High Speed Rail Debate


Australian officials have rejected plans for high speed rail saying it’s too expensive.

Coincidentially, today in the US Amtrak has unveiled a 30-year plan for rail travelling at 354 kilometers an hour on the country’s east coast  on a new two-track corridor, cutting the travel time between Washington and Boston to about three hours, or half of what it currently takes.

The plan comes with a $158 billion price tag, and there is no funding plan in place but the Amtrak chairman is determined it will happen and predicts it will be carrying 18 million passengers by 2040.

Good on him.

Meanwhile Sydney media are dining out on documents obtained under the official information process that reveal Labor was told a  high-speed rail network linking Australia’s major cities isn’t viable because they are too far apart or don’t have the population to justify the cost.

During the recent election campaign, Labor had announced that, if re-elected, it would initiate a $20 million feasibility study for a high-speed rail network linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, with a particular focus on the Sydney-Newcastle leg. Sydney to Melbourne would take 3 hours.

But it’s now been revealed the infrastructure minister was told back in March the plan was not viable, that the scheme would cost up to $143 million a kilometre to build, and probably need 12 million to 20 million commuters a year. The documents at least reveal federal transport officials are suggesting the government should start locking up land now on which high-speed rail can be built in the future - just in the unlikely event something may happen one day.

One Australian commentator wrote today:

“European cities, by historical accident, built the foundations of good city rail networks over a period of more than a century before high-speed rail began to proliferate. Australia has to build both, the long, fast corridors, and the short but effective commuter links, at the same time. And within an economy that is a fraction of that of the EU, and its higher population densities.
This is why the fast-rail debate forces us to consider some truly critical and far larger issues that will shape 21st century Australia.”

This is exactly the discussion we need to be having here - starting with airport rail.

And forward thinking officials here should be at least thinking about high speed rail now - plotting future solutions of fast travel between main cities such as Auckland to Wellington (to replace the present horrendously tiring Overlander service which has no hope of competing with airlines.)




  1. JBR says:

    Unfortunately you need cities with a population of around 4 million to make the real high speed rail economic, according to HS2 Ltd - the company behind reviewing and developing high speed rail projects around the world.

    However, we could move towards 160km/h trains in NZ. Not quite 300Km but not too bad either.

  2. Scott says:

    I agree with JBR.

    In NZ we should get to a level where trip times are faster by rail than by car. Once we have achieved that we can plan how to have trains compete with planes. To get past 160km/h we really need to either re-gauge our network or build an independent high speed network. Both will be exceedingly expensive.

  3. karl says:

    Real NZ high-speed rail will only be viable (politically, and I guess economically) in a longer-term peak fuel scenario, where planes are limited to maybe 20-30% of today’s travellers (because they are so expensive) and people get sick of going to Welly in (then much much more expensive) car or (very slow and still pricey) bus trips.

    But I agree - we could get a feasible intercity system back up within a few years if the will and some few billions of funding was there. If you consider that NZTA has been told to spend about 10plus billion on motorways in the coming decade, that isn’t that much at all.

  4. Nick R says:

    On NZ, a relatively simple upgrade of Auckland - Hamilton - Tauranga route and some 160km/h trains could see the trip time drop to as little as two hours from Auckland to Tauranga. That would be faster than driving or flying any day of the week.

    In the mid 2000s Victoria upgraded and resleepered 500km of track, upgraded 170 level crossings and improved signalling for $750 million. They also bought bought 38 new 160km/h DMUs for $530 million. Now the services *average* 100km/h including stops in revenue service.
    So that works out to be $1.5 million a kilometre for the track and $14 million each for the trains.

    Based on this costing, to do the same on the 200km long Auckland - Hamilton - Tauranga route would cost $300 million for the infrastructure. To provide a departure every half hour in both directions would require eight trains. Add in one train in reserve and the total cost would be around $126 million.

    So an Upper North Island Fast Rail project would cost in the region of $425 million dollars, this would provide a train service that was faster than flying or driving between the cities containing over half the nation’s population.

