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Australia's high-speed rail dream leaves a bitter taste (theguardian.com)
51 points by lelf 75 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

Sydney <-> Melbourne (705km) is the second busiest domestic air route in the world, with 9 million passengers in 2017 [0]. It definitely deserves a high speed rail link. Here's hoping it doesn't get caught up in some sort of greasy land/water buy back scam [1].

0: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_busiest_passenger_ai... 1: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/what-are-water-buyba...

First sentence, yeah undeniable.

Second sentence entirely ignores the reality of regional Australia and it's overwhelming influence on politics to make terrible decisions that is a burden on the nation as a whole. A single marginal electorate left out of the final station decision will mean it's a nonstarter. And I can name 3 right now.

Also ignores how hard it is to build infrastructure in Australia today, the entire landscape is full of parasites. As much as I enjoy commenting about American lobbyists and it's negative outcomes, the reality is our lobbyists are infrastructure behemoths who probably do more damage to society keeping the status quo. The entir tender process is broken beyond a few million on offer.

You simply can't build big infrastructure projects in Australia anymore, the entire process has been hijacked by corporations.

A counterpoint - the inland rail project isn't exactly small.

But it's focused squarely in freight, not passengers.


A high speed rail line doesn’t even recoup its carbon footprint (I.e. the carbon output from construction outweighs the savings from fewer airplane trips) until 10 million passengers per year: https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2011/11/how-green-hig...

That references a study on a scenario where 10% of the distance is in tunnels. That's a lot of tunnel boring. Is the Sydney-Melbourne flat or hilly?

Besides it's Australia, the government is in love with coal, these are bound to be high speed steam trains fueled with coal

I’m pro-“fast rail”, but I’m even more pro-“just build a damn train between Melbourne Airport and Melbourne City”.

Without the political will/ability to do that, I don’t see how a fast train to SYD/CBR is happening.

I mean with those numbers, some napkin math: if even 50% of that travel was captured by a rail system with maybe $100-150 tickets, seems like it might pay itself off after a few decades. Sounds like a worthy investment, while providing jobs.

And reducing emissions massively, to boot.

Where were you on the ballot paper?

Well, aside from any dramas with the financing history of this Sydney-Melbourne link, the distance is not the most favorable. People (those who would pay / support such a service when it comes down to it) will generally choose rail versus air based on the time city center to city center.

Sydney-Melbourne is 900 km. This is beyond the outer edge of where rail versus air is highly competitive. By several hours.

Paris-London (500km) is about break even for the air/rail time tradeoff, and there rail takes about 50% share. Barcelona-Madrid is a bit further (600km), and has done really well also although that's a bit of a special case.

San Francisco-Los Angeles is 600km and you can see how poorly that project is going -- which by the way is what this Australian project has the similar feeling of.

So by the time you get to Sydney-Melbourne, you're talking 900 km and > 3 hours difference between the air/rail options and really not favored. Maybe Canberra in the middle helps a little, but the volume of traffic of people choosing this option is just not there.

High speed rail tops out around 300km/h. Average speeds of 200km/h are doable if you don't have too many stops on the way. Five hours or so from train station to train station doesn't sound so bad compared to flying. It depends on the price of course. The Berlin-Munich high speed line is quite popular and takes around five hours. German high speed trains are slower than e.g. Shinkansen, so the slightly longer distance between Melbourne and Sydney should be doable in a similar time.

Personally for the same price I would go by rail - chiefly because of legroom.

I'm not sure the premise holds.

The Sydney<->Melbourne airway is one of the busiest in the world. That means whilst you do have a lot of people who want the fastest time, you also have a lot of people who just want to get there.

You have tourists and families who are willing to give up time if it means they can get other things. Like easy access to toilets, food, and the ability to move around freely. They will doubly be likely to give up on time if it also lets them save on cost. (Flights seem to average $100-300/adult).

High speed rail isn't exactly cheap in terms of tickets. The path I used in the past (Zurich - Paris) is more expensive than the plane. I still choose the train because it's nicer and connects city centres.

Also, it's at 600km, and I do agree with the GP that my percieved benefit of the train would disappear if it was any further. I.e. it's at the limit of what I consider useful.

You can almost always get more planes going on the busy route.

I’ve done Beijing to Chenzhou a couple of times on China’s HSR. 8 hours, 1700km, but there is no airport in chenzhou so it works out vs flying into Changsha or Guangzhou and transferring to the train for another hour or two (China doesn’t have many airports with train stations, so the transfer is 1+ hours).

