Nov 5, 2009

Sydney/Melbourne by plane or bust: Airbus vision kills the fast train

The notion of a Very Fast Train for the Melbourne-Sydney corridor has been shot down by new plans from Airbus to fly Very Large Planes between the two cities, because the entire cost, and risk, is funded by the privately owned airlines and airports.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Airbus dealt a heavy blow to the notion of a Very Fast Train (VFT) for the Melbourne-Sydney corridor with its Very Large Plane (VLA) forecast yesterday. Airbus' chief operating officer for customers, John Leahy, predicted that it will be extensively used between major city pairs such as Melbourne-Sydney by 2028, and possibly within 10 years. Is he kidding? No. Half a lifetime ago, Sydney-Melbourne was served by 16 flights a day each way in 80-passenger Lockheed Electra turbo-props, private road trips that killed about 500 long-distance drivers a year on the Hume Highway between them, and two steam trains that met in the middle of the night in Albury to change passengers where the different rail gauges of the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales terminated. Today, it is flown about 73 times each way each day by the combined jets of four airlines. The physical availability of slots at each airport is shrinking, almost to vanishing point at Sydney Airport, meaning the jets have to get bigger, but be boarded and disembarked in no more time than it takes today. Given the heated Crikey debate over VFTs started by Guy Rundle and joined by Michael James, the VLA prediction comes with one potent characteristic. It doesn’t require a single dollar of taxpayer funds. The entire cost, and risk, is funded by the privately owned airlines and airports. No billions of dollars in public private partnerships, no competing with education, health or defence for money, no endless inquiries and studies, and no permanent ways, cuttings or bridges slicing through towns, or national parks. Sydney International already turns around A380s more efficiently than its domestic terminals manage with much smaller single-aisle jets, because the biggest jet ever has wide aisles and four main doors all served by quick-load, double-level gates. Trains in Australia run on fossil fuels, even if they use electricity generated by coal. There are clear signs that by 2030 if not sooner algal-grown octanes will begin replacing aviation-grade kerosene, releasing no fossil-sourced carbon. The Airbus forecasts concerning VLAs is predicated on continued urbanisation and the rise of mega cities. It lists 37 such cities in terms of air travel today, including Melbourne and Sydney, which in total generate 92% of all long-distance flights. By 2028 it forecasts such mega cities will number 82, including Brisbane and Auckland, and will be generating 90% of all long-haul passenger trips. And something else happens, in that they will generate VLA connections over 80 short-distance connections between each other or nearby major if not mega destinations. Including most of the inter-capital and trans-Tasman flights served by smaller jets today. Just the way 767s replaced the 727s that replaced the Electras. Leahy’s forecast excludes those city pairs where very fast trains will produce faster door-to-door trip times for most potential travellers. And this is one of issues that Michael James misses in his criticism of Australia, and alleged road lobbyists such as myself, for not getting behind very fast trains. VFTs came to London and Paris, and linked the major cities of Japan, after many decades of serendipitous investments in public transport systems that make it easy to get to the likes of the Eurostar platforms at St Pancras and Gare du Nord from almost everywhere across their metropolitan and outer suburban sprawls. Their Metros achieved critical mass and cultural acceptance before car ownership became common. The convenience of fast, efficient, cheap and proximate stations means that just about 100% of London and Paris can quickly reach Eurostar and in the latter, the Thalys and TGV network of VFTs. London and Paris can plan and build new Metros in about 10% of the time it takes for them to be studied, debated and ditched in Sydney and Melbourne. A Sydney or Melbourne VFT terminal at Central or Southern Cross stations respectively is very hard or costly to reach by public transport, or car, from large proportions of their catchment areas. To begin to make VFTs attractive in Australia we have to make their speed usable in reducing the point-to-point trip times. Both cities need much better public transport links to their airports, which can bring dividends to non-airport commuters too. But in terms of spending, and overcoming a century of public transport neglect, there is no case for spending billions of dollars building a 500kph 1000-kilometre long rail link when the airlines can assume all of the risk and cost. Making public transport within the cities functional, slashing car dependency within them, and building some new "smart" cities seems a much better start to breaking with a dismal past.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

54 thoughts on “Sydney/Melbourne by plane or bust: Airbus vision kills the fast train

  1. Guy Rundle

    arrrrhhh got the last time I wasn’t against VFTs (i was against the proposed gippsland route in the 80s but thats another story). I was merely arguing in my article that VFTs of themselves, solve nothing in terms of infrastructure provision for a growing population – they simply increase their velocity.

  2. Craig Trimble

    All very good if you only want people to live in overcrowded Sydney or Melbourne, and nothing else exists in between. I look forward to when flights of the airbus will be stopping at Seymour, Albury, Canberra, Yass, etc? Never, and this is the point the article misses! Airport development lobby 1, contribution to national policy debate and quality of life 0.

  3. james mcdonald

    If algae fuel is all it’s cracked up to be, it’s going to be needed replacing existing uses of fossil fuel, not adding to it. Correct me if I’m wrong: planes do most of their work staying in the air, what trains achieve by static forces. It’s that externality cost of fuel in the carbon-trading age that will change the relationship between private and public costs (the same reason trucks are “cheaper” than trains–diesel tax doesn’t cover their share of road costs, but rail freight users have to pay the total cost of the rail.)

