15 October 2009

Why high-speed trains are vital for Australia

A zero-emissions, high-speed train network linking Australian cities, would be visionary, nation building and go a long way to stemming our greenhouse gas emissions.
Bullet train

A bullet train in Japan, where a high-speed rail network has existed since 1964. Credit: iStockphoto

Imagine travelling in comfort from Melbourne to Sydney on a train in just three hours. Browsing the internet, watching the landscape whiz past, alighting upon arrival in the centre of the city.

High speed rail travel between major Australian cities, to bridge the “tyranny of distance” has been on the national radar ever since Japan launched its Shinkansen train in 1964.

However, no politician has ever followed their words with action, and fast rail has remained a dream on the edge of public consciousness, commonly viewed with cynicism.

Yet that dream is again taking shape into a sensible proposal, bolstered by the pressing need to de-carbonise our economy to address climate change. As the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil loom before us, the reasons for constructing such nation-building infrastructure are now stronger than ever.

The Melbourne-to-Sydney air route is the world’s fourth busiest. A high-speed train carries eight times as many passengers as an aeroplane over a given distance using the same amount of energy, largely because of the energy required to get and keep a heavy payload airborne.

Leading scientists from around the world, and with the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have issued dire warnings about global warming.

Such climatic alarm bells call for a rapid restructure of the Australian economy towards a much higher percentage of electricity, heating and transport powered from renewable sources. This call is echoed by Al Gore, leader of the Repower America movement, and much of the Australian grassroots climate movement.

Transport is the fastest growing sector of Australian greenhouse gas emissions, currently standing at 16% and within the transport sector, aviation is the fastest growing contributor to those emissions.

Electrifying 95% of Australia’s transport system could be key to addressing these emissions, as it is energy efficient and could be powered by 100% renewable energy. This includes freight and urban public transport, although that’s another story.

In the evolution of transport, we here in Australia are stuck in the ‘Age of Domestic Air Travel’. Meanwhile our contemporaries in Japan, Europe and China have already been enjoying high speed trains for up to 40 years. I believe that it’s high time we made the change – we need to plan and build a high speed rail network connecting all the mainland capitals.

France has an extensive high-speed rail network, as does Spain. Spain’s first high-speed train route, covering 360 km between Madrid and Seville, opened in 1992. Five million passengers took advantage of the highly efficient mode of transport in its first year, avoiding airline queues, frustrating check-ins and cramped conditions.

Since then the network has grown to cover 2,000 km of track, with the government planning a further 10,000 km by 2020. Ninety per cent of the Spanish population will then live within 50 km of a bullet train station.

Australia is now in a position in which it can take the cream of the technology and know-how developed in other parts of the world and engage our construction sector to produce a high-speed rail network and tens of thousands of new jobs.

A fast train network should be powered by 25kV pantograph lines, and Standard Gauge tracks to be compatible with the maximum number of high-speed train providers.

The high-speed train project would employ tens of thousands of construction and maintenance workers whilst using significant local resources. And with our vast open spaces and flat land, the cost of building infrastructure for such a system is economically favourable compared to European countries where extensive tunnelling is required.

Starting with Sydney-to-Melbourne via Canberra, 4,500 km of track, bridges and tunnels could link Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra, at a cost of approximately A$65 billion – this will be equivalent to just one year of oil imports in 2015.

Australia can’t afford to be importing that much oil each year by 2015, a figure given by Arjun Murti, a Goldman Sachs analyst. This is the equivalent of foreign oil companies taxing all Australians $3,000 each.

I believe that we should instead keep this $65 billion dollars a year in Australia, directing it towards schools, hospitals and a transition to electrified rail powered by renewable energy.

The Federal government is currently exposing Australians to fluctuating oil prices and the dangers of global warming. Inaction will cause our people and economy to suffer. The best way to maintain mobility in a time of oil shortage is to anticipate it, and act to mitigate it before it becomes a problem.

Switching interstate travel from air to rail is an important part of de-carbonising our economy. This is a reliable and safe technology that has been used around the world for decades.

If only the Australian Federal and State governments could see the immense value of a fast electric train system, and use it to address the public’s calls for leadership on the climate crisis.

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Matthew Wright is the campaign director of Beyond Zero Emissions, a not-for-profit think tank providing advice on transitioning to a de-carbonised economy. He wrote this article in the comfort of a German ICE high-speed train.

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