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.

Peter Fray

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