    And I’m mystified how additional air terminals are supposed to be easier to build and use than VFT terminals. Both require intermodal connections but only one of these requires taxiing and takeoff space.

  4. Michael James

    (from Michael R. James)
    Guy, actually I wasn’t saying you were against fast trains. But as I replied (in a blog buried in the responses to my article) I absolutely believe that the trains must come first. Any serious attempt to create new cities, which will require a policy of devolution ie. relocation of industry and government departments, universities, hospitals etc., is doomed to failure if those fast, convenient links do not exist. In fact it was the specific policy behind the development and construction of the French TGV network. In Australia I would give Canberra as an example. It is almost 100 years old but remains a very modest city–by rights it should be a major city (look at Washington DC that has grown hugely to become one of the US’s top 10 regions). apart from the myths about Canberra, to get there one has to endure air travel or 4 hours driving. If it had the fast train link it could have taken some of the strain off Sydney (and Melbourne) and still could.
    But Guy, my response to Ben’s article: Aarrrrgghh!

  5. Most Peculiar Mama

    I find it hilarious that the Labor spin doctors have successfully inserted the ironically named Very Fast Train (VFT) into the vernacular.

    Worse that people persist in using it.

    It’s still quicker to drive from Melbourne to Sydney than by the speed-challenged VFT.

    We should be asking why that is?

  6. whatiris

    @MPM would that be because we don’t have one?

    The XPT is not a Very Fast Train. Only at very occasional points does it go faster than the speed limit on the Hume Highway for cars.

    The track simply isn’t up to it.

  7. james mcdonald

    Maybe someone needs to do a history of the VFT the best infrastructure project that we never had. I remember it being touted as the coming thing in time for the 1988 bicentenary, but that probably wasn’t the first time. An efficient, scenic, fast way to travel Melbourne – Canberra – Sydney – Brisbane, soaring through the snowy mountains like a skycar and getting you from Victoria to Queensland in half a day.

    John Howard later started a tendering process for a truncated version. The German Maglev company put in a below-cost bid to test a new generation of magnetic levitation on us–a train that hangs suspended a few cm above the track by superconductor electromagnets. The levitation wasn’t new, just the generation that the Germans were offering to test on us. Howard favoured a traditional “steel-on-steel” option (thinking, like most ignoramuses who don’t know how to listen, that steel is indestructible) before throwing his hands up at the whole thing.

    Australia basically will have a VFT when there is no slower technology available in the world to buy.

  8. Ben Sandilands


    Algal fuel is intended to replace all the kerosene burned in an airliner, rather than be a blend. It took a while for the vested interests to come to grips with this. The benefit of blended fuels is lost as air transport grows. Even when the Australian air travel market ‘matures’ and reaches the point where it can’t get any more customers there are around 5.7 billion people left on the planet who have barely began to use air transport, and cars and lots of electrical power which is predominantly fossil carbon releasing today.

    The release of fossilised carbon has to be ended as soon as possible to bring anthropogenic global warming to a standstill, and I find it incredibly disappointing that the public debate mashes all carbon into the debate, thus allowing this government to essentially rort the figures and leave fossil carbon from coal untouched while stuffing around with cosmetic calculations to reduce carbon emissions that involve non fossil carbon releasing carbon exchanges cycles, including those involving photosynthesis and so forth.

    We cut our release of fossil sourced carbon or we collectively pay a very high price for the consequences.

  9. Ben Sandilands

    Michael James has previously made some strong points in my view about how Queensland could greatly improve rail along its northern coastal and near coastal corridors. Faster short distance trains are much more economically plausible than a Sydney-Melbourne VFT, and there are real possibilities in this country.

    And Sydney and Melbourne badly need greatly improved city rail services, efficient ticketing and consistent high speed broadband coverage. If Sydney were to act now there are still options for new rights of way for western suburban rail lines, including efficient access to Badgerys Creek. In ten years time they will all be covered in housing estates, their inhabitants forced into over reliance on cars on what is a very ordinary metropolitan road network.

    But maybe this won’t matter, as Sydney is condemned to choke, both at the commuter level, and in lacking the air links that will make it relevant to the location of large businesses. Not even the A380 or other future VLA will save Sydney from medium term decline and stagnation. My view is that Melbourne-Brisbane will become the main domestic VLA route by around 2040.

  10. james mcdonald

    Ben, yes I see that, but if large scale production takes off it will be needed first to replace fossil petroleum in road vehicles, where it will compete with products that are (a) diminishing and (b) subject to carbon-trading premiums–and it will be priced with those factors in mind. So, the fact that it’s carbon neutral doesn’t isolate it from carbon considerations, and isn’t an excuse to proclaim energy is now free so let’s do everything in the most inefficient way.

    Trains, cars, trucks, ships, heating in cold climates, and existing requirements for air transport, all have a claim on new fuel sources before we start thinking about tilting the transport market towards the most inefficient means possible.

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details