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Australia should abandon the idea of a bullet train and governments should stop wasting public money to study proposals, according to a new report by the Grattan Institute.
During the global coronavirus pandemic, the fast-tracking of big infrastructure projects — such as fast rail between Melbourne and Brisbane — has been touted as a way to stimulate the economy.
But the "Fast train fever" report says a bullet train is not the answer.
Australia has had a long obsession with fast rail. Every 10 years or so there is a grand proposal for high-speed rail.
But the report suggests while a bullet train zipping along the country's coastline is a captivating idea — it's not realistic or suitable for Australia and is not a good use of public money.
Report author Marion Terrill said most people imagined a bullet train would bring us in line with the rest of the world, help us meet our emissions-reduction targets and give a boost to regional communities, but she said none of these things were true.
"Around the world it is very rare for bullet trains to span a distance of 1,000 km or more and when they do, they usually serve populations of at least 50 million people," she said.
"Australia's population is small and spread over vast distances and the countries most like us — Canada and the US — don't have bullet trains either."
Ms Terrill said bullet trains were not the climate saver we might think.
"It's true that it is less emissions intensive if you take a trip by high-speed rail than if you fly, but what that overlooks is construction," she said.
"Construction is extremely emissions intensive and it would take 50 years to construct the Melbourne to Brisbane line, so for a long time you're actually increasing emissions."
Japan and France the only two countries to recoup construction costsLabor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese renewed calls this year for a bullet train between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, arguing it would help the economy recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
The severe economic downturn also means the Prime Minister wants to fast-track construction where possible — arguing that transport infrastructure projects will help kick-start the economy — and state governments agree.
One of several proposed routes in recent years for high-speed rail to connect Australia's east coast cities.(Supplied: Consolidated Land And Rail Australia)But the report cautioned governments to pause in this time of high uncertainty.
"Even where countries do have extensive bullet train networks like Japan, China and Europe — fast trains generally need very large government subsidies even after they're built," it reads.
"In fact, only two fast-train lines in the world have recovered their construction costs: Japan's Tokaido Shinkansen, and France's Paris-to-Lyon line."
The report suggests that it would take a tax hike of about $10,000 for every personal taxpayer in Australia to fund a bullet train.
That's something that taxpayers in Western Australia and Tasmania might be particularly disgruntled about, when it would mainly benefit business travellers between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
"A rigorous independent cost benefit analysis [of an east coast bulletin train] conducted today, would be unlikely to add net benefits to society," the report said.
Biggest benefits would be concentrated in capital citiesAustralia's east coast bullet train would be one of the longest continuous segments of fast rail in the world and even the Melbourne to Sydney segment would be one of the longest stretches between two large cities.
Supporters of faster trains assume the benefits will flow to regional cities or towns, but Ms Terrill said the benefits were likely to flow in the other direction.
"The best evidence suggests the capital would be more likely to gain at the expense of the town," she said.
"This is what has happened overseas, in France, the high-speed network benefited the second-tier cities of Lyon and Lille, but not by as much as it benefited Paris.
"Improving internet and mobile connectivity and freight links would do more for towns and distant regional cities than speeding up passenger rail."
The report has called for every proposed rail renovation project in Australia to be reviewed in the light of the COVID-19 crisis and found regional rail upgrades make more sense, but they're unlikely to achieve the goals of taking pressure off capital cities and boosting the regions.
"As regrettable as it might be given the undeniable appeal of an Australian east-coast bullet train, we should put the idea to bed and move on," the report said.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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