The plane gets subsidies: there are no taxes on fuel for example.

No taxes on fuel isn’t a subsidy, there’s a natural race to the bottom on fuel prices because airlines can easily put more fuel in in a cheaper country.

Meanwhile, in Germany and France nearly 30% of the total cost of rail service is directly covered by the government, and it’s still more expensive than flying.

> No taxes on fuel isn’t a subsidy, there’s a natural race to the bottom on fuel prices because airlines can easily put more fuel in in a cheaper country.

There is not, simply because the maximum take-off weight is way larger than maximum landing weight - you can't just shuttle around fuel because you can't land the plane when it's loaded. This is also the reason why airplanes have to dump fuel when emergency/unplanned (e.g. due to medical emergency) landing. While the passengers may survive a full weight landing, the plane will incur heavy damage.

> why airplanes have to dump fuel when emergency/unplanned (e.g. due to medical emergency) landing

Though perhaps that's not the best example - for a really urgent medical emergency where every minute matters, an overweight landing would certainly be considered ahead of wasting precious time dumping fuel. Equally, there are a few more other types of emergencies where you'd want to get back onto the ground ASAP even if that means exceeding the maximum landing weight.

> While the passengers may survive a full weight landing, the plane will incur heavy damage.

At least these days, all aircraft certified under Part 25 must be able to land at maximum take-off weight with a descent rate of 6 ft/s (360 ft/min), which is already at the border towards what would be considered a hard landing (at maximum landing weight, planes need to allow a landing with 10 ft/s / 600 ft/min without structural damage).

So of course you still need to consider whether the changed performance characteristics (approach speed, required runway length, climb gradient for go-arounds, etc.) at MTOW will still allow you to land safely in that specific situation, but fear of "heavy damage" is not something you need to consider. You might want to bring the plane down a little even more careful than usual, the brakes certainly have to work harder and maybe the plane needs to be inspected afterwards just to be sure, but otherwise you should be fine.

That's not how it works. Arbitraging fuel isn't as easy as driving to another state/indian reservation and buying cheap gas. Planes have maximum rake-off and landing weights. All that extra fuel you're carrying is freight that you couldn't carry. Planes carrying too much fuel (typically because they're making an emergency landing shortly after take-off) have to dump their fuel to meet their maximum landing weight.

It's still a subsidy (if the rail traffic is taxed and not supported by govt), except that it's a weird kind of subsidy that's near impossible to eliminate.

Also not necessarily true, you can't land a big plane with too much fuel.

>airlines can easily put more fuel in in a cheaper country.

Wouldn't you then end up using a lot of the fuel just carrying the extra fuel? This cost could negate the tax savings.

I know of no nation that places a special tax on rubber duckies. Is there a conspiracy to give massive subsidies to the production of rubber duckies world-wide? Not taking action against is not the same as acting in favor of.

When there is a tax on rubber duckies when used by the public or road hauliers, but not when used by aviators, there's a subsidy on aviation rubber duck use.

The lack of a tax is not a subsidy. Just because something isn't as taxed as you think correct does not mean it is subsidized. Yes, you can argue that the lack of a tax is a "relative" subsidies but that's just an exercise torturing words until they say what you want them to.

Whether not taxing a particular thing is right or wrong is a totally separate issue.

The EU consider the lack of a tax on a specific sector to be a subsidy. e.g. The UK government's reduction in tax on domestic fuel bills amounted to a subsidy. That made the UK the EU's largest subsidiser of fossil fuels in the face of EU efforts to phase them out.

Good enough for me.

Edit: WTO definition of subsidies includes "government revenue that is otherwise due, foregone or not collected (e.g. fiscal incentives such as tax credits)". Pdf: http://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/24-scm.pdf

That's a crazy definition. By that logic, every dollar up to the optimal point on the Laffer Curve is a "subsidy". Not taxing is not a subsidy. Also, I'm not really concerned how the EU defines any thing; I whole-heatedly disagree with almost every thing they do. The article is about America; we can stick with her definitions. Let's try "government hands you a check for doing something", which is basically what most economists use.

