This article has been updated

What’s impressive about Labor’s commitment to a high-speed rail feasibility study is that it manages to be worse than the Greens’. In fact, to be accurate, it will be twice as bad, because Anthony Albanese wants to spend $20 million on a scoping study, compared to the Greens’ $10 million.

The Greens sound like they’re actually committed to high-speed rail. I’m not sure Labor is similarly enthused about it, but they’re pretending to be. Scoping studies are a great way to demonstrate commitment to visionary projects, without actually saying you’ll spend money on them. Before the 2007 election, Mark Vaile committed to a $15 million scoping study for another rail boondoggle, the Melbourne-Brisbane inland rail route, that had been kicked around by National Party shonks and white-shoe brigaders for years.

Now Albanese has gone delving into the same garbage bin in the Rail Branch, or whatever it’s now called, in his Department and pulled out another piece of policy rubbish and is holding it aloft for applause.

The simple, and unalterable, fact is that high-speed rail is an inordinately expensive transport mode that is only viable across limited distances serving large markets. Ideal for Japan, workable in Europe, where a couple of hundred kilometres takes you between countries and there are hundreds of millions of potential passengers. In Australia, not merely do we have much bigger distances between centres, which dramatically inflates the capital and running costs, and much smaller populations, but our major corridors are already served by well-entrenched competitors, the airlines. For the Canberra-Sydney route, HSR would also compete with a sub-three-hour car journey.

High-speed rail proponents keep pointing to France’s TGV as an example of successful high-speed rail. Despite operating over smaller distances with much larger populations, high-speed rail managed to lose money in France last year and its operator is looking to close lines. It’s also apparently not widely known that TGV services only operate at high speed on limited sections of the French network — the majority of the time they run as regular trains on the ordinary rail system.

How much would a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney cost? A very recent study of the cost of a high-speed link covering the 190 kilometres distance between London and Birmingham suggested it could be built for £6 billion. A previous study had suggested the cost might be another £10 billion on top of that.

That gives you some idea of what it might cost to build a Melbourne-Sydney HSR line — we’re talking about $50 billion using the low estimate. On the more expensive costings it goes way over $100 billion. That’s just to build — operating costs come on top of that. Try servicing your debt, meeting your operating costs and recouping even a small profit on those figures when you’re up against airlines offering a one-hour flight.

A VFT obviously couldn’t offer a one-hour, or even two-hour, service. And the more stops that are put in on the route — proponents of HSR talk incessantly about the “regional development” benefits of HSR — the slower the service becomes. Once you get over two hours between Melbourne and Sydney, you haven’t got a chance of attracting business traffic — who wants to spend more than four hours travelling to and from a day meeting interstate?

It’ll be the grandest and most expensive of white elephants, tens of times more expensive than the last visionary rail project we built in this country, the Alice Springs-Darwin railway, which sits virtually unused after the Howard government, South Australia and the Northern Territory wasted hundreds of millions of dollars building it.

It’s a characteristic of rail nutters in this country that they want to invest in glamorous new rail services even as the old ones limp along, underfunded and propped up by subsidies. There are good investments in interstate rail, and many of them have been made over the past decade, but they’re aimed at improving reliability and transit times, and reducing costs for, freight movement. It’s decidedly boring and uns-xy to talk about funding bridge improvements to enable double-stacking, or the slow process of rolling out concrete sleepers, but that’s where real improvements have been made since the 1990s. But the era of interstate rail passenger travel is long over.

What’s absurd about this entire issue is that public transport within cities has been crying out for federal government funding for decades as state governments have dropped the ball on infrastructure. In the event of an Abbott government, one can only hope it copies Labor and abandons the Howard governments’ refusal to invest in urban infrastructure. If there’s an upside to the population debate, it’s that we might accept that big-ticket, big-benefit public transport projects should be a key federal government responsibility.

If you want to invest in passenger rail, it’s mass transit within cities that should get billions of dollars, not white elephants between them.

Update: It’s Boondoggle Day – at lunchtime today Anthony Albanese announced that Labor had committed to the Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail route, which will cost $4.7b from 2014-15. And Warren Truss moments later announced that the Coalition would also have a feasibility study to “consider the viability of possible passenger routes along Australia’s east coast between Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. The study will also undertake a specific analysis of a possible high speed rail link between Sydney and Newcastle.”