure travel were set to be comparable to, and competitive with, air-fare rates on the main inter-capital routes on the east coast." These seem to be the fares to be offered by airlines supposedly reducing their number of flights and conceding defeat. It’s a real house of cards with assumption built on assumption.
The most interesting figures are the estimated passenger numbers by 2064, when supposedly 83.6 million trips will be made. It would have been useful to see the 2012 or 2012 figures on which these estimates are based but no such luck. Table ES-5 of the report is the estimated number of passengers for 2065, expressed in terms of thousands of passengers per year. Converting this to average number of passengers per day highlights some interesting issues.
The expectation is that, on an average day, more than 14,000 passengers will travel between Sydney and Canberra, and almost 7500 between Melbourne and Canberra. There are even 1750 people projected to travel daily between Canberra and either Albury-Wodonga or Shepparton. This poses the question, "Why?".
The 12,767 passengers between Melbourne and either Shepparton or Albury-Wodonga also seems pie in the sky, based on optimistic forecasts about regional growth.
And don’t forget that only 35% of these figures are business people — the rest, as the report projects, will be "non-business" tourists and other visitors.
According to the report’s estimates, a daily average of almost 8000 passengers will travel between Brisbane or the Gold Coast and Melbourne by train, a journey of more than five hours. Flying to Sydney and then another flight to Canberra would be about as fast as the train to Canberra, so where is the advantage?
It’s also estimated that over 51,000 people will be travelling between Sydney and Melbourne every day. On the “expert” projections, that includes about 34,000 "non-business" travellers.
This brings us to the next problem, getting people onto these trains. By simple calculation we can establish that Brisbane can expect on average about 59,300 passenger movements (arrivals or departures) per day. Melbourne can expect about 90,900.
Sydney hits the peak, though, with 147,589 passenger movements on an average day. That works out to 8,200 movements per hour, although that’s hardly likely to be evenly distributed across the 18 hours of operation.
That number of people getting to and from the Sydney terminus in the space of 60 minutes? I wouldn’t like to be in that crowd.
In peak times, Sydney terminus would have an estimated 10 express and either nine or 10 regional trains departing, and similar numbers arriving, every hour. This works out one train every 1.5 minutes. At some point these trains would have to be cleaned and serviced; the train-handling capacity of the terminus will need to be enormous.
The HSR report is too pie-in-the-sky to be taken seriously. Building a high-speed rail network primarily for non-business riders to travel to and from Sydney, but not further (because flying would be faster) is utterly absurd. To assume that the airlines won’t fight back, that tourist numbers and visitors to family and friends will warrant this service doubles the absurdity.
John McLean is the author of three peer-reviewed papers on climate matters and a regular contributor to Quadrant Online. He’s currently studying for a PhD through James Cook University.