    On Australia, Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra has the population to support the line (ten million in total) plus the three hour length is perfect to capture a huge chunk of air patronage (it is the third busiest air corridor in the world). The problem is the huge cost, but I just can’t understand why it would cost $140 million a kilometre when new lines in mountainous rocky Spain cost a quarter of that. About 3/4 of the Australian route is along flat farmland, only 1/4 is along difficult terrain. What do the Spaniards know that the Aussies don’t?

  5. Paul in Sydney says:

    The Aussies’ done have the political will. A high speed rail line between Syd-Melb would damage Qantas and the Gov is unlikely to have the guts to do so. And then there’s the incompetent NSW state Gov

    @JBR, I agree, 160km running is a very logical step for NZ

    And the Auch-Ham-Tauranga (The Mount) has good population base and also probably the best track in the country after the new Ballast Cleaner Group have finished with it.

    Running 160km will create problems with slower moving fright and metro traffic. I hope all this work in Auckland has left extra space for grade separation on the Auckland southern line for freight and intercity potential. Q. Is there space????

    Sydney is trying to build its southern freight line and planning its more difficult northern freight line (ARTC.com.au)

  6. karl says:

    “So an Upper North Island Fast Rail project would cost in the region of $425 million dollars, this would provide a train service that was faster than flying or driving between the cities containing over half the nation’s population.”

    You have just added the airlines to your opponents Nick R ;-)

  7. Nick R says:

    Let them buy a shareholding and share in the profits to be had then. They can co-ordinate and codeshare trains with planes.

    No point in avoiding a faster and more efficient rail service just becuase it would be better than flying.

  8. Simon says:

    @NickR I work for one of those airlines. I am all for Intercity trains and I certainly believe that 160km/h trains would b faster than cars and buses but planes..get real! Even turbo prop planes are much faster than 160km/h trains even counting getting to the airport.

    My airline in its packages reservation system already sells the tranzcoastal and tranzalpine. But not in the flights reservation system. This must be quite recent as I only saw it for the first time about a month ago. As part of an ex-NZ to Paris fare we can also use eurostar eg AKL(NZ)HKG/LAX(NZ)LON(F9)PAR. F9 is the airline code for the Eurostar.

  9. Scott says:

    Simon, Neither can the European high speed trains compete with jets for speed. However they have decimated the number of flights on the same routes. There will always be a distance where getting to, from the airport from the CBD, Check in + baggage claim adds in the favor of rail. Yes this distance will be much shorter at 160km/h than 300+, However i think AKL->hamilton might be within range.

    As the crow flys its about 115km, if our 160Km/h capable tilt train averages 100km/h as the QR one does the trip by rail will take 1:09. Auckland to Hamilton takes 30mins by air, if you need to allow 40mins to get from the CBD to the airport the train is already faster. Plus check in, baggage claim etc.

  10. Nick R says:

    I am totally real Simon! Just because planes fly six or seven times faster once they are in the air doesn’t mean the trip is going to be any faster.

    According to the Air NZ website you need to check in at least 30 minutes before departure, and then the flight time from Auckland to Hamilton in another 30 minutes. So that is one hour minimum from airport terminal to airport terminal, although if you don’t have any luggage you could probably knock that back by ten or fifteen minutes.

    Hamilton airport is 15km out of town, so you’ve got a minimum ten minute taxi or car ride to get anywhere. And at the Auckland side you’d be foolish not to allow at least a half hour to get there from the CBD, even if you’re in Mangere it’s still going to take you ten or fifteen minutes.

    At the absolute best you’re looking at an hour and a half to get from central Auckland to central Hamilton by plane, and you’d probably want to allow at least two hours from whoa to go to account for traffic or delays. With the train you could step aboard at Queen St and hop off right in the middle of Hams an hour and fifteen minutes later.
    On the Tauranga run it would proabably come up pretty even, but with the train you at least have the consistency that comes from avoiding traffic to or from either airport.

    @ Paul, there are plans for a third rail line on Auckland’s southern line to separate freight and passenger. Those Victorian lines I referenced do also carry freight, and part of the cost of the track upgrades included building several high speed passing loops so DMUs can skip past them.


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