A bullet train won’t work in Australia, nor will it be the climate saver many policy makers believe it will be, according to the authors of a report by a public policy think tank.
The report was released by the Grattan Institute the month. It argues that bullet trains are unsuitable for Australia, past feasibility studies are flawed and that governments should stop using public money to continually study proposals.
It also says other options for high-speed rail should only be considered if the benefits can be demonstrated by a transparent cost-benefit analysis.
A costly megaproject
Building a 350 kph bullet train, similar to the Eurostar, Japan’s Shinkansen or France’s TGV, along the country’s east coast, a plan put forward by Labor when it was last in government, would require massive new track infrastructure and take 50 years to build.
The estimated $130 billion price tag would make it a “mega-megaproject” with dubious benefits, one of the report’s authors Greg Moran says.
The other option of rail renovation to improve existing rail lines, such as electrifying them, could achieve train speeds of more than 200 kph but is yet to be the subject of a proper business case, he says.
Fellow author, Tom Crowley, says Australia’s population and geographical conditions aren’t suitable for a bullet train.
Unlike countries like China and Japan where high speed rail has had success, Australia has a smaller and more spread out population.
“It would require about 2000 km of track that we would be building here for about 15 million people,” he says in a podcast prepared by the institute.
The report also challenges the notion that a bullet train will reduce emissions, as it will cut demand for air travel.
Moran says a project of the nature and scale of a bullet train might actually create more emissions than it saves, at least for the first 40 years.
“The problem lies in the construction and the vast amounts of concrete and steel it would need,” he says.
“Constructing this bullet train line would be incredibly emissions intensive in itself and building this bullet train may actually lead to emissions being higher than they would otherwise for a very long time.
“Any sense that bullet train is going to make a massive dent in our emissions isn’t really true.”
The report also questions the cost-benefit analysis of a bullet train contained in Labor’s 2013 feasibility study, saying it was based on unrealistic assumptions.
Mr Moran says the original cost benefit for the project was estimated at 2.3 to 1, or $2.30 of benefits for every $1 invested.
However he says taking into account adjusted discount rates, emissions costs and the building of a second Sydney airport, Grattan’s cost benefit analysis is closer to 1 to 1.
“That means you’d build this thing and get no net benefits or net costs,” he says.
Governments needed to consider whether the $130 billion could be better spent elsewhere, such as upgrading rail networks in poorly connected outer urban areas or boosting freight infrastructure and internet connectivity in regional areas, he says.
The notion that a bullet train will benefit regional areas and boost tourism is also taken up in the report.
Mr Crowley says overseas experiences have shown this isn’t necessarily the case.
In France, Paris benefited from a high speed rail more than the regions, while in Spain it resulted in more day trips but few night stays, he says.
Report ‘totally wrong’
High speed train advocate Anthony Albanese said the report had got it “totally wrong”.
“They didn’t bother to actually read the study that was done when we were in Government. It was completed in two stages that showed that it would produce a positive economic return of over two dollars, between Sydney and Melbourne via Canberra has a very positive economic return,” the Labor leader told radio 2CC after the Grattan report was released.
“And it would create significant regional economic development, including, of course, in Australia’s largest inland city, our national capital.”
Time to stop obsessing about big things
But Mr Crowley says Australia needs to drop its obsession with big things and not let the need for post-COVID stimulus cloud decision making.
“Focusing on the objective is really important, rather than focusing on doing something big just because we like building big things,” he says.
The only way to decide whether to invest in any project by preparing a business case and conducting an independent cost benefit analysis.
“We might be eager for stimulus in a post covid world and there may be some good reasons for that but it doesn’t mean you get to through the rule book out the window,” he said.
“You’ve got to make sure that anything you’re spending public money on will clearly benefit the public more than it will cost.
“We think that a bullet train clearly won’t do that.”
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