Monday, January 28, 2008

Australian Fast Train Proposal

Colin Butcher has produced a series of articles in Railway Digest on the feasibility of running high speed trains between Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. He argues that a mixed service of passenger and freight is financially feasible. The latest is "Fast Trains - Profit or Loss" (Railway Digest, December 2007). This uses figures from the abortive Speedrail proposal, for a Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney TGV style very fast train, but updated with new costs and an additional freight service. This is similar, but using updated figures from his previous proposal for a "Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne Fats Freight and Passenger Train Options" (Railway Technical Society of Australasia, February 2003).

The Australian Parliamentary Library produced a very useful set of background papers on the VFT proposal, including a Australian Very Fast Trains-A Chronology (Background Paper 16 1997-98, Paula Williams,6 April 1998) and High Speed Trains between Canberra and Sydney (Current Issues Brief 17 1996-97, Matthew James, Denis James). The chronology says "proposals are exceptionally costly compared to conventional rail systems, with the cost increasing substantially for the fastest train technologies". However, as Mr. Butcher points out, the technology has become more affordable and more certain since then.

Mr. Butcher argues that fast trains would be economically viable. However, the difficulty is likely to be the politics and business model for such a proposal, rather than the engineering or economics. The politics of the time demanded that the project be privately funded and it was then impossible for the private sector to capture enough of the benefits from the project to make it commercially viable. The project would have benefited the community by getting trucks off the roads and allowing residential development along the route. But the commercial companies involved were not able to profit from this. Any new proposal has to either find a way to compensate the commercial partners or have a direct government contribution.

Also the VFT suffered from being a "big bang" project. The whole project had to be implemented to obtain a benefit. Mr. Butler's proposals are similar in that they require a lot of investment to be made before anything is gained. This makes the proposals commercially and politically difficult. It would be possible to produce more modest proposals for building on the current upgrading of the current railway infrastructure enough to make some passenger services viable. This would not achieve as large benefits, but would be much easier decisions. These proposals could also exploit new technology which removes the need to electrify the entire track.

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