The Global Mail

By Gordon Weiss

If we start digging today, Australia will only be 50 years behind other advanced economies in laying down an amazingly sensible piece of infrastructure, the High-Speed Train. New South Wales yesterday released a master transport plan which did, at least, mention it — as something to "study", or even in future "consider".

After a stint of European fast-rail joyriding, hitching a lift on the Express Passenger Train (XPT) between Sydney and Melbourne is a bit of a drag. Indeed, it echoes the exasperation of sitting in a taxi in heavy traffic: Wouldn't it have been better to walk (or, in this case, to take a cheap flight)? With top speeds touching 160 km/h on a good day, and plenty of grinding pauses, the XPT seems both agonisingly slow and so expensive it's uncompetitive for the cost- and time-conscious traveller.

But in the carbon-conscious era, shouldn't we all be train-hopping? Australia's efforts to string efficient rail across an uncluttered and wealthy country blessed with a temperate climate and largely flat trajectories have been distinctly lacking. Our transcontinental Indian Pacific averages speeds of just 85 km/h over its 4,352 km route. Gen-X Sydneysiders, raised on Red Rattlers more suited to 1930s Oklahoma, begging for relief from daily traffic snarls, and grateful for a new north-western commuter line, don't dare dream about fast trains between our major cities. After all, we don't have the population to support a modern, convenient, inter-city fast-rail network, do we?

"More than perhaps any other country, Australia shares with the US the same elements that are shaping the arguments for High-Speed Rail," says Tom Wright, executive director of New York's planning think-tank, the Regional Plan Association (see video interview). Wright is one of the drivers behind the as-yet unrealised tri-state High-Speed Rail (HSR) project in the north east of the United States.

On a nocturnal satellite map of the US, Wright points to the two locations where plans are afoot to connect major cities with HSR in the train-hating, gas-guzzling USA. They are California and the cluster of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on the opposite coast, which show up on the map as dual nebulae of lights. He argues that with 17 per cent of the US population on two per cent of the land, producing 20 per cent of the GDP, the sheer concentration of productive energy means the northeast is ready for HSR.

And just this July on the US west coast, Californian lawmakers, although they preside over a state that is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, authorised the raising of the initial USD8 billion tranche for the first leg of a USD70 billion HSR, scheduled to be completed in 2020, which will connect its most productive cities. Explaining the extraordinary Californian decision, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "No economy can grow faster than its transportation network allows."

When the Americans are doing trains again, you know things are serious.

For 150 years, trains have spanned continents, leapt cultural divides, unified countries, joined economies, and fuelled ambitions. While Anna Karenina found love on a train, and Hercule Poirot, murder, the early 20th-century Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen planned a nationwide rail network to unite his unruly and warlord-ridden country.

Laying these tracks demanded big, robber-baron personalities, people unafraid to hear "no" or "do you think so?" from fussy citizenry. Speed records are not smashed by mealy-mouthed administrators. Benito Mussolini not only made trains run on time, he made them run fast. In late 1937, Italy's ETR 200 peaked at a sabre-rattling 201 km/h.

Unfortunately, Mussolini's equally manic support for Hitler interrupted HSR technology, but then Europe did gain an unplanned advantage in having to re-build networks and rolling stock destroyed by war. By 1972 France's TGV had crunched 318 km/h. And the Japanese, with cities razed by B-29 bombers, had begun laying the track for today's 300 km/h Bullet Trains as early as 1958 — four years before Melbourne was linked with Sydney by a common gauge, and around the time Australia was phasing out steam engines.

Today, the Germans have ICE, the Portuguese the RAVE, the South Africans the Gautrain, and the Italians ETR (now at 500 km/h). And ignoring their vengeful-God-laden mountains, even the debt-ridden Greeks have managed to lay down a 200 km/h plus HSR track. Moroccan HSR is due to come online in 2015, and Brazil's the following year. Despite unemployment running at around 20 per cent, Spain plans to have 90 per cent of its population within 50 km of its AVE by 2020. For god's sake, even the Russians have a HSR, despite a plummeting population. It seems that everybody has HSR, pretends to, or is planning to. After conceding ground to cars and planes in the 20th century, railways are back.

