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High speed rail

Southern Highlands (Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale, etc.)

Uniqueness of Southern Highlands

The Southern Highlands of NSW distinguishes itself as an area, somewhat unique in its combination of rural and retirement lifestyles with picturesque villages, a cooler climate than Sydney, a mix of reasonable sized towns (Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale, Berrima, Robertson, etc.) and some industry. Without wishing to draw negative contrasts to other areas of the State, it does show a different demographic from many of the potential HSR station locations, and we think it would approach patronage on a HSR/VHST service a little differently as a result.

Situated as it is with its southern extremity, Moss Vale, some 141 kms by existing rail service to Sydney City, it is the kind of area that should substantially benefit from a very fast rail service, using latest technology. Granted, this would only be viable in the context of a broader project decision (such as a Canberra-Sydney stage), but we feel it deserves some particular consideration.  However, it is also the kind of area that might accept a premium fare for a fast service.

Wollongong/Illawarra Considerations

If one took the Highlands to include areas more to the north, such as Picton, then it is clear from past work on the originally proposed Maldon-Dombarton rail link, that one way to connect the large metropolitan region surrounding Wollongong with concepts of HSR which were developed in the 2012 and 2013 studies, might be an eventual spur line from the coastal area to the relevant Southern Highlands station location. Earlier studies had tried to bring Wollongong into a fast rail system because of its population (Illawarra region approx. 0.5 million people), but had difficulties with defining a corridor that made sense without slowing down the trip from/to Canberra.

Need for Master Planning

It is indeed arguable that if we had a very fast rail service down as far as the Southern Highlands then the mooted UrbanGrowth “Macarthur South”  land development area might be supplanted by master planned developments within the Highlands catchment, oriented towards an envisaged HSR station location. That is just the sort of combined land use / fast transport initiative that the Japanese railway companies customarily use to help fund their successful rail operations. We note that Lend Lease has its Bingara Gorge development in that Wilton-Picton area already.

Travel time estimates

We happen to have been able to carry out some travel time calculations for a hypothetical Southern Highlands stopping point location, on the way between Canberra and Badgerys Creek, as part of an analysis that concluded that a HSR route between Canberra and Sydney would not lose much if it went out to Western Sydney Airport before bending in towards Parramatta and the Sydney CBD. This work showed:-

    • Southern Highlands to Parramatta via Badgerys Creek:  about 18-19 minutes (plus extra if the design of the service requires layover at the Airport) – this was about a 105 km route;
    • As another post shows, depending on technology used, there might be a further 10 minutes or so travel interval to get into Sydney’s centre – that gives (say) 29-30 minutes for a trip to/from the Highlands to the Sydney CBD;
    • That would be very attractive to the executive class based on time savings and lifestyle benefits in a semi-rural situation in the Highlands (perhaps a real estate developer’s dream);

Nb. The Phase Two study had a 98 kms route from near Mittagong Airport, which they quoted as 29 minutes, but we are  assuming a step up in average speed is now possible with the latest technology, which makes up for the extra distance of going out via Badgerys Creek.

Mode Shift Potential

Of further interest is that the distance involved here very much suits modal shift. Travelling by road (the Hume Highway) from a relevant Southern Highlands location to Badgerys Creek was timed at 63 minutes by Tom Tom (no delay feature) and 95 minutes from that location to Sydney. Sydney’s metropolitan traffic congestion would worsen that, more often than not quite significantly, especially for peak hour time frames, and then there is the reliability factor in terms of travel time.  Therefore, we imagine that HSR/VHST would have substantial time saving and predictability advantages, which would accrue on either trips to WSA for business travel, or into the Parramatta or Sydney CBD’s for office workers. A shift in patronage from roads to rail is thus a distinct possibility for this corridor.

The same situation would apply, but even greater for time saving and mode shift, with respect to a Goulburn station location, but we leave that to another post because we think the demographics must be differentiated, and Goulburn would be more a satellite of Canberra than of Sydney.

Regional Development, even new Cities

The concept that the Japanese use to help fund fast rail by real estate development, has been picked up here by some local politicians, led by John Alexander, former tennis ace, who is now Liberal MP for Bennelong in Sydney (John Howard’s old seat). “JA” has pointed out that Goulburn, for one, has cheap land which would be transformed by the speed of HSR/VHST. He is influenced by his time as a professional tennis player/coach in the USA and what Atlanta, Georgia achieved in a way that has some parallels, though that was more the ‘aerotropolis’ concept espoused by John Kasarda. The development advantages are not dissimilar in nature, under suitable master planning. The Stockland group’s Cloverton development in Victoria is leading that way, but without the benefits of much faster rail.



