Not so fast on high-speed rail

Ray Edmondson writes: Re. “High-speed rail just doesn’t add up — time to move on” (Friday). Perhaps Friday’s story was deliberately provocative. I wouldn’t be so fast to dismiss high-speed rail, which is now so well established in Europe, China and Japan and will eventually be built in North America. It’s a visionary idea — so, like the NBN, the Snowy Mountains scheme and the Perth-Kalgoorlie water pipeline, it’s going to have plenty of naysayers. When the Sydney-Parramatta railway was built in the 1850s, there were those who argued that solid steel rails were an extravagance and said wooden rails topped with a metal strip would be perfectly adequate for the anticipated traffic.

When Federal Labor came to power the Coalition ridiculed the NBN as unnecessary and too expensive. But it was an idea whose time had come, and the Coalition has effectively accepted that. The world is moving on and, fortunately in this respect, Australia is moving with it.

If developing our neglected rail networks instead of building ever more freeways is an environmental and practical necessity, as I believe it is, then high-speed rail in one form or another will inevitably be part of the future. It’s about much more than facile cost comparisons in today’s values and with today’s perspectives. Air travel has its own environmental and financial limitations, its social costs, its need to alienate large land areas for airports and its need to pack as many people as possible into small spaces.

Anyone who has travelled on high-speed trains overseas knows how superior the experience is to air travel. There is no turbulence: it is astonishingly smooth. There is room to stretch, walk around and have a meal. You can book space for business meetings. If it is roughly cost-competitive and time-competitive for the traveller, rail will win hands down. In Europe, high-speed trains already sensibly code-share with airlines. Both of them, after all, are in the people-moving business. Why shouldn’t airlines invest in trains?

We will have high-speed rail in Australia, so we would be wise to begin reserving rights of way now as an investment in the future. As with the NBN, the technology and the costs will evolve, and so will public opinion.

Shirley Colless writes: Now, forgive me, I have not read the report, I don’t know what its actual passenger predictions are, but I did hear Anthony Albanese — or was it some other pro-high-speed rail talking head? — waffling on about how many millions of passengers would be using or would have used it by 2050, or thereabouts.

Now, again forgive me, but don’t I recall that the Sydney Harbour tunnel, the cross-city tunnel and the airport link were projects enthusiastically adopted by government and private partners on the basis of what turned out to be wildly over-estimates on usage?

In the meantime, I also heard some federal government minister (or talking head) very quickly trying to reassure all of us who have been lobbying, nagging, arguing, etc., for at least 20 years to get the inland railway freight (and potentially passenger) line between Melbourne and Brisbane connected and upgraded, thus allowing a huge amount of freight to be diverted off both National Highway 1 and the Newell Highway, together with development of inland road/rail transfer ports in places like Wagga, Parkes, Dubbo, Narrabri, Moree.  Such developments would open up serious work opportunities in those centres — and for a small fraction of the cost of the HSR.

John Poppins writes: Leading-edge high-speed rail is a fetish for which costs are prohibitive, we are told. Why can’t we work carefully through a simpler proposal for a faster rail? When travelling between Melbourne and Sydney the train is much more relaxed and pleasant than are airports and aircraft. However, the train spends a large proportion of its time jogging along gently and some time stopped while it waits for passing traffic and for scheduling reasons. We could halve the current traveling time using existing rolling stock by making modest improvements to track quality, more passing facilities and the re-alignment of some tight curves in NSW.