The east coast of Australia high speed rail study is slowly pulling out of the platform, all lights amber.

There is only a minor reference in today’s  update to its relationship with air travel even though that issue seems to have a higher priority in the public mind.

Now that China has a rail link of similar length to Sydney-Melbourne operating in under three hours between Guangzhou and Wuhan, it definitely deserves to be front-of-mind.

This earlier story on that link includes videos and other details, and in June, the Beijing-Shanghai high speed link is opening, providing many China air travellers with a superior point to point or total trip experience compared to air, whether measured by trip time, amenity, fare or continuous broadband connectivity.

The Australian study is not however primarily about tackling key air routes. It is about identifying and preparing for high speed rail corridors that could create immense economic activity and elevated land values in areas that have been ignored by or spared from urbanisation depending on your personal perspectives.

This is the announcement by Transport Minister Anthony Albanese.

The feasibility study commissioned to determine the economic benefits and financial viability of a high speed rail network along Australia’s east coast has started following the appointment of outside experts to complete the first stage of this work.

A consortia lead by AECOM Australia – a leading global consultancy – will identify possible route and station options, a process which will provide the basis for determining indicative transit times and construction costs.

This first stage is expected to be completed by the middle of this year.

Beginning shortly thereafter, the study’s second stage will determine an optimum route alignment, identify patronage levels, develop robust cost estimates and investigate financing options.

In its totality, our feasibility study seeks to build on the previous work that’s been done and once completed, will provide the basis for an informed public debate about whether this technology is an appropriate response to our nation’s future transport needs.

Given the high level of interest in the study, my Department is in the process of setting up a formal reference group to make sure the views of organisations such as the Australasian Railways Association and the CRC for Rail Innovation as well as state and territory authorities are taken into account.

The AECOM Australia consortia comprise KPMG, Sinclair Knight Merz and Grimshaw Architects.

This is the detailed timetable.

The study will focus on identifying possible routes, corridor preservation and station options, including city-centre, city-periphery and airport stations.  This will provide a basis for route development, indicative transit times and high-level construction costs.

As part of the core network element at the centre of the east coast corridor, the Newcastle–Sydney ‘spine’ will be a central aspect of this work.  Options for links northwards to Brisbane and southwards to Canberra and Melbourne will also be considered.

Specifically the study will:

•              Identify undeveloped land corridors and/or existing corridors that could be considered for a high speed railway, and preservation strategies;
•              Identify the main design decisions and requirements to build and operate a viable high speed rail network on the east coast of Australia;
•              Present route and station options, including indicative construction costs and interaction with other transport modes;
•              Provide costs estimates of undertaking the next stages of work, such as detailed route alignment identification and corridor resumptions;
•              Identify potential financing and business operating models for the construction and operation of a high speed railway;
•              Provide advice and options on relevant construction, engineering, financial and environmental considerations.

The study will be managed by the Department of Infrastructure and Transport.  It will draw on expertise from the public and private sectors, as well as international experience, growth forecasts and other contemporary data.  Stakeholders will be consulted and contribute views through a formal reference group, which will include representatives from relevant Commonwealth, state and territory agencies and other key stakeholder groups.

The high speed rail implementation study will by July 2011:

•           Identify the requirements for implementation of a viable HSR network on the east coast;
•           Identify strategic route and station options, including high-level costing.

This initial phase will provide a basis for consultation and inform the specific direction of a second phase, including consideration of the specific corridors, routes and associated issues to be targeted for more detailed examination.

Further work from July 2011 will include:

•              Detailed corridor alignment identification;
•              Identification of preliminary geotechnical issues;
•              Development of comprehensive robust cost estimates for preferred options;
•              Further investigation of investment and (public and private) financing options;
•              Detailed patronage and revenue forecasts;
•              Consideration of preferred options in relation to other modes (for example, airport capacity implications resulting from diversion of air traffic to train).

This final work and report will take approximately 12 months to complete and inform the Australian Government and state and territory governments’ consideration of next steps for high speed rail in Australia.

The amber lights need to turn green as soon as possible.

The realities for air travellers are that:

  • Australia isn’t China
  • Aircraft are portable assets that don’t need the massive construction of high speed permanent ways
  • Airlines and airports are entirely funded by private capital, but high speed rail projects of size require state capital
  • That capital can be recovered by taxation if the increased value of properties and enterprises created by high speed rail can be captured
  • If Australia does expand its population (and productivity) to around 40 million people within 40 years a high speed rail network will be a necessity, as will be the metro networks to efficiently access the HS stations.