High-speed rail in Australia

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"Very Fast Train" redirects here. For the 1990 private sector proposal, see Very Fast Train Joint Venture.
High-speed rail in Australia
Preferred alignment (2013) of Australian east coast high speed rail system.jpg
Preferred alignment of Australian east coast high-speed rail system (from the 2013 AECOM study)
Type High-speed rail
Status Dormant
Locale Eastern states of Australia
Termini Brisbane
Stations Sydney & Canberra
Operating speed up to 350 km/h (220 mph)

High-speed rail in Australia has been under investigation since the early 1980s.[1][2] Every Federal Government since this time has investigated the feasibility of constructing high speed rail, but to date nothing has ever gone beyond the detailed planning stage. The most commonly suggested route is between Australia's two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne which is the world's fifth busiest air corridor.[3]

The Australian rail speed record of 210 km/h was set by Queensland Rail's Tilt Train during a trial run in 1998.[4] This speed is just above the internationally accepted definition of high-speed rail of 200 km/h (120 mph).[5]


France's TGV rail service provides a high-speed link between cities both inside and outside France.

The construction of a high-speed rail link along the east coast has been the target of several investigations since the early 1980s. Air travel dominates the inter-capital travel market, and intra-rural travel is almost exclusively car-based. Rail has a significant presence in the rural / city fringe commuter market, but inter-capital rail currently has very low market share due to low speeds and infrequent service.[6] However, travel times between the capitals by high-speed rail could be as fast as or faster than air travel[7] – the 2013 High Speed Rail Study Phase 2 Report estimated that conventional High Speed Rail express journeys from Sydney to Melbourne would take 2 hours and 44 minutes, while those from Sydney to Brisbane would take 2 hours and 37 minutes.[8]

Various studies and recommendations have asserted that a high-speed rail service between the major eastern capital cities could be viable as an alternative to air.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24] Although such studies have generated much interest from the private sector and captured the imagination of the general public upon their release, to date no private-sector proposal has been able to demonstrate financial viability without the need for significant government assistance.[25]

A mature high-speed rail system would be economically competitive with air and automobile travel, provide mass transit without dependence on imported oil, have a duration of travel that would compare with air travel or be quicker, and would reduce national carbon dioxide emissions.[24][26][27]

Over 12 million people live in the Sydney–Melbourne corridor.[28]



The rail network has long been a target of proposals for improvement. The 1979 Premiers' Meeting proposed the electrification of the Sydney–Melbourne line to improve transit time from over 12 hours to under 10, but a senate committee found this was not justified on economic grounds. In 1981, the Institution of Engineers proposed the Bicentennial High-Speed Railway Project, which proposed to link the five capitals of south-eastern Australia (Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane) in time for the Australian Bicentenary. However, it proposed only the strengthening and partial electrification of the existing tracks, new deviations to bypass the worst sections, additional passing loops, and the purchase of new diesel-electric trains. It would offer only mild improvements on the existing travel times: Sydney to Canberra in 3 hours, and Sydney to Melbourne in 9; it cannot therefore be considered a true high-speed rail proposal.[1]

1984 CSIRO proposal[edit]

The first true high-speed rail proposal was presented to the Hawke Government in June 1984 by the CSIRO, spearheaded by its chairman, Dr Paul Wild.[29] The proposal was to link Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney via a coastal corridor, based on French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) technology. The proposal estimated construction costs at A$2.5 billion ($7.0 billion in 2013), with initial revenue of A$150 million per annum exceeding operating costs of A$50 million per annum. The proposal attracted much public and media attention, as well as some private sector capital for feasibility studies.[1][23]

In September 1984, the Bureau of Transport Economics found that the probable construction costs had been underestimated by A$1.5 billion, and the proposal would therefore be uneconomic. The Minister for Transport, Peter Morris, rejected the proposal.[1]

Very Fast Train (VFT) joint venture[edit]

Paul Wild on track in front of a TGV, France, 1989

Later in 1984 Peter Abeles, chairman of TNT, expressed interest in Dr Wild's proposal.