The Chinese used to be like us Aussies. Just a decade ago, Chinese inter-city trains travelled at a break-neck 60 km/h — around the speed of a healthy bicyclist. Then in 2004, without a sliver of HSR track to stand on, the Central Committee changed all that with Mussolini-like bravura. Now China has around 10,000 km of HSR track, more than the rest of the world combined, and will have a further 19,000 km or so by 2014.

Moreover, the Chinese are busily building and financing tracks for the laggards: Arnold Schwarzenegger invited China to bid for the HSR in California; China is building HSR in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; and New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell has solicited Chinese bids for Sydney's proposed $8.5 billion North-West Rail Link. (Back in China, bored by such fusty old technology, the Chinese are now reportedly experimenting with underground Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) systems capable of reaching 1,000 km/h.)

Admittedly, all is not entirely well in China's apparent fairytale adventure with HSR. There was that accident that killed dozens of passengers in the summer of 2011, and the indictment several weeks back of China's railway czar, Liu Zhijun, on corruption charges. In just eight years, Zhijun had taken the Chinese HSR industry from zilch to telling others how to do it, and created a booming export industry in the process. Still, aside from safety and corruption concerns, and with the Australian Federal government due to hand down the second phase of its feasibility study into HSR later this year (Phase 1 was released last year), could Australia use a little Chinese know-how to bring its own dream of an east-coast HSR to fruition?

"Incrementalism is not going to get you there in a competitive world," says Tom Murphy, the mayor who revived post-industrial Pittsburgh in the 1990s, and a guru of urban revival. By "there" he means the 21st century, in which industries rise and fall on the whim of new inventions. Here and now, the speed of ideas and ease of communications are critical to economic prosperity, stability and the transformation of workforces to accommodate constant industrial revolution. When the New South Wales government released its draft Long Term Transport Master Plan on Tuesday, September 4, there was mention of some rail repairs, but no vision of a high-speed future. It is expected that a final plan will come out in November, though meanwhile there is another plan, from Infrastructure NSW, also due this month. "The most comfortable place for a politician in the world," says Murphy, "is to be studying something."

But what of Australia's population, constantly held up as too wimpy to warrant HSR? According to Murphy, and some of the world's leading urban planners and theorists, such as Tom Wright, who were in Sydney for a recent conference, Australia has enough money, the right distances, and yes, more than enough people to justify the construction of an east-coast HSR connecting Brisbane with Melbourne.

Some 85 per cent of Australians already live within 50 km of our coastline, the majority on Australia's mid-to-south-east coast. Living in what is already one of the world's most urbanised nations, our mobile youth population is deserting inland towns for the relative convenience of city life. Three-quarters of the country's 36 million people (on the current trajectory) will reside in our major cities by 2050, and almost a quarter of them will be elderly.

Our cities are uncomfortably full, and set to get cosier still. Yet we have no unified national strategy that seeks to relieve the inevitable crush and smog that's spreading from city sectors to neighbourhoods and is poised to engulf whole regions. But HSR lines — snaking out from cities, leading away from urban squish, raising land values as they extend, making it possible for people to commute easily — could close the distance gap even as they relieve congestion.

According to Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, the actual cost of not decongesting our cities will rise from around $9 billion annually today to some $80 billion by 2050. Just within Sydney, where the population is expected to reach 5.5 million within 20 years, freight movement alone will increase by one-third above its current level.

The stuff moving between our major cities is expected to double over the same period.

Already, roughly 90 per cent of Sydney-Melbourne freight is moved by road, on about 3,000 trucks each day. Little surprise then that 70 per cent of national spending on infrastructure goes to roads.

