No. 38

Fast forward to freight

STONE the crows! Trains are the campaign equivalent of motherhood, a good thing beloved by all.

Especially if the trains are very fast. First the Greens commenced campaigning on the promise of a “major concept study” for a high-speed inter-city network, presumably wind powered given their distaste for the coal-fired power plants needed to produce the ever-available electricity such services need.[i] Then Labor’s Anthony Albanese got into the act, promising a $20 million study for a high speed railway between Sydney and Newcastle, plus an inland line linking Brisbane and Melbourne (aficionados of grand plans will remember when a similar scheme was spruiked as “the steel Mississippi).[ii]

Naturally this had nothing to do with Mr Albanese feeling threatened by the Green candidate in his inner city electorate, because the Liberals, are also in on the act, promising their own fast rail study.[iii] They might even do it, given it was the Howard Government which kicked in a big swag of cash to build the Alice Springs to Darwin line, which met economists’ expectations by going broke.[iv]

Everybody’s unquestioning affection for trains is understandable, if it focuses on the right sort of long-distance routes. There is no doubting rail freight was once a farce, a vast public sector employment program uninterested in the end user.[v] Now, after billions being spent, it only needs billions more to meet economic needs.[vi] Freight will triple by 2030 and with rail competitive on long distance bulk shipments we obviously need to get such deliveries off trucks and onto trains.[vii]

But none of this has anything to do with an HSR passenger network.

The almost universal affection for HSR is the equivalent of endorsements of bicycle paths, more ideological statement than transport solution, selling an urban alternative to ever-more motorways and aircraft as an inter-city solution.

Of course, everybody talks about the way rail can cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce fossil fuel use, get noisy aircraft out of the skies (a major issue in the inner western Sydney soviet, where green politics and self-interest combine in wanting the city’s airport moved where the flight path will not annoy important people).

But above it all is the idea that cars and trucks are bad and trains are good and that people would use more of the latter and fewer of the former if they knew what was good them. As Victoria’s public transport lobby argues:

The obsession with new roads flies in the face of our biggest contemporary challenge. Transport is responsible for around one-sixth of Australia’s emissions of greenhouse gases, or 80 million tonnes of CO2 annually. The vast majority come from cars and trucks. If Australia’s transport sector were a country, it would be one of the world’s top 50 emitters. For many years, the road lobby has encouraged the view that a combination of technology and the market—in short, doing nothing – will reduce the carbon emissions from transport as if by magic. But the necessary reductions won’t come about so easily—especially if freight volumes are to grow at forecast rates. “Green cars” will play their part, but a sizeable shift from cars to public transport will be needed as well.[viii]

John Colvin from the Australian Institute of Company Directors makes the same sort of case for an east coast HSR after Anthony Albanese’s announcement, (it) “must become a reality if the federal government is serious about decentralisation, sustainable economic and population growth, climate change, urban congestion and improved transport infrastructure.”[ix]

Good-oh, but how powerful is the economic case for the investment? You can tell it’s not strong because supporters of HSR say it is in “the national interest”, an expression that always alarms the crows. Understandably so, given what a previous scoping study of an east coast HSR said about the “national interest” idea, (maybe Minister Albanese mislaid his copy when he promised a new one):

Underlying this seems to be the notion that it is somehow more important than other projects or worthy of special consideration and financial support by governments. They achieve such status by being the means to deliver a high-level strategic goal. Examples of such goals are found in the Commonwealth Government’s key objectives for the rail industry:  a competitive economy, industrial development, better accessibility, improved safety and environmental sustainability.[x]

To which the Crows invoke Macguire’s First Law of Taxpayer Scepticism “show us the money” – explain what it will cost and what will it return. That HSR did not make Infrastructure Australia’s short list last year tells us something[xi].

Certainly, investment in rail is essential, but it is freight trains not ever-so fast passengers ones we need most. Rail freight is 30-40 per cent more competitive than road over medium to long distances and this is the industry advantage it needs to build on.[xii]

In addition, what’s the betting HSR would bump freight off the agenda if it ever gets the nod?

This is certainly what the enormously effective US rail freight industry, (measured at purchasing power it is just about the most efficient in the world) fears from President Obama’s proposal to create high speed networks.  What worries the Casey Jones’s is new technology they do not need, but will end up paying for and re-regulation to suit a passenger system that will slow their freight trains down.[xiii]

Which given our only slowly improving speeds is what we don‘t want either. Certainly, we need to spend more on rail, but to meet an economic not an ideological need.


[i] Clay Lucas, “Greens to push $40bn fast-rail link to Sydney”, The Age, April 23

[ii] “Labor promises high-speed rail study” ABC News, August 5 @ /news/ stories/ 2010.htm, recovered on August 12, Everarld Compton, “Australian inland rail expressway: a century of planning” Online Opinion, April 15, 1999 @ www. recovered on August 10

[iii] “Coalition commissions fast rail feasibility study” news, recovered on August 14

[iv] “Taxpayer funds sought from new rail owner, ABC Radio, The World Today, June 10, @ world today / recovered on August 14

[v] in 1996 the Bureau of Transport Economics reported the public servants who ran the railways were not all that interested in the end users, “indicators currently published by Australian railways do not measure service standards from the viewpoint of customers, but rather are based on statistics compiled by management for other purposes’,  Quality of  Rail Freight Service: The Customer’s Perspective (Australian Government Publication Service, 1997) 2

[vi] “productivity is lower and freight rates higher than in comparable countries. Further, rail’s competitive position vis-à-vis other transport modes is under challenge“, : Richard Webb, Commonwealth involvement in reform of the rail freight industry, (Parliamentary Library, 2009)

[vii] Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, Meeting the 2050 Freight Challenge, (Price WaterhouseCoopers, 2009) 29

[viii] Public Transport Users Association of Victoria,  “Connecting to the future” @

[ix] John Colvin, “High-speed rail a capital idea”  , The Weekend Australian August 7

[x] Arup-Atag, East Coast Very High Speed Train Scoping Study (2001)

[xi] Cooperative Research Centre for Rail Innovation, High speed rail: strategic information for the Australian context (Brisbane, 2010)

[xii] National Transport Commission, Rail Productivity Review Issues Paper (Melbourne, 2008), 7

[xiii] “High-speed railroading” The Economist, July 22