Two years later in September 1986, the Very Fast Train Joint Venture was established, comprising Elders IXL, Kumagai Gumi, TNT and later BHP, with Dr Wild as chairman. They proposed a 350 km/h rail link from Sydney to Canberra via Goulburn, and then on to Melbourne via the coastal route (or alternatively the inland route). A feasibility study estimated to cost A$19 million ($39.5 million in 2013) was initiated by the group in 1988. In 1989, after talks with the Queensland Government, the joint venture group also performed a preliminary analysis of a coastal link to Brisbane. In 1990 the Joint Venture released the results of the major feasibility study, simply titled VFT - Project Evaluation. It proposed an inland route between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, with intermediate stations at Campbelltown, Bowral, Goulburn, Yass, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga, Benalla, Seymour and Melbourne Airport. It was estimated to cost $6.6 billion ($11.9 billion in 2013) and take five years to construct, beginning in 1992.

The VFT was opposed by numerous groups, notably the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Democrats.[1] Concerns centred around the environmental impact a coastal corridor would have on fragile ecosystems, noise pollution and the amount of public money that might be required.

After the release of the project evaluation, negotiations continued between the Joint Venture and state and federal governments. A favourable tax regime was sought, without which it was claimed that the project would not be economically viable. Premier of South Australia John Bannon was among the vocal proponents of tax breaks for major infrastructure projects such as the VFT.[1] In August 1991, the Hawke Cabinet rejected the proposed tax breaks after it was claimed they would have cost A$1.4 billion. Subsequently the VFT Joint Venture folded.[1][30][31]

Tilting trains[edit]

During the 1990s there were several investigations into the use of tilting trains on existing tracks. In January 1990 it was reported that the NSW government was considering upgrading the existing state railway lines to utilise tilting train technology under development by UK engineering giant ASEA Brown Boveri. This was at the same time as the VFT was under investigation, and there was concern that two fast railways could end up being built, which would then both be financially unviable. The tilt train concept could potentially reach speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour (120 mph) while using the existing tracks.[32]

After the breakup of the VFT joint venture, the NSW government continued to investigate tilt trains for a time. In 1995, CountryLink brought a Swedish Railways X 2000 trainset to New South Wales to conduct an eight-week trial on the Sydney-Canberra route. The test highlighted the deficiencies of the existing track, with tight curvature and inadequate transitions. Speed improvements over the XPT were modest, and the project was abandoned - it was a case of "fast train on slow track".[33]

Speedrail proposal[edit]

In 1993, the Speedrail Consortium (a joint venture between Alstom and Leighton Contractors) made a proposal for a high-speed rail link between Sydney and Canberra. It was initially costed at A$2.4 billion ($4.1 billion in 2013). After years of delays and more claims that massive government subsidies would be required,[1] in March 1997 the Commonwealth, New South Wales and ACT governments formally invited expressions of interest; by July, six proponents had been shortlisted. In December 1997, the government received four proposals, all accompanied by the required A$100,000 deposit.[23] The proponents were:

On 4 August 1998, Prime Minister John Howard announced that Speedrail was the preferred party,[34][35] and gave the go ahead for the project to move into the 'proving up' stage, on the understanding that if the project proceeded, it would be at "no net cost to the taxpayer". It was predicted that construction would cost A$3.5 billion ($5.4 billion in 2013), with 15,000 new jobs created during the construction period. It was planned that the line would use the East Hills line to depart Sydney, and then follow the Hume and Federal highways into Canberra. There would be stations at Central, Campbelltown, Southern Highlands, Goulburn and Canberra Airport. Nine eight-car trainsets would be used, departing from each city at 45-minute intervals, and running at a maximum speed of 320 km/h (199 mph) to complete the journey in 81 minutes.[34] The line was to operate under a build–own–operate model, that would allow a private company to manage the network, but would then be transferred to government after 30 years.

In November 1999, Speedrail submitted a feasibility study to the government, claiming that the project satisfied all the government's requirements.[36] However, the media still speculated that A$1 billion in government assistance or tax concessions would be required.[23] In December 2000, the federal government terminated the proposal due to fears it would require excessive subsidies.

Howard government (2000)[edit]

In December 2000 in the wake of the termination of the Speedrail proposal, the Howard Government commissioned TMG International Pty Ltd, leading a team of specialist subconsultants, including Arup, to investigate all aspects of the design and implementation of a high-speed rail system linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. The East Coast Very High Speed Train Scoping Study - Phase 1 was released in November 2001 and cost A$2.3 million to prepare.[37] It dealt with high-speed rail technologies, corridor selection, operating performance and transit times, project costs, projected demand, financing, and national development impacts. Although the preliminary study did not undertake a detailed corridor analysis, it recommended the selection of an inland route between Melbourne and Sydney, and a coastal route between Sydney and Brisbane.