"The lack of a tax is not a subsidy." -- dsfyu404ed

Do you have a reference for that claim? Other sources explicitly count tax breaks as a type of subsidy, for instance

"In countries with well-developed tax systems, subsidies provided by reducing companies' tax burdens are commonplace. Examples include tax exemptions (when a tax is not paid), tax credits (which reduce a tax otherwise due), tax deferrals (which delay the payment of a tax) and a host of other instruments. In common language these preferential tax treatments are called tax breaks or tax concessions; public-finance economists refer to them as tax expenditures."


I recall doing LON ->EDI 20 years ago

Train was £130 and took an entire day one way. BA was £200 and you could do a meeting at 10:00 in Edinburgh and be Back in London for 17:30.

If you went via Easy Jet from Luton it was < £40.

If you do London->Edinburgh by train now, then assuming you're willing to book to a specific train and book a couple of months in advance (which is probably what you were doing with your plane ticket) then you can get a ticket for 50 or 60 quid each way, total time of about 4 and a half hours. Of course if you're starting a little further north (say, Cambridge), then the train is cheaper still. Plus you have to allow for the cost of getting from where you start to the airport if you're flying. So the economic argument has tilted considerably since your experience of two decades past (though the plane still wins if time-elapsed is your primary requirement).

Personally I take the train for this journey -- last time I did Cambridge to Edinburgh I paid less than 30 quid for the outbound leg and not much more for the return. And you can get decent prices for first class if you want a little bit more luxury at way less of a premium than the airlines will charge you for that...

No these are walk up fares. I volunteered on a Wednesday and was told to report to the Balmoral hotel on Friday not much scope for powergaming.

And time elapsed is a thing here - at the time internally our internal day rate was £300, externally £600 and our peers in the Big 4 consultancies would be north of 1K (but not as good as us)

Well that's not a fast train :)

At 650 km of distance a 200 km/h train would do it in slightly over 3 hours.

Which makes it even more sad because it should have definitely been cheaper than planes ...

They will doubly be likely to give up on time if it also lets them save on cost.

High speed rail is almost never significantly cheaper than flying between major cities, at least in Europe.

Do you really think a ticket on the potential route Sydney-Mel will be <$100 one way?

No, but it might be less than $300.

Norway has several very long railways -- it's a very long country. Oslo-Trondheim is about 500 km, Trondheim-Bodø about 700 km, Oslo-Bergen around 480 km.

Taking the train instead of flying is a popular and relatively cheap activity in Norway. The rail journey, perhaps the Bergen route in particular, is prized for its scenic views. There's even a television program, famously broadcast on national TV, that shows the train journey in real time, filmed from a camera mounted on the front. (You can find it on YouTube. It's great, and it's spawned lots of imitators in places like Switzerland and Turkey.)

Getting to the rest of Europe by rail (via Sweden) is similarly cheap and convenient as an alternative to flying, even if it's slower.

None of these railways classify as high speed, of course.

Paris-London takes 50% share because it’s 2-3x more expensive than flying if you don’t book in advance. And that’s also including the fact that this specific route also has the same level of security you’d get at the airport.

Isn’t flight industry heavily subsidised, too?

Beijing to Shanghai is 1200km and and the high-speed link there seems to thrive just fine

I imagine it depends on the number and scale of existing intermediate cities. The proposed route in Australia passes through nothing of note.

The Beijing to Shanghai HSR is direct. But the same tracks support other lines that stop at other cities along the way.

I suspect they never had to pay for the capital investment (because it was built or subsidised by the government).

Chinese aviation industry is special, a lot of their airspace is military and is closed to commercial aviation which leads to heavy congestion and thus late arrivals and not a lot of slots. Those high speed trains end up being workhorses for their transportation infrastructure.

A quick search seems to show that a high speed rail ticket is significantly cheaper than flying. Most high speed rail projects that have to, more or less, cover their own costs tend to cost about the same as flying.

Tax air travel proportional to its negative externalities - you can start by taxing the fuel like we have to for cars - and suddenly the price difference becomes well worth spending a few more hours in relative comfort.

Car fuel taxes are largely to cover road costs not pollution. Longer term electric cars will probably face similar taxes.

Airlines more directly pay for airports and air traffic control/FAA which covers their infrastructure externalities. https://www.faa.gov/about/budget/aatf/

I think the main point about taxing aviation fuel is the competition against train industry rather than pollution.

Throw in some global carbon tax and I think that's a fine distance for rail.

We really should only be using airlines for intercontinental travel.