A History of Government studies and decisions regarding fast rail, with relevance to Canberra

The latest detailed work, the Phase Two study of 2013 into High Speed Rail, nominated a first stage of the Melbourne to Sydney project being Canberra to Sydney, with a Canberra spur line (see map from study Chapter 6, Figure 6.1). Construction was provisionally envisaged between 2028 and 2035.

Map showing route from HSR Phase 2 study

There is a history to the Canberra connection being the key to political decisions for High Speed Rail in Australia, both by it being prioritised for political reasons (access to federal monies) and also by it often being the impediment (lack of willingness at the Federal level to taking on the risks).

Hawke-Keating Era

The 1987 joint venture between BHP, TNT, Elders IXL and Kumagai-Gumi for a fast rain service from Sydney to Canberra then on to Melbourne went by the name The Very Fast Train (or “VFT “) Project. It had been first proposed to Canberra by CSIRO expert Dr Paul Wild and then backed
by the private sponsors. However, the NSW Govt (Transport Minister Baird) in 1990 instead commissioned a study into use of tilt trains for NSW, a move which unfortunately caused the private sector VFT effort to lose momentum. The late Paul Wild went on to advise the Chinese Government on his visionary ideas: he conceptualised a Beijing–Shanghai high-speed railway, which is now in commercial service. 25 years later of the states only Qld has yet adopted tilt trains, for its very long distance Queensland Rail lines to Rockhampton and Cairns, yet the tilting concept has been built into the latest generations of high speed rail vehicles.

In 1993 another private consortium going by the name Speedrail, proposed a high-speed link between Sydeny and Canberra using French TGV technology. This proposal envisaged an 84 minutes travel time and was to enter Sydney via the East Hills line meaning that it needed sharing of track and co-operation from NSW’s Railcorp. In the event, the Federal Government decided to call for competition for the project via an Expression of Interest approach, which gave rise to six shortlisted proponents and eventually 4 separate and sometimes distinct proposals, one of which was the new German Maglev technology, which has since been implemented (with Chinese adaptations) in Shanghai. Without access to confidential documents from the era it is not possible to say anything really definitive about the speed question, but it has been stated publicly that the maximum speed would have been 320 km/h. However, if one treated the distance as 280 kms approx. and based on the latest stated travel time we saw of 81 minutes (source Prof. Phillip Laird of Wollongong University), the average speed, would have been just over 200 km/h. Moreover,  this would have been affected by the slowing down of train sets once they entered the CityRail network.

Howard Era

The Howard Government in 1998 awarded Speedrail “preferred party” status but insisted that there be “no net cost to Government” in the proving up stage, a condition that proved to be the ultimate stumbling block, with the project being finally rejected in December, 2000. Rumours surrounded the need for access to tax benefits to make the economics of the project work.

To its credit, the Howard Government then commissioned a new study, the East Coast Very High Speed Scoping Study, which did in fact include the option of a Maglev system, but concluded that the construction costs for each of the alternative systems would be very high, being respectively greater the higher the design speed targeted. Subsequently, the Federal Government decided in March, 2002 not to proceed. The total cost had obviously challenged the politicians too much – but those costs seem smaller today, so is it merely a long term perspective that is needed?

Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era

The Rudd Government from 2008 re-instituted the priority to an East coast high speed rail project. When the subsequent Gillard Government studies were initiated, Maglev was excluded, even though it had been implemented in Shanghai and also, by then, Japan was getting quite advanced with its own version of Maglev (a different technical engineering solution called Super-Conducting Magnetic Levitation, or SC-Maglev). So the Phase One and Phase Two studies of 2012 and 2013 respectively envisaged only “wheel on rails” alternatives. For this purpose the design brief was speeds up to 350 km/h with technology that could eventually be taken to 400 km/h. The travel time between Canberra and Sydney was quoted widely as 64 minutes. This works out at about 250 km per hour on average. Again there was a constraint involved, being limitation of speeds in the long tunnels into Sydney CBD {CHECK}.

In the 2nd Rudd Government a policy was announced for the 2013 election that money would be set aside to establish a corridor and legislate for a High Speed Rail Authority.

