It was a hot issue at the start of 2011, but there hasn’t been much discussion of High Speed Rail (HSR) in the public domain since the first phase of the Federal Government’s study was released more than a year ago.

Exhibit: Where the passengers would come from – sources of patronage for High Speed Rail (source: Phase 1 report)

The numbers in the report had a chilling effect on some of the earlier enthusiasm for east coast HSR. In particular, the study estimated the cost to build a line from Brisbane to Melbourne would be $108 billion (plus rolling stock and 15% for procurement costs), none of which could be recovered from earnings.

The Global Mail took up the slack last week with this article, Fast times, fast trains (catch up Australia!) by Gordon Weiss. Another look at the issue is timely, because the second and final phase of the HSR study is due to be released later this year.

The Global Mail’s thing is public-interest journalism with “engaging analysis.” It publishes relatively long articles that provide its readers with “something more considered and less breathless” than the 24/7 news cycle.

Curiously, Mr Weiss’s piece is a breathless promotion of HSR with little in the way of evidence to support some highly contentious propositions. It’s boosterism plain and simple.

Be that as it may, there’s one argument Mr Weiss uses that warrants further discussion because it’s so pervasive and fallacious. It’s the proposition that simply because HSR has been built, or is planned, in other countries, it must make sense in Australia.

We’re told by Mr Weiss that the Japanese started laying tracks for their bullet train in 1958 and France’s TGV had “crunched 318 km/h” by 1972. The Germans have ICE, the Spanish AVE, the Portugese RAVE, the South Africans Gautrain, and the Italians ETR.

Even the debt-laden Greeks have managed to lay down a 200 km/h plus HSR track. Morroccan HSR is due to come on line in 2015, and Brazil’s the following year…..even the Russians have a HSR despite a plummeting population.

Notwithstanding “some safety and corruption concerns” there’s also China’s existing 10,000 km of HSR track. He says it is set to expand by a further 19,000 km by 2014. And then there’s California’s proposed HSR:

And just this July on the west coast, California lawmakers, although they preside over a state that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, authorised the raising of the initial $8 billion tranche for the first leg of a $70 billion HSR, scheduled to be completed in 2020, which will connect its most productive cities.

That all sounds very impressive (although I suspect Mr Weiss’s definition of “high speed” might be pretty elastic). But it doesn’t make the case that HSR would make sense in Australia. There’re a couple of issues this sort of assertion fails to recognise.

First, Australia is different geographically from most other developed countries. We have a small number of quite large cities located a long way apart. There’re few large towns in between.

It’s no wonder the Sydney-Melbourne air route is one of the busiest in the world. Air is more competitive over the long distances and low densities characteristic of Australia than ground transport, whether fast trains or cars.

Spain’s AVE is often cited as a precedent for east coast Australia because the track distance from Madrid to Barcelona (621 km) is longer than the estimated track distances from Canberra to Sydney (250-290 km) and Canberra to Melbourne (520-570 km).

This argument doesn’t stack up though. The critical difference is Canberra has a much smaller population (0.36 million) than either Madrid (5.8 million) or Barcelona (4.2 million).

The second issue is that just because many countries have built HSR doesn’t mean it was a wise or well-considered investment for those countries (much less Australia), or that the money couldn’t have been better spent in some other way.

Mr  Weiss’s unselfconcious reference to “debt-laden” Greece is an obvious clue. So is his reference to Russia’s plan to build HSR “despite a plummeting population.” So is China’s grand plan to triple HSR track despite “some safety and corruption concerns.”

HSR in the US is hopelessly mired in political manouvreing and no funding is forthcoming in California beyond the initial (public-funded) tranche. The leading builder of HSR in the world by far, China, is a Communist State – its so-called Ghost Cities are well-documented.

One estimate is there are 64 million empty apartments in China. Why would anyone assume HSR in China is a rational investment decision that’s insulated from these sorts of pressures?

Nor is HSR without its critics. For example, Christina Vasquez claims ecologists, trade unionists and sustainable development advocates see Spain’s grand HSR adventure (it has more HSR track than any other European country) as “a bona fide policy error typical of a nouveu riche nation.”

The fact that many countries have built HSR, or are planning to build it, doesn’t show that it makes financial, economic or social sense. Of course, it doesn’t prove that it doesn’t either.

However it indicates we need to be very careful about assuming because something high profile and glamorous was built in other countries it must’ve been a sound investment. We should be doubly careful in assuming that apparent success can be translated directly to Australia.

We should remember that many cities in the US removed their streetcars and built freeways in the 1950s. However it didn’t necessarily follow that it was the right course of action for them. And it certainly didn’t mean imitating them was the ideal solution for Australian cities.

There are other arguments for HSR, but I suspect it won’t work on the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne corridor for reasons I’ve elaborated before (see HSR in the Categories list). It might however have potential in the Sydney-Newcastle corridor where it could possibly attract patrons from cars.

Hopefully the (too) long-awaited final report from Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, will address all the issues and questions and provide some clear direction, one way or the other, on the future of HSR. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’ll be any less driven by political pressures here than elsewhere.