On Very Fast Trains

Faithful readers of this blog know that I have not been terribly sympathetic to high-speed trains in the US, particularly California. In a world where fuel costs were high and urban transit better, high-speed rail is a better proposition than in a world with inexpensive cars, cheap gas, poor urban transit, and affordable aviation. Unfortunately for HSR supporters, the latter is the more accurate description of the world, or at least the United States.

High-speed rail in Australia (source: Wikipedia)
High-speed rail in Australia (source: Wikipedia)

Australia has long had discussions about the Very Fast Train connecting Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, and possibly Newcastle and Brisbane.  Melbourne-Sydney is 714 km, and the 5th busiest air transport market in the world, so this is not, prima facie, an absurd idea.

The best show about urban planning, economic development, and transportation that you are not watching,  Dreamland/Utopia has a nice clip which lays out the problem:

Now, I don’t really know, nor does anyone else, whether HSR pencils out in Australia, it all depends on assumptions about the state of the world 20, 30, 50 years in the future, which is honestly unknowable, so I will keep an open mind. Since I wrote a book about the future of transport, I think it likely that we will have inexpensive autonomous, electric vehicles, which should be able to achieve higher speeds than cars do now, safely, and have better range than today’s EVs with continuing battery improvements. If HSR is built, it will undoubtedly be used, but that does not mean it was the best way to spend $AU 100 billion.

The most recent  proposals of CLARA  use a form of land value capture to help fund the system, by developing stations along the route, and developing suburbs/towns/cities around those intermediate stations.  I love new planned communities, and this is an exciting idea. I also love value capture. So this is a promising endeavour. But land development on greenfields often takes longer than anticipated, and thus may take a long time to justify the investment, and thus leave investors hanging if projections are not realised, or like so many infrastructure projects before, result in a government bailout. Nevertheless, if the tracks are on the ground, and the first (or second) round of investors are wiped out, the people of Australia will have gotten capital investment in infrastructure at a huge discount, though still be on the hook for operations and maintenance.

Peter Thornton has a fact-filled slide deck: Let’s get real about high speed rail in Australia, which comes down against building a full system at first, instead recommends the government, not a private entity, assume the risk and reward and improve shorter distance routes (namely Newcastle to Sydney), and expanding the system over time, rather than conceiving it as one giant project. The government could then sell the operating business and use the revenue to fund the next big thing. Other articles of his include

I will enjoy watching this play out.