The report concluded that although a high-speed rail system could have a place in Australia's transport future, it would require years of bipartisan political vision to realise (construction time was estimated at 10–20 years), and would most likely require significant financial investment from the government - up to 80% of construction costs.[38][37] Construction cost estimates indicated a strong dependence on the chosen design speed; the construction costs for a double-track east coast high speed railway would be (2001 A$):

  • 250 km/h: $33 – $41 billion
  • 350 km/h: $38 – $47 billion
  • 500 km/h (maglev): $56 – $59 billion

These numbers do not include rollingstock or the cost of setting up the operating company. The report noted that these costs could be reduced somewhat upon detailed corridor analysis (especially the lower speed options) if sections of existing rail or highway corridor could be utilised.

In March 2002, the Government decided not to go ahead with phase 2 of the scoping study due to the finding that an enormous amount of public funding would be required for the massive infrastructure project.[37]

Canberra Business Council study[edit]

In April 2008 the Canberra Business Council made a submission to Infrastructure Australia, High Speed Rail for Australia: An opportunity for the 21st century.[24] The submission detailed:

  • Improvements in technology, competitiveness and supply over the previous decade.
  • Travel demand on the East Coast. The Melbourne – Sydney air route is the fourth busiest in the world and Sydney—Brisbane ranks seventh in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • Increased standard of living.
  • Use for freight. High-speed freight trains are in use in France and soon to expand across Europe.
  • Environmental sustainability and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Energy efficiency.
  • Better social outcomes, quality of life, and reduced social disadvantage for regional centres on the rail line.

Canberra Airport plan[edit]

In 2009, Canberra Airport proposed that it would be the most appropriate location for a Second Sydney Airport, providing a high-speed rail link was built that could reduce travel times between the cities to 50 minutes. Given the existing development within the Sydney basin, a HSR link will probably be required whatever site is chosen, yet the Canberra option save up to A$22 billion which would be needed to develop a greenfields airport site at Badgerys Creek or Wilton.[39][40] In June 2012, Canberra Airport unveiled plans to build a A$140 million rail terminal at the airport if the high-speed link goes ahead.[40]

Intrastate proposals[edit]

At various times, state political parties and others have proposed schemes involving fast trains in other localities that included the potential to achieve speeds above the 200 km/h threshold.

In 2004, the Government of New South Wales proposed a A$2 billion privately funded underground and above-ground train line Western FastRail that would link the Sydney CBD with Western Sydney. The concept was re-proposed in December 2006 by then federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd during a visit to Penrith, as part of the Australian Labor Party's election platform. The plan received approving comments by the NSW State Government.[41] The line was also backed by a consortium led by union leader Michael Easson, which includes Dutch bank ABN AMRO and Australian construction company Leighton Contractors.[42] Elements of the proposal were incorporated into the Government's West Metro and CBD Relief Line projects. However, these plans were abandoned following the election of the O'Farrell government in 2011.

In 2008, Transrapid made a proposal to the Government of Victoria to build a privately funded and operated magnetic levitation (maglev) line to serve the Greater Melbourne metropolitan area.[43][44] It was presented as an alternative to the Cross-City Tunnel proposed in the Eddington Transport Report, which neglected to investigate above-ground transport options. The maglev route would connect Geelong to metropolitan Melbourne's outer suburban growth corridors, Tullamarine and Avalon domestic and international terminals in under 20 minutes, continuing to Frankston, Victoria, in under 30 minutes. It would serve a population of over 4 million people, and Transrapid claimed a price of A$4 billion. However, the Victorian government dismissed the proposal in favour of the underground metropolitan network suggested by the Eddington Report.

In 2010, Western Australia's Public Transport Authority completed a feasibility study into a high-speed rail link between Perth and Bunbury. The route would follow the existing narrow gauge Mandurah line to Anketell, then the Kwinana Freeway and Forrest Highway to Lake Clifton, including 140 km (87 mi) of new track.[45] It would replace the existing Transwa Australind passenger service, the route of which is under increasing use for freight traffic. The proposed service would have a maximum speed of 160 km/h (99 mph), at which the travel time from Perth Underground to a new station in central Bunbury would be 91 minutes. The corridor would allow for future upgrade to 200 km/h (120 mph).

