High Speed Rail – A suggestion

Noises are being made about high speed rail links in Australia again, and once again focus has begun on the Newcastle-Sydney leg of any such system. I assume this is both because of the density of the population, but also because the endless dormitory suburbs and above ground cemeteries of the Central Coast lend themselves to being marginal electorates.

I’m a veteran of countless trips on the existing Cityrail service, so I had plenty of time to consider the topic. Economic/financial feasibility yes, all good and dandy, but then onto a more exciting physical issue.

Where do you put the damn thing?

The Hawkesbury sandstone country that divides the Central Coast and Sydney is pretty  rugged. Essentially everything is either a steep slope or water.  The result is that the existing railway line and the old Pacific Highway are extremely circuitous (albeit picturesque) – not great for a high speed train. The alternative is to blast your way through the sandstone like they did with the F3. This isn’t too appealing to many advocates of rail, since they overlap so greatly with conservationists. Additionally, it just feels crude, and inelegant. Why have rail when it acts so gauche? Tunneling under the entire thing or skipping around it would probably rob the project of feasibility.

My solution – put it on top of the F3, an elevated track standing on the median strip. It takes a straightish route without having to gouge more out of the landscape, and it also has the benefit of providing its own advertising as the trains race past commuters who have chosen to drive. On the other hand, it will still be prone to the bushfires that periodically close the three existing routes and  isolate Sydney, and temporarily closing a lane on the F3 will provide months of whinging vox pops for lazy media.

But it sounds nifty.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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conrad
conrad
11 years ago

Perhaps the Central coast to Sydney is bad, but Melbourne to Geelong is as flat as tack and Melbourne to Ballarat doesn’t seem too bad to either, and you could probably go in a straight line a lot of the way. Perhaps they should build both of those lines before suburbia encroaches too much on possible places you could stick the line. This would solve a lot of Melbourne’s infrastructure problems, since you could simply live in those cities and commute to Melbourne each day.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
11 years ago

The Melbourne-Brisbane rail project, in relation to which Labor has opportunistically promised to fund a feasibility study, has nothing whatever to do with a Sydney-Newcastle high speed rail line (whatever Mark Arbib might say). See http://www.theage.com.au/federal-election/melbournebrisbane-rail-link-not-on-track-20100805-11krn.html:

The selected route travels from Melbourne, through Seymour, Albury, Wagga Wagga, Parkes, Moree and Toowoomba on its way to Brisbane.

Adrian
Adrian
11 years ago

If you follow the path of the the F3 it’ll mean the stations are nowhere near the towns. How will people get to the stations? Drive? Big parking lots at each station? That might even increase driving miles rather than reduce them.

Rationalist
Rationalist
11 years ago

Is there no way to simply improve the existing track quality to allow faster speeds in certain areas?

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“There’s also the freight link which passes inland…The other is less sexy and (my gut feeling has it) far more useful.”

Is there any real point of a line for freight? I mean, how many goods really need to be delivered between cities at ultra fast speeds that can’t be stuck on a plane? If it’s not many, then I can’t see why you wouldn’t just use cheap standard rail and just send stuff overnight. Alternatively, at least based on my European observations, there is a massive use for passenger trains, for two reasons:

1) longer ones get planes out of the air — I would think that any journeys less than 1000ks (about 3.5-4 hours) are probably more preferable on a fast train than a plane for most people (many of the trains in Europe now have plug in power-points for your laptop etc. so even longer distances are probably preferable for some people). For somewhere like Sydney, I imagine in the long term it is either going to be something like this or a new airport, and given they haven’t been able to build the new airport since the mid-nineties, hopefully trains are more politically possible.

2) shorter ones would help distribute the population better into regional centres — I should try and fine the figures for Paris, but now there are vast numbers of people that go in and out everyday that couldn’t otherwise.

Martin C. Jones
Martin C. Jones
11 years ago

@Conrad: There is absolutely a point of having a separate line for freight. The proportion of freight transported by rail in Europe has plummeted over recent decades, driven primarily by the introduction of high-speed rail (Intercity and Intercity Express in Germany, Eurostar, etc) and the inability to coordinate these zippy trains with slow-moving freight trains on the same tracks. You see so many passenger trains in Europe because they’re profitable, while freight gets dumped on trucks and clogs up the highways.

Building two separate tracks totally removes that problem, while also recognising that long-haul freight doesn’t need to travel to all the places people do.

Further, since (one of) the purposes of high-speed rail is to make freight transport more environmentally friendly, using air transportation is precisely the alternative we’re trying to avoid.
Something to keep in mind here is that the freight route probably won’t be “high-speed” in the sense of 200km/h+ — there really isn’t that great a freight market for deliveries of that sort (so, yes, that small market could probably still go on planes). But faster-than-existing-freight transport would compete with cargo flights and long-haul trucking, especially where dedicated lines mean no stopping for pesky people to pop past.

billie
billie
11 years ago

What an elegant solution!