Abbott Era

In the event the Abbott Government, upon coming to power, disbanded the High Speed Rail Advisory Group led by Tim Fischer, and opted instead for prioritised road spending.

The latest status – how quick to Sydney from Canberra?

Now, if we take the Chuo Shinkansen SC-Maglev project which Japan has recently initiated, as a guide, the travel time from Canberra to Sydney might be reduced to 40 minutes or thereabouts. This project is 86% in tunnels (due to the Japanese mountainous geography) and yet forecasts  an average speed of 429 km/h. The Japanese rail companies have made numerous technical advances with their technology, so why can’t we do this here?

Even diverting via Badgerys Creek to Parramatta from Canberra would only be about 45 minutes if this technology holds for our situation. 


The Newcastle-Sydney Rail Corridor: History & Status

Because it may become a controversial topic, let’s jump now to the case of the Newcastle-Sydney rail corridor. Let’s start with a quote out of Wikipedia

Wikipedia: History of rail transport in Australia New South Wales:
“…New South Wales’ railways were standard gauge lines built to connect the ports of Sydney and Newcastle to the rural interior. The first public railway was built from Sydney to Parramatta Junction and after two decisions to change the rail gauge, problems in raising capital and difficulties in construction, the line was opened in 1855. The Main Southern line was built in stages from Parramatta Junction to the Victorian border at Albury between 1855 and 1881 and connected to the Victorian Railways at a break-of-gauge in 1883. The standard gauge connection from Albury to Melbourne was finally completed in 1962. Meanwhile, the Main Western line was built in stages to the north west of the state, starting in 1860 at Parramatta Junction and reaching Bourke in 1885.
The Main North line was built in sections over several years. The Sydney to Newcastle section was connected with the conclusion of the final 2 stages of the Homebush to Waratah line {Mullet Creek to Gosford – opened 16 January 1888, and Hawkesbury to Mullet Creek – opened 1 May 1889}. These final 2 stages required the construction of the Woy Woy Tunnel and the original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge. The Newcastle to Wallanagarra section was constructed between 1857 and 1888 with a break-of-gauge required at the New South Wales & Queensland border. The North Coast railway line (was) constructed between 1905 and 1932 …”

Current Status

The point often made about the Sydney to Newcastle line is that it currently runs slower than it did in the steam era. I refer to a recent quote from Gavin Gatenby of EcoTransit Sydney: “Compared with best international practice the intercity journey is pitifully slow. Before the Government truncated services at Hamilton, the fastest trip from Central to Newcastle was 2 hours 36 minutes. The alternate slow services, with stops at 36 stations, took almost 3 hours…… In the steam era, the fastest scheduled were 2 hours 18 minutes.”

The speed of this rail line is pretty close to a worst case in terms of international standards. Note that this is between NSW’s 2nd major city and Sydney, servicing an area that has over 1 million population compared with circa 4 million within the Sydney basin. Indeed the Phase One Study into High Speed Rail, commissioned at the start of the Gillard Federal Government era prior to the 2010 Federal election, had backed the Sydney-Newcastle corridor as the first candidate for High Speed Rail. Yet, by the time of the Phase Two Study which followed, it had been downgraded to a status less important than Canberra to Sydney; Nb Canberra/ACT has a population of circa 400,000. It appears that the Federal Government was again challenged by the cost factors.

There have been ongoing difficulties with the State government making progress on improving the service along this corridor. The Phase Two HSR study had pointed to a very large construction cost per km to traverse the Hawkesbury and the terrain to its immediate south and north, with the cost of tunnelling being a major impediment. More recently, the Transport for NSW proposal for a new Intercity fleet, which would have benefited travellers in this corridor, has been postponed. That followed strategic  recommendations by Infrastructure NSW, under Paul Broad and Nick Greiner, that up to 1 hour could be cut off the travelling time from Newcastle. That involved not new technology so much as improving the line, in order that applicable trains could run faster.  There have been varying attempts to put greater priority on straightening the existing rail line (including a new tunnel south of Woy Woy, even a high bridge over the Hawkesbury, like the Chinese High Speed Rail companies have done), but so far to no avail.

A slow train, beaten by road travel

So, to conclude, the status quo is a trip between Newcastle and Sydney of between 2.75 and 3 hours (say) – which works out for the approx. 160 kms distance as just 50-60 km/h.