In the lead-up to the 2010 Victorian state election, Liberal leader Ted Baillieu promised to spend A$4 million to set up a high-speed rail advocacy unit, with the goal of ensuring Melbourne hosted Australia's first high-speed trains. He expressed support for an east coast link, and extensions west of Melbourne to Geelong and Adelaide.[46][47]

The 2010 Infrastructure Partnerships Australia report identified Noosa-Brisbane-Gold Coast as a potentially viable high-speed rail link, and a possible precursor to a full east-coast system.[48] The report predicted that a 350 km/h (220 mph) system would reduce travel times between Cooroy (22 km west of Noosa) and Brisbane to 31 minutes (currently 2:08 hours), capturing as much as 84% of the total commuter market. Travel time between Brisbane and the Gold Coast would be reduced to 21 minutes, capturing up to 27% of commuters.

Soon after winning the 2011 NSW state election, the incoming Liberal premier Barry O'Farrell advocated high-speed rail lines to Melbourne and Brisbane instead of a second Sydney airport, saying of a new airport site in NSW: "Whether the central coast, the south-west or the western suburbs [of Sydney], find me an area that is not going to end up causing enormous grief to people who currently live around it".[49]

High Speed Rail Study (2011-2013)[edit]

Rudd/Gillard government (2008-2013)[edit]

In December 2008, the Rudd Government announced that a Very Fast Train along the Sydney–Melbourne corridor, estimated to cost A$25 billion, was the government's highest infrastructure priority.[50][51] On 31 October 2010, the Government issued the terms of reference for a strategic study to inform it and the New South Wales, Victorian, Queensland and Australian Capital Territory governments about implementation of HSR on the east coast of Australia between Melbourne and Brisbane.

The initiative was supported by both the Liberal opposition and the Australian Greens, the latter of which called for the study's scope to be extended to encompass Adelaide and Perth.[52][53]

The $20 million study was undertaken in two phases. The report of phase 1,[54] released on 4 August 2011, identified corridors and station locations and potential patronage, and gave indicative estimates of the cost.[55] The first phase of the study was completed in 2011, projecting a financial cost for high-speed rail of between $61 and A$108 billion, depending on the route and station combination that was selected.[54][56][57]

The phase 1 report found that an HSR corridor between Brisbane and Melbourne could:

  • cost between A$61 billion and A$108 billion (2011 dollars)
  • involve more than 1,600 kilometres of new standard-gauge, double-track
  • achieve speeds of up to 350 kilometres per hour and offer journey times as low as 3 hours between both Brisbane and Sydney and Sydney and Melbourne, 40 minutes from Sydney to Newcastle, and 1 hour between Sydney and Canberra
  • carry about 54 million passengers a year by 2036
  • offer competitive ticket prices.[54]

The report noted that acquiring, or otherwise preserving the corridor in the short term could reduce future costs by reducing the likelihood of additional tunnels as urban areas grow and preferred corridors become unavailable.[54]

Work on phase 2 of the study started in late 2011 and culminated in the release of the High speed rail study phase 2 report[8] on 11 April 2013.[58] Building on the work of phase 1, it was more comprehensive in objectives and scope, and refined many of the phase 1 estimates, particularly demand and cost estimates.[58]

In 2013 the Australian government released a study on the implementation of high-speed rail on the east coast of Australia, linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane.[58] Some have advocated extending the network to Adelaide[59][46] or as far as Perth on the west coast.[60][52]

The phase 2 report found that:[8]

  • the corridor would comprise about 1,750 kilometres of dedicated route linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne
  • the preferred alignment included four capital city stations, four city-peripheral stations, and stations at the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton
  • once fully operational (from 2065) [sic], the corridor could carry about 84 million passengers a year
  • express journey times would be less than three hours between Melbourne and Sydney and between Sydney and Brisbane
  • optimal staging for the HSR program would involve building the Sydney–Melbourne line first, starting with Sydney–Canberra, followed by Canberra–Melbourne, Newcastle–Sydney, Brisbane–Gold Coast and Gold Coast–Newcastle
  • the estimated cost of constructing the corridor in its entirety would be about A$114 billion (2012 dollars)
  • the HSR program and the majority of its individual stages would be expected to produce only a small positive financial return on investment. so governments would need to fund the majority of the upfront capital costs
  • if passenger projections were met at the fare levels proposed, the HSR system could generate sufficient revenue from fares and other activities to meet operating costs without ongoing public subsidy
  • HSR would substantially improve accessibility for the regional centres it served and provide opportunity for – although not the automatic realisation of – regional development.