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“Bear in mind that every carriage following a train replaces one or two lorries. Now think about how many trucks clog up the highways in every state. Freight makes a big difference.”

Yes, I imagined that. However, I couldn’t see why you would really care if your freight train does 90ks p/h like now or 320ks p/h like a fast train unless it affects throughput and doesn’t cost you the earth to change-over. I would also suspect that the cost of running fast-trains is a lot more if you use them to carry stuff around, because you still see normal freight trains chugging around France and Italy carrying stuff even when there are fast-train lines available. .

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

The freight line is really in demand. For raw materials and even steel etc there is really nothing like it. There is no point running it at 320 but 150 would be very useful.

Where it matters is how many locomotives you need to keep up throughput, ie how long a round-trip is.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“On the second airport though, it’d probably amuse you that once when I was looking through microfiches of newspapers from 1975 I found the headline “Badgery’s Creek decided on for second airport” ”

That is very funny. Digging around, some lobby groups are saying that the maximum capacity for Sydney airport will be reached in 8 years here. If that is to be believed, and if they can’t just stick another runway in, given that there is really no where you can stick a new airport in Sydney anymore, I imagine that is when you will get a high speed train to Newcastle.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

I’m old enough to remember the Whitlam government’s announcement of Badgery Creek as the site for a second airport. It reminds me that that government was even more ham-fisted at retail politics than the current lot. They announced it when an early election was already likely, and it cost them a shitload of western Sydney votes when there was anyway no prospect of the thing actually being built in the near future.

The politicans will only do something about Mascot’s problems if the bloody thing actually collapses. It no use abusing them – its just the incentives they face given the electorate’s own unwillingness to bite the bullet.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

PS – a high (or even moderate) speed link between sydney and Newcastle would need some serious tunnels. That’s not quite as expensive as you might think because Hawkesbury sandstone is beautiful tunnelling material – much softer than granite, but far more self-supporting and dry than limestone or clay. In fact if you were building the F3 today you’d probably go for tunnels over those massive cuttings, on both cost and environmental grounds.

Ricardo
Ricardo
11 years ago

The biggest problem with high speed rail is how does it get through the suburbs into central Sydney?

If it can only travel on the suburban lines then the time savings are going to be much less.

I don’t think that there are any corridors available for it, so there would have to be a gigantic long tunnel, driving up costs..

Another issue is that high speed rail can’t have many stops as they kill the average speed (decelerate, stop, load passengers, accelerate). So a high speed to Newcastle would probably only stop at Gosford. Is there really enough demand?

On rail freight the thing that really hurts it is the triple handling required to get it to its destination ie factory to truck to railway to railway to truck to destination. this is expensive both in timing and handling costs.

A truck can just go from point to point.

Robert van Aalst
Robert van Aalst
11 years ago

The massive infrastructure costs associated with building a high speed rail lines demands that the greatest possible return on investment is possible. A link between Sydney and Newcastle is short-sighted and based primarily on the premise that it will free up the existing lines to be used solely for freight transport – which by all accounts is sorely needed – but certainly is no justification of such an expense.
A massive investment in a high speed rail – a ‘nation-building’ excercise if you will, needs to return far more than what that short section between Sydney and Newcastle can return.
Sydney is struggling under the weight of urban population – and its internal transport problems are well-known. Melbourne and Brisbane have more accessible adjacent land and are expanding into nearby rural regions at a rate of knots. It will not be long before Melbourne, and then Brisbane/Gold Coats will have larger populations than Sydney. What is needed is fast, reliable efficient high speed rail connections BETWEEN these three centres with strategically placed stops to allow for the further development of regional centres. Almost a revisit of the decentralisation attempts of the early seventies, but facilitated by establishing enabling infrastructure FIRST. Imagine the possibility of growing say four to five regional centres between Sydney and Melbourne, and the same between Sydney and Brisbane by making them less one hour by VFT from the centre of the State Capital.
We need to think way beyond a ‘fix’ for the errors of generations of NSW politicians (and bureaucrats) who have short changed NSW residents in infrastructure and think a project which would have significant nation building benefits.

Peter Principas
Peter Principas
10 years ago

Right on, the Metro lunatics have left a bad taste in the mouth Vs the Bradfield approach os using tunnels where there’s a big blockage but otherwise cuttings and bridges – near where people live! The point not sufficiently made is that stations would be impossibly deep under the now-debunked tunnel-headed approach