One of the best TV shows I've ever watched. It was available on Netflix as "Dreamland" but seems it's been removed.

next season will be broadcast in two weeks, I never saw it on Netflix. I did consume it off ABC as soon as it was online though

Awsome. Also of the opinion it is one of the best series in recent times and I thought there wouldn't be a next season. I wonder why it was released under a different name on Netflix.

Although I must say I like the ending of the series very much. Do you know where it will air?

I wonder why it was released under a different name on Netflix.

There already existed a UK show called Utopia, so it was renamed for its initial UK release. The new name was then subsequently used for all its international releases.

Hm, maybe that explains why so many people didn't know what I was talking about when I mentioned the series. I think the series was a bit of a niche, but outside those I watched the series with, nobody seems to have ever heard of it. Already thought of a conspiracy...

I read this article as a promise of an utopian future. The good guy comes, builds high-speed railroad and cities on the side without government’s money. Might be good chapter for some modern bible. It is just too good to be true. There is longer Forbes reading about building new cities and it’s not going to happen without will and government’s resources: https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2017/12/12/why-hund...

Did you read the same article as me? I read, that the good guy failed to mention his bankruptcy, while promising everybody, everything. So best case, someone with a vision, but no cash and crossing the line, worst case, serious scam to draw investment money.

As long as you get local firms, local people and local resources to build your new railway it doesn’t matter what it costs. It’s net free too the country. Look at the massive high speed rail network China has built in the last decade. Yet politicians will outsource such projects to other countries to “save costs”.

What are the opportunity costs though? At the extreme you could have 100% of your citizenry building houses, you can't then grow food, or build cars, etc, etc.

Second, unless your economy is completely cut off from the outside world you're going to get leakage away. The builder you're paying to build houses is eventually going to want to show off his wealth by buying an iphone, or some champagne, or a Ferrari.

To look at a more practical example lets look at the wood industry, and lets say that Australia's wood industry is already large enough to actually absorb this increase. The wood industry has the option of selling around the world, but this development has to buy from you. So you can sell them all the rubbish stuff that can't be sold internationally. So what then? The government doesn't want shoddy Australian houses being built so restricts exports of wood. But now the supply of wood products doesn't really match the supply and you've got teak being made into OSB, and your houses are made with high quality Australian wood, but your wood industry has gone down the toilet because the prices paid for OSB are nowhere near the prices paid for solid lumps of teak.

Trade is good. It makes everyone on balance better off, what you propose is cutting off trade from the rest of the world, it's never going to end well.

It isn't net-free; as a sibling comment mentions there are opportunity costs. In this instance, the opportunity costs are the driver for the decision - in the micro, it is obviously a big win to swap 100 man-hours worth of Australian input for work by a foreign firm that can be paid for with 80 man-hours of Australian input. We'd get the same amount of stuff with less effort.

It is a different kettle of fish if you want to run it as a low cost welfare operation or as a long term strategic skill building exercise. It'd probably make a pretty good welfare operation - soak up a bunch of labour and get them doing something useful but not necessarily of high marginal benefit. We'd still expect it to be a net loss if there was something that the people involved could have done that was not government sponsored, but the economy is looking shaky at the moment so it might be a good idea. This makes sense if in the prior example there is no 80-hours-of-work opportunity/20 leisure option - if you have no opportunities there is no cost.

I don't know if train track construction is a useful long term strategic skill for somewhere like Australia. We'd probably get a lot more out of investing in chemistry and biotech rather than beefing up on people who lay down track.

That's economically illiterate. Look at gains from trade and comparative advantage.

Apart from anything else, they're going to need a lot more water from somewhere.

Seems dodgy if Clara has no offices etc.

I didn't realise the plan was to build new cities though to fund it. The trains in Oz are terrible so hopefully they come up with some high speed rail project down the east coast.

It's not so much the trains that are terrible as the 1800s-era track geometry that is terrible. There are mountains all the way down the east coast; any high-speed line is going to be (a) necessarily built inland and separate from any existing line and (b) phenomenally expensive.

The finance model invites speculation on land. Then future rateable income attracts government which wants the outcome and needs the money. It's really hard to resist calls for "if you build it they will come" especially with skyrocketing house costs in the big cities. Thing is.. it's a bit of a shell game and I cannot stop thinking about ghost towers in China

A few too many buildings is not a serious issue.

Conan O'Brien argued that what they really need is a Monorail.

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