Also released alongside the phase 2 report were 280 detailed maps showing the preferred alignment identified in the study. They resolve the various earlier alternative routes outlined in the Wikipedia article Corridor selection history for Australian High Speed Rail.

Melbourne–Sydney Sydney–Brisbane Sydney–Canberra
Rhumb-line distance[61] 730 km 770 km Unknown
Existing rail distance[61] 963 km (32% greater) 988 km (28% greater) Unknown
Existing rail average speed[61] 92 km/h 73 km/h Unknown
Existing rail travel time (h:min)[61] 10:30 13:35 4:19[62]
Existing rail services (daily, each way)[61] 2 1 3[63]
Air travel time (CBD to CBD*) (h:min)[61] 3:00 3:05 0:55
Air services (daily, each way)[64] 118 84 Unknown
High-speed rail travel time (max. 350 km/h (220 mph))[65] 2:45 4:24 1:04[66]

NOTE: Air travel time includes travel from CBD to airport, waiting at terminal, gate-to-gate transit, and travel to destination CBD.

The major issues preventing the adoption of high-speed rail include, according to Philip Laird:[23]

  • a high level of competition in domestic air travel, resulting in highly affordable fares.
  • excessive domestic air transport subsidies.
  • that the great inter-city distances exceed those for which high-speed rail can compete effectively against aircraft.
  • a perception of cheap car travel.
  • a lack of tolls on the majority of inter-capital roads.

Abbott/Turnbull government (2013-present)[edit]

On 8 November 2013 the High Speed Rail Advisory Group, charged with part of the planning for a very fast train between Brisbane and Melbourne, was one of 20 government committees and councils identified to be wound up as part of the newly elected Abbott Government's initial efforts to cut costs and "ensure that the machinery of government is as efficient and as small as possible".[67][68]

However, the following month, former Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss[69][70][71] announced that the Coalition was committed to acquiring the land corridor identified by the previous government's study, and that he was personally seeking the co-operation of the premiers of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and the Chief Minister of the ACT.

The Labor Party indicated it would support the move.[72]

Beyond Zero Emissions Study (2014)[edit]

In 2014, the low-carbon advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions released a detailed study in response to the Rudd government's Phase 2 report. Prepared in collaboration with the German Aerospace Centre, the study used many of the same cost assumptions but proposed a modified route to minimise construction expense. Although slightly longer (1799 km compared to 1748 km), the length in tunnel was reduced by 44%, and the length on bridges by 25%. Much of the reduction came through making greater use of existing transport corridors for metropolitan access; the government study took the politically uncomplicated but extremely expensive option of simply tunnelling to the terminal stations. Project author Gerard Drew also criticised the Phase 2 Report's 45-year construction timeline, calling it "laughable". Drew also suggested that there was significant "gold plating" evident in the government report's cost estimates. BZE forecast that the high-speed railway would cost $84.3 billion and take 10 years to construct.[73][74]

CLARA Proposal (2016-present)[edit]

A newly formed joint venture named CLARA ("Consolidated Land and Rail Australia") met with government and opposition officials to discuss a solution using Japan Railways' SC Maglev, with a trip of 1 hour 50 minutes from Sydney to Melbourne. In March they scheduled a meeting to make an unsolicited offer to the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, a noted train enthusiast, to link Melbourne to Sydney with a fast train line.[75]

CLARA partners Japan Railways Central, Mitsui and General Electric to provide a commercial funding model using private investors, that could build a SC Maglev linking Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, while creating 8 new self-sustaining inland cities linked to the high speed connection and contributing to the community.[76][77]

In April, Turnbull suggested that a staged construction could begin with links from capital cities to regional areas, and that construction could be financed by value capture. [78] However, the government did not propose to allocate any taxpayer funds toward the project.

See also[edit]



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