Thursday, August 04, 2011

Australia puts high speed rail back on track

The Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, invoked the spirit of a wartime Prime Minister when he announced a new report into high speed rail in Australia today. “I wonder what one of our most revered leaders, Ben Chifley a former train driver would make of high speed rail?” Albanese asked. “As one of the greatest nation builders of the 20th century, I am confident he would have seen its potential and the possibilities it could bring.” As a topic that has been around for decades, Albanese said he looked forward to the national conversation on the topic. “It’s a conversation the Government wants to have with the community,” he said.

The report for phase one is part of a two phase strategic study into a high speed rail network (HSR) on the east coast of Australia. The study looks at potential routes from Brisbane southwards to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, as well as the economic viability of such a network. It talks about likely corridors, options for station locations, high level costs, and forecasts about patronage, and comparative analysis of potential social and regional development impacts. Albanese has asked for feedback on the report in the next two months.

According to the Executive Summary (pdf) the study is divided into two phases. The first phase looks at costs, corridors and demand while a future phase two will look at financial feasibility, best route alignment and patronage and cost estimates and potential financing options.

At this stage, the total cost of the project is estimated as anything from $61 billion to $108 billion depending upon the corridors selected. The costs include land acquisition, stations and city access, maintenance and stabling facilities, power infrastructure, civil and rail infrastructure and IT and ticketing systems. They exclude management costs (add another 15%) and operating costs. The four corridors considered are Brisbane to Newcastle via the coast, Newcastle to Sydney, Sydney to Canberra and Canberra to Melbourne. Urban access would be by tunnel and stations would need to be in the central business district of each city.

Regional stations would be at Gold Coast, Tweed, Coffs Harbour, Gosford, Wollongong, Mittagong, Wagga, Albury and Shepparton. The Newcastle to Brisbane link is by far the most expensive leg probably due to the need to get through the mountainous Scenic Rim area on the NSW-Queensland border.

The report said people make over 100 million long distance trips on the east coast of Australia each year, and this is set to grow to 264m trips over the next 45 years. By 2036 54 million people may use an HSR network each year. The study showed inter-city non-stop running times could be around 3 hours between Brisbane and Sydney and Sydney and Melbourne, 40 minutes between Newcastle and Sydney and One hour between Sydney and Canberra. The network infrastructure would be a double-track standard-gauge electrified line with maximum operating speed of 200 km/h in the cities and 350 km/h outside. Services would be operated by eight car sets moving to 12 or 16 depending on demand.

The report identified five key issues for resolution in phase 2. These are 1. Overcoming the topographical and environmental constraints of the Sydney to Newcastle leg 2. Determining if the Sydney station is in the CBD (more costly) or in Homebush or Parramatta (reducing patronage) 3. Fitting in the Illawarra region despite its geographical challenges 4. Determining if Melbourne Airport will be on the route 5. Determining if Canberra is on the main line or on a branch.

The next phase is a Phase 2 report, due in 2012. If approved, services may be running between Sydney and Newcastle by 2020 and Melbourne and Sydney by 2025.

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