No wonder the F3 route, now M1, is used so much!

Despite that, what are the possibilities?

Using latest high speed rail or very high speed rail technologies, from mooted stations to the west of Newcastle City (Hexham and Cameron Park areas have been studied as possibilities) the trip time to Parramatta could be in the range of 30 to 35 minutes (+ or -). This time would be reduced if HSR/VHST is constructed from outer city station to outer city terminus as happens in some other parts of the world, but then interchange for passengers is needed and the total trip time expands by both changeover interval (wait time) and slower connecting services from origin location plus to eventual destination. The Phase One study of 2012 quoted a lowest travel time of 40 minutes, direct to Sydney Central from their nominated Newcastle HSR station location, whilst the Phase Two study of 2013 refined that to 39 minutes. Anyway, a significant gain on the current situation!

To get such fast travel involves minimising station stops, having skip-stop or non-stop services, and also a lot of engineering effort and cost, to take the corridor through difficult terrain and get as straight and level a line as possible. We note in this regard that it has been claimed that engineering costs for large scale tunnelling contracts (and such a project would enjoy much in the way of economies of scale) have been reduced to as low as perhaps half of that assumed in the Phase Two HSR study. This is claimed to be as a result of both new techniques and competitors from places such as Europe, China, and Japan where such engineering is more prevalent and more efficient than the experience of Australia prior to major projects such as (in the Sydney context) North West Rail, North Connex, and WestConnex.

Furthermore one of the possible proposals we have seen, involved the concept of a spur line north of the Hawkesbury, to bring Gosford and Woy Woy patronage into a HSR line that in previous studies had bypassed that strong commuter area.


What speed rail?

Evolution of rail speeds

Some history first

Rail has come a long way as a mode of transport since its first recognised commerciality, generally accepted as when George Stephenson constructed his first steam locomotive for the Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825). Rail speed has certainly increased over the years, and rail’s predicted death may not eventuate.

Believe it or not the first public railway track in NSW came about in 1855, between Sydney and Parramatta Junction – then a distance of 22 kms.

Australia has had its problems with States choosing different gauges but for the purposes of these web pages we will assume we are past that point, so we will be mainly talking standard gauge track – until we get into the very latest technologies of Maglev, which operate differently to our accustomed “wheel on rails” experiences.

Up until the advent of Maglev, the most notable high speed train services were from the Japanese (initiated in 1964, and generally known around the world as the “bullet train”, but in Japan it is simply referred to as the ‘Shinkansen’, which is the high speed network). These trains now travel commercially at up to 320 km/h but we understand can technically go faster (360 km/h already tested). The French TGV (‘Train a Grande Vitesse”) set the previous world speed record for a train, and the current record for “wheels on rail” types, of 574.8 km/h in April, 2007, but this was not in an operating configuration. Nevertheless the French have led Europe for many decades in high speed rail. TGV trains now operate commercially on lines where they regularly reach 320 km/h. So, without going into individual details of other countries such as Germany, Spain, Italy and lately the Chinese, who are taking their trains to this level or higher, let us just stop here for a moment and accept for sake of argument that, for “wheels on rail”, we are talking about commercial speeds of between 300km/h – and (say) 400 km/h in future – for this is what our Federal Governments 2013  Phase Two study into ‘High Speed Rail’ effectively concluded.

BUT: Just how fast is this versus jet aircraft?

Following the fleet variations of our main domestic carriers Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar is a specialty in itself, as the commercial aircraft manufacturing industry is quite dynamic and airlines do adopt different strategies in term of aircraft choice and fleet configuration. It is fairly safe to say, however, that most commercial aircraft of relevance to possible high speed rail routes can cruise (at high altitude levels) at speeds somewhere between 800 km/h and 900 km/h. This is clearly faster than the trains we have the choice of, even if Australia invests heavily in High Speed Rail.

In fact what this points to is that the term “bullet train” is a misnomer, as bullets are generally regarded as fitting the speed range between 1,000 to 3,000 km/h. A more apt name for the latest high speed rail technologies would be a “jet train”, and indeed this is what the whole Gillard Government High Speed Rail (“HSR”) study of 2012-13 was about; could High Speed Rail out-compete commercial jet aircraft services?

Essentially that boils down to just what is the travel time, right from the point of origin to the point of destination, rather than just the maximum speed reached in between. The Gillard