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PLANS for a Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne high-speed train hinge, more than anything, on one question: if you struggle to get Australians out of their cars and on to public transport, how are you going to get them out of their aeroplanes?
It's not just the cost. Australians simply don't do long-distance rail travel; in fact, only about 3 per cent of long-distance journeys take place on a train. Getting your interstate travellers down to the railway station will require a significant cultural shift.
This factor -- more than the $100 billion or so cost; more than fighting NIMBY-ism wherever you want to lay the track; more than dealing with regional interest groups vying to have the line pass their town; more, even, than harnessing the political will in Canberra -- lies at the centre of the high-speed train issue.
There is another problem. This scheme is not in response to any urgent public demand (unlike better suburban services). It's more of a build-it-and-they-will-come notion.
Last week, federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese released the first stage of a $20 million study into a high-speed rail network linking Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne. The headline promise was a three-hour journey in either direction from Sydney (Sydney-Brisbane is now 14hrs 18min) and eye-catching times for regional Australians: 40 minutes, for example, between Sydney and Newcastle (at present almost three hours).
The fares, based on 2011 dollars, would be: Sydney-Melbourne $197 business class, $99 non-business; Brisbane-Sydney $177 business class, $75 non-business -- cheaper than a full fare now. Last week Brisbane-Sydney on the XPT would have cost you $128.30.
It was predicated on 50 million trips a year which, in today's terms, would require the airlines surrendering about half this year's passenger numbers.
This, however, is not just another transport policy. It's the vision thing.
Trains would travel at 200km/h in urban areas and 350km/h elsewhere. Stations will have to be far apart -- probably between 70km and 100km -- and stopping times brief so as not to not waste time braking and accelerating.
Everyone, it seems, is doing high-speed rail. The Canberra-based Co-operative Research Centre for Rail Innovation cites all the countries that are in the process of going down the high-speed rail track: the US, Britain (which is facing stern opposition to despoiling picturesque countryside), Argentina, Poland, Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and India.
High-speed rail also is a step in the direction of civilised travel; no more being shoe-horned into cattle class at the back of the plane. Instead, you have legroom, comfort as the countryside whizzes by. No more spending more time getting to and from airports than you spend in the air. And, for the sweaty palm crowd, no more dreading the seatbelt sign coming on because of turbulence ahead.
David George, chief executive of CRC for Rail Innovation, believes it is when, rather than if, and is urging the government to press ahead. The first step is always the most difficult and the most important, George says. Australia will finally do it and be much the better for it.
The CRC believes a high-speed train service would unleash regional Australia and be a huge shot in the arm for places such as Albury-Wodonga. More people could live in regional centres.
George doesn't buy the argument that Australians will resist travelling by train. After all, they're happy to go under the English Channel in big numbers on Eurostar trains because of the speed and comfort.
He cites another potential plus: a high-speed train would take pressure off Sydney to develop a second airport.
The Greens also welcomed the initiative (presumably not, for the moment, worrying about all the coal that would be needed to make the steel required, nor whether the trains could run only when there was enough solar or wind electricity to power the overhead lines).
However, some are more cautious. The Australian Logistics Council has welcomed the high-speed lines mainly, it seems, because it would get people off the existing tracks, leaving more slots for freight trains. Nevertheless, ALC chief executive Michael Kilgariff points out there is still a considerable amount to do in terms of the existing rail system, and that the government should remember that already there are severe bottlenecks, and could worsen with the number of freight on rail, expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050.
John Hoyle, national editor of Sydney-based monthly Railway Digest, believes the government should act now to acquire the land for the high-speed corridors, even though he doubts whether any high-speed trains will be running in the next 20 years.
One reason for that time lag is that there is no public demand imperative. Japan developed its first bullet train service in 1964 only because the existing narrow-gauge rail system could no longer cope with the growth in passenger traffic. Similarly, Europe has expanded its very fast trains because its existing railway could not handle all the people wanting to travel.
This is not the case here. People don't, by and large, think of trains in terms of long-distance travel. Rail is culturally irrelevant in Australia, he adds. It is also the mode for poorer travellers. Hoyle travelled from Brisbane to Sydney last week on the XPT train and estimates that, all up, about 100 people travelled various stages of that trip. He was told by the guard that only four of those passengers were paying full fare; all the rest were travelling on concessions.
Hoyle also sees some other hurdles for the high-speed train: one, a decision on a site for a second Sydney airport. If that went ahead, that's a huge nail in the coffin for high-speed rail.
Two, while Virgin (in the rail business in Britain) might join the train consortium, Qantas would likely mount a case that its domestic business would be badly damaged at a time when its international routes are the weak link.
