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Bullet Trains add up

The Age

May 22, 2010

WHEN business travellers want to get from London to Paris in a hurry, or from Paris to Brussels, or from Madrid to Barcelona, or from Wuhan to Guangzhou, or from Tokyo to Osaka, they don’t rush to the airport. They get to a railway station and catch a train.

City centre to city centre, high speed trains in Europe, Japan and China are faster than air travel for journeys of up to 800 kilometres, and competitive up to 1000 kilometres. Economy passengers on modern trains have more room than business-class passengers on a short-haul airline; and there are no long queues for security, or delays for fog or volcanic ash. When travelling in a group train passengers can have a confidential conversation with their colleagues on the outward journey and share a convivial drink and a discussion of their successes on the return one. If they don’t want to talk to their fellow passengers they can keep their iPhones or iPads on at all times.

Once a high-speed line joins two cities air services shrink or vanish: only backpackers and retired travellers looking for a cheap flight use them, and without business passengers to get the average yield up, airlines cut back on flights and even substitute turboprop aircraft to cut costs.

Our American friends have noticed the advantages of high-speed passenger rail, and several lines are planned. California’s state government intends to do something about the inconvenience and overcrowding on the Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor. They are calling for bids to build a high-speed rail line to link the two cities. And, plans are being drawn up to extend the network to include an Anaheim (Disneyland)-Las Vegas link, the busiest tourist route in the world.

The Chinese railway authority is an acceptable bidder and has put provisional agreements in place.

Only in Australia are we content with last century’s travel technology. The Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney air corridor is one of the world’s busiest, carrying 9 million passengers last year, with numbers forecast to rise 70 per cent by 2020. The direct distance is less than 750 kilometres – a route ripe for high speed rail technology. Business travellers on this route now have no alternative to flying: only two trains a day ply the route, taking nearly 11 hours; and driving or taking a coach involves the hazards of the Hume Highway and isn’t quicker.

The time has come to take the provision of a high-speed rail service seriously.

Based on French experience, it should be possible to build the line and buy the first trains for less than $15 billion. Depending on the financing arrangements it should be possible to offer a one-way economy fare of less than $150, and a business fare less than $300. Lower fares would be possible off peak.

These fares would be very attractive to business travellers. Now they face an expensive taxi ride to the airport or drive their own car and pay extortionate parking fees on top of peak period air ticket prices. And when they arrive, they may face another long taxi ride to their ultimate destination. It is also impossible to have a confidential conversation on a flight.

When the Spanish considered these issues they set fares on the Madrid to Barcelona high-speed rail service at the level of the existing air fares and still captured more than half the traffic.

A 750 kilometre trip with one stop can be completed in less than two hours and 40 minutes using current high-speed rail technology.

Since it might be necessary to follow the current rail alignment until clear of the inner suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney, the train might have to slow down for this part of the journey.

A centre-to-centre travel time of less than three hours is still readily achievable. Except while threading the inner suburbs, the high-speed train would run on its own track with no level crossings.

Typical high-speed rail lines can carry a train every 15 minutes in each direction, and a single train can carry 900 passengers seated comfortably.

There are no technical reasons to prevent larger and more frequent trains running if the demand is there, but capacity for 3600 passengers an hour is plenty for current and anticipated demand on the Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney route.

Not only does high-speed rail offer a comfortable, fast and convenient inter-capital service, shifting most passengers on the route from air to rail would save at least 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.

So what are we waiting for?

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