If you feel your road-rage temperature rising even as you read, consider this next time you go plan a driving holiday: Australians already make 100 million long-distance pilgrimages annually along the continent's east coast. And with a projected eastern-seaboard population of 28 million within 45 years, that number is set to grow to 264 million annual journeys. Now factor in that almost a quarter of those drivers are going to be ageing codgers like this writer…

Could air travel be the answer? The air route from Sydney to Melbourne is now the third busiest in the world. By 2036 it will be twice as busy. That's 16 million annual journeys on some 100,000 flights per year, which means at least one more Sydney airport. And that's without accounting for the Sydney-Brisbane corridor, which is half as busy as the Melbourne route. Nor does air travel help with urban planning or the de-congestion of major cities.

In a carbon-conscious era, according to some estimates, air travel produces around four times more CO emissions per passenger kilometre than rail. And the friction of a truck wheel on bitumen is seven times less efficient than that of a rail wheel on smooth steel.

Thus, one freight train does the work of 150 semi-trailers, saving 45,000 litres of fuel and 130 tonnes of greenhouse gases. If one compares a single road with a railway line, the former delivers around 2,000 passengers per hour, while rail can shift 50,000. With figures like these, why aren't we all out there laying down track?

Australia certainly got off on the wrong track. In 1850, two years before the laying of the first piece of Aussie rail on Sydney's Redfern to Granville line, the Colonial Office in London presciently urged the Australian colonies to use the English standard rail gauge. This would make sense on a single continent of like-minded homo sapiens, sharing a common regent.

Yet in a triumph of costly, state-led short-sightedness, within less than two decades NSW, Victoria, and Queensland were each using a different gauge to build their state wide rail networks. Passengers could not make an uninterrupted journey across state lines! Eventually, our planners had implemented 22 different gauges across a range of industries and jurisdictions. It was an expensive planning error for which we have been paying for 150 years.

In hindsight, the political failure to introduce HSR has been similarly myopic. The first serious proposals to build fast trains to de-congest the Melbourne-Sydney air and road corridor began in the 1980s. In 1984, a CSIRO-proposed HSR linking Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra, and costed at $2.5 billion was shot down when the Bureau of Transport Economics estimated the real cost at a whopping $4 billion.

In 1991, a promising proposal from a private consortium to go the whole hog and build an east-coast HSR from Brisbane to Melbourne folded, due to opposition from conservationists and the Hawke government's rejection of a proposed $1.4 billion in tax breaks on the project.

A decade later, the Howard government dropped Speedrail's Sydney-Canberra HSR proposal, fretting that government subsidies would run to $1 billion.

So is the current government's two-part feasibility study just another exercise in wishful thinking? Perhaps not. It goes into far greater depth than any previous proposal, looking at alternative routes, stations, urban entry points, and HSR systems, to arrive at commuter ticket prices that would support an east-coast HSR system capable of competing with air travel on cost, speed and convenience.

The study suggests that HSR is a component of our future that we just can't live without, our lifeline beyond tinned-sardine metropolises, sweaty-armpit commutes, aviation fuel and noise pollution, and road rage. Aside from an estimated two per cent gain in GDP through decongestion — and forget the obvious benefit of getting the coming avalanche of old fogeys off the road (while few fret about train crashes, Australia's 1,500 road deaths and 30,000 injuries cost $27 billion each year) — an HSR would alone pay for itself through shaping the next two centuries of Australia's urban development. Its potential is to link a string of a dozen productive and uncluttered cities down the eastern seaboard, while easing congestion in our three major cities. Australians would make 54 million HSR trips a year by 2036 according to the study.

And the $108 billion price tag? "Chicken feed", is what we'll call it in 20 years. Like the National Broadband Network, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and the New York City freeway system, cost-benefit analyses only take you so far when it comes to planning infrastrucure. As Tom Wright puts it, who now asks about the cost of the George Washington Bridge?

This article was originally published at The Global Mail