Three, no one wants a high-speed train passing anywhere near their properties. Hoyle sees the southern highlands of NSW, where there are many well-heeled property owners, being a serious centre of opposition.
As in Japan and in Europe, now in China and other developing countries the move to high-speed rail is to meet an otherwise unsatisfied passenger demand.
In Japan, we are seeing that trend take its next step. Its bullet train network between Tokyo and Osaka is near capacity, which is why Central Japan Railway has decided to go ahead with its $US111bn maglev project, with construction from 2014 to 2028.
The maglev train is quite different from the standard high-speed ones that run on rails; instead, it functions by using electromagnets to suspend a train over a guide way, the magnets replacing the steel rails and wheels. Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, and lines are already in operation in Tokyo, Shanghai (the 19km line between airport and downtown) and South Korea. The Tokyo-Osaka maglev will run at 505km/h, although test runs with maglev trains have achieved speeds up to 581km/h.
But here in Australia we're back at the high-speed teething stage, with the cost of the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne line coming in at somewhere between $60bn and $108bn, depending on which options are adopted.
There were plenty of those in terms of routes. There are several variations of coastal corridors between Brisbane and Newcastle and skirting around coastal towns, building the track along the Hume Highway or even going through the Goulburn Valley.
As far as stations are concerned, phase two of the study will look at Roma Street station and South Bank in Brisbane; Central, Eveleigh, Homebush and Parramatta in Sydney; Civic and Canberra airport in our nation's capital; and Southern Cross station and North Melbourne at the southern end of the line.
Then there is the issue of whether high-speed rail can match air's frequency and convenience. On a Monday, Qantas/Jetstar offers four Sydney-Melbourne flights between 6am and 7am, and then hourly up to 10.05pm. That is the way high-speed rail operates in Europe. Thalys trains, for example, on a typical Monday offer 19 trains running from Brussels to Paris: the first at 7.13am and the last at 9.15pm, each taking 1hr 20min, at least matching air travel. They call it critical mass.
Nevertheless, high-speed rail would be transformational. ABC regional radio was last week conjuring up images of residents of Wagga Wagga commuting to and from jobs in Canberra. The Border Mail newspaper explained to its readers in Albury-Wodonga they would be able to get to Melbourne in an hour.
The federal study estimates that, between 2011 and 2056, the population of the east coast states and the ACT will increase from 18 million to 28 million; long-distance journeys along the coast will rise from 100 million a year to 264 million.
So there may be enough customers, but are the politicians really on rail's side?
After all, just a few weeks ago the Australasian Railway Association complained that the carbon tax would punish rail and reward heavy trucks.
The association estimates the carbon tax will sting rail operators more than $100m a year: trains, unlike heavy trucks, are not getting a two-year exemption on their diesel costs.
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QUICK FACTS ABOUT HIGH-SPEED TRAINS
Trains are considered high-speed at more than 200km/h. Eurostar and Japan's Shinkansen trains run at speeds up to 300km/h.
Very fast trains have a good safety record. France's TGV network has recorded no fatalities since start-up in 1981. The worst crash was in Germany in 1998 with 101 dead. At least 40 died in the bullet train crash in China last month.
Among new high-speed projects are Singapore-Kuala Lumpur, Gdynia-Warsaw-Krakow in Poland, a 533km line between Istanbul and Ankara, and a 450km system to connect Jeddah with Mecca and Medina to carry hajj pilgrims.
This is not the first Australian high-speed train study. Between 1986 and 1991, the Very Fast Train group developed a model for a Sydney-Melbourne system along the Hume Highway corridor. From 1993 to 2000 Speedrail had a Sydney-Canberra scheme, and then there was the 2001 East Coast Very High Speed Train scoping study.
Australia's fastest trains can reach only 160km/h: the Prospector, which operates Kalgoorlie-Perth, the Tilt Train on the Brisbane-Cairns service, the VLocity trains in Victoria and -- when there's low congestion and straight lines -- NSW's XPT train sets.
Long-distance passenger services are a mere shadow of their former selves in Australia. The longest journeys -- Sydney-Perth on the Indian Pacific, Adelaide-Darwin on The Ghan and Brisbane-Longreach on Spirit of the Outback -- are considered tourist operations. The main remaining point-to-point, long-distance operations are NSW XPTs, which run daily from Sydney to Melbourne and Brisbane, and inland to Dubbo, Armidale and Moree. In Queensland you can travel Brisbane-Cairns, Brisbane-Charleville and Townsville-Mount Isa. Victoria has services for several regional centres, Western Australia from Perth to Bunbury and Kalgoorlie. No services in South Australia or Tasmania.
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