Fast(er) rail in the North East?

Given that gauge conversion in the North East is going ahead, I thought it might be good to have a quick look at the prospects for making it faster than the planned 130kph line speed.

As I discussed in the previous post, rebuilding line to RFR standard costs around $1.5m/km. For the 200km North East project, that’s $300m. Of course, that cost doesn’t include upgrading the existing SG line beyond its current 130kph limit, but given the line is already getting concrete sleepers and other works, a signalling and level crossing upgrade may well be all that’s required to make the line 160kph ready (but then again much more work may be required). The same should apply for the SG line from Seymour to Melbourne.

Buying rollingstock to service the line would also be necessary. The original Vlocity contract put the cost of each motor car at $7.04m (525/ 76) in 2002 dollars – or $8.05m in 2007 dollars. The most recent contract extension put the cost of each motorised trailer at $4.75m (38/ 8 ) in 2007 dollars. The project will see 15 carriages converted, as I understand it to be marshalled into 3 5 car sets. In Vlocity terms, that’s 6 motors and 9 motorised trailers, at a total cost of $91.05m.

RFR infrastructure standards and trains (but not service standards) are achievable without a great deal of difficulty, but it doesn’t mean they are worth it. There’s still only 5 trains per day going beyond Seymour – hardly a lot of patronage to justify additional investment. The reality is that freight is driving the investment on the line, and the industry simply isn’t demanding line speeds above 130kph.

There is little point in investing money to get line speeds over what freight demands for a measly 5 trains per day to towns where air isn’t a serious competitor. The only reason to go above 130kph would be as part of a bigger strategy for frequent high speed rail from Melbourne to Sydney. But 160kph would be woefully inadequate for such a service if it is to compete with air. Line speeds of 200kph would be required at minimum, all the way to Sydney.

Whilst 200kph line speeds and diesel traction still wouldn’t deliver the requisite 4 hour journey times (as discussed a while ago on Riccardo’s blog) to beat air CBD to CBD, they might still be a good start. The Deutsche Bundesbahn upgraded many conventional mainlines to this standard in the 70s, which made the introduction of ICE services that bit easier. But it has to be part of a broader plan for high speed passenger rail between major cities (not one horse towns) – in absence of such a plan, I’d much rather have the money go to increasing freight capacity by double tracking Albury – Junee and Seymour – Melbourne.


12 Responses

  1. Phin, I think that any push for speeds over 130kph are a non-starter on the North-South corridor in its current (and imminent future) form.

    North of the Victorian border, the post-Baan Baa across the board speed reduction of CountryLink trains to 130kph provided an excellent excuse for RIC and later ARTC to save money by not maintaining the southern reaches of the Main South to 160kph standards. ARTC also used premium pricing south of the border to slow the XPT down to 130kph (and where it could to 115kph).

    I agree that if you were going to seriously look at high speed rail, you’d want to pursue newer, straighter alignments, with 21st Century, rather than 19-20th Century engineering standards. Making the current Sydney-Melbourne corridor a ‘two speed’ railway to take high speed rail and heavy freight would be a waste.

    Finally, there has been an excellent series of articles in Railway Digest over the last year or so by Colin Butcher that goes into some depth in the engineering and economics of high speed rail in Australia – I commend them to your (and the other readers’) attention if you have not already done so.


  2. The current line North of Albury should only have local trains with a New shorter high speed capable route via Gundagai and Holbroock. With overhead wiring and double track all the way between capitals and a New route through the windy moutainous bit near Picton.

  3. Thanks for the cross-ref Phin, I’d forgotten about this post although I alluded to it earlier today on the Page.

    I think most of the benefits of HSR (220+kms) in Australia would accrue over shorter routes than Syd-Mel, although that doesn’t preclude a Syd-Mel line, of which the full segment is not the only determinant of pax demand, but the intermediate sections as well (especially Syd-Cbr and Cbr-Mel). Certainly while a 225km/h train from Syd-Mel would struggle against air’s best performance CBD-CBD, the train would thrash the plane over the Syd-CBR sector and the trian would well match the plane over a Mel-CBR sector (assuming a comfortable 3 hour city-city time)

    A lot of foamerdom suffer from the problem that they can’t imagine business people using rail, because of the legacy-rail situation in Australia – poor onboard comfort and staff attitude, plus poor reliability.

    If this was changed, by having new operators and new staff, you could overcome this problem.

    There is nothing wrong with the Albury route – while the mountain route would be much faster, the engineering costs would be much much higher. You still need a range crossing somewhere between Yass and Burrunjuck dam, but can avoid the worst of the Cullerin area by following the Federal Hwy and Lake George easement that the highway now uses.

    North of Goulburn and around Wingecarribee you need to plot a new, expensive path possibly using the highway easement for much of the way (and heavy earthworks too) but you will be serving communities that are much more heavily populated than most Victorians realise, for example, Bowral-Mittagong-Moss Vale would have the best part of 100,000 people now, many quite well off and prepared to pay a pretty sum for a fast train to the Sydney CBD.

    From Campbelltown in you would need a pair of tracks beside the existing line and via East Hills. This would need to be sorted out soon because Cityrail needs 2 tracks for local services, is looking at 2 more, plus the ARTC is planning one track or maybe 2 as a long loop around Glenfield-Campbelltown. I suspect the easement can take 6 tracks as the area is fairly straight and flat, but still, they’ll need to work it out sooner rather than later.

    I don’t honestly know how they would get the trains in from Wolli Creek – as the airport line should be busy with suburban trains. As far as Sydenham there is room for 2 more tracks not yet committed to existing amplification projects, but from there in the remaining 2 trackbeds are promised to Cityrail to boost Bankstown frequencies.

  4. Riccardo – Based on your high speed rail plans, how many services a day do you recommend run between MEL and SYD?

    Phin – Good blog as always, beats Railpage!

  5. Thanks Oben

    Would suggest (and this is where you can differ from turn-up-and-go metro style) you would go for an irregular timetable that provides hourly services the full distance, but might offer in between services to the sub-markets at the level that existing aviation might currently.

    One problem people forget in the comparison between HSR and air is that a 737 or whatever might hold 130 people, the HST should hold the best part of 1000 people.

    But you would still use an aviation yield model to sell the seats on the train, for example, fit one carriage out as luxury first class and basically pay for the entire operating cost of the whole train using that first carriage. Then the balance of the train is just profit, and you can discount right down.

    So with say two first class cars, say $800 per seat one way from SYD-MEL, say 50 seats per car, you”ve got $80,000 which would need to pay for the entire train’s direct operating costs. These seats are only price sensitive to air competition, and to the overall economy (you might lose these in a recession). They are not price cross-elastic with the rest of the seats on the train, which are much lower quality.

    You could then have a mixture of turn-up-and-go refundable economy seats (more generous than air, but still clearly economy) and discounted (APEX or specials) seats.

    With the submarkets, you would probably have a dedicated set covering Benalla, Wang and Aldonga (maybe terminate this one at Wagga). And another Syd-Goulburn or Syd-CBR covering a Bowral stop, Goulburn stop and any others deemed worthy.

    You might also have some positioning runs (which aviation also finds hard to avoid running sometimes) which are not time sensitive and could run late at night on super discounts.

    You would need to shut the line like they do with the Shinkansens every night for grinding and urgent works, and maybe not run after 9pm on a Sunday for example.

    Anyway nice to dream, although at $200 a barrel it might become more real than before.

    BTW I don’t go with the hysteria that the market for aviation is going to collapse overnight.

    Consider this: A person with $2000 budgeted to go to Europe on a relatively cheap airfare now finds the airfare is $4000 because the oil price has quadrupled and the fare to Thailand is $2000. Many will just go to Thailand instead, others will save for longer, others will cut back on accommodation (and stay in 3 star rather than 5 star), some will not stay as long and of course, some will not go. But to say “All” will not go is just ridiculous.

    Australia is still enjoying an economic boom and despite what some say, inflation does put money in the pockets of certain people.

    The people who will suffer are those in newly developing countries who expected $US40 a seat to go from Jakarta to Surabaya, for example, who now find it $US120 and have to postpone their plans to see their elderly mother another year because that is a lot of money in Indonesia. So their discount airlines will take quite a whack.

    But the amount that Jetstar and Tiger have saved over what Qantas and Ansett used to charge in real terms, is far more than what the fuel price increase has been.

    In the very long term I suspect governments will ensure airlines get priority for the remaining oil over motorists – so railfans need to watch this space re ‘commuting’, not long distance travel.

  6. I think that aviation without HSR alterative will be preferenced over aviation with HSR alternative.

  7. Yes, I agree on what you said about overseas travel demand; just because the prices are rising will not stop people from going, it’s more a matter of the things they’ll cut back or cut off from Eg: Length, luxury etc. I can prove this (to a degree) because I plan to travel to Europe in 2010/11 for a long while (6 months). All the news about oil prices rising is starting to make me think that the cost might be quite high. However, if that is the case, then I might think about working overseas to pay off debt or even doing some volunteer labor on a freight ship! No cost is going to stop me… I’m sure this would be the case with others as well.

    I still believe we will see HSR in Australia in the next 50 years or so, it’s just a matter of time and political willpower.

  8. Yes Tom: agreed.

  9. Riccardo –
    “Bowral-Mittagong-Moss Vale would have the best part of 100,000 people now”

    Are you sure? I go through those places quite often – AFAIK each of them only has roughly 7,000 so the combined population would not be more than 20,000. You’d be hard pressed to find 100,000 people along the entire Southern Highlands Line corridor from Macarthur to Goulburn.

    I wonder how the approach to Melbourne would be with a high-speed line – I’d suggest that the current SG approach via Albion would be the easiest and best to upgrade. Sydney is another issue, but at least there is some space along the East Hills line.

    Back to the North East – I wouldn’t think that more than 130km/h would be needed for Albury services. I’d rather see it upgraded to a better frequency (say 2 more V/Line trips each way) rather than making it 30km/h faster.

  10. According to their website, Wingecarribee is 42,272 in 2006 so a bit of an exaggeration on my part. But definitely more than 20k.

    Wollondilly is now 40,000 too.

    Goulburn is 27,000. So your estimate for the corridor beyond Macarthur sounds about right.

    Not bad though, when you add that to Canberra’s population for the route.

  11. Phin, done another training track, finally! Not a particular good one, but trying to get the set finished.

  12. Thanks for the comments all – apologies for my very late reply. I agree that if HSR goes to Sydney – it needs to go via the patronage generators. Going via Canberra is, in my view, essential to make the project viable. HSR would smash air Canberra-Sydney and probably Canberra-Melbourne too, and excluding it would be suboptimal.

    I should really get back to study (I have a development economics exam tomorrow morning!!!) but I’ll endeavour to reply in greater detail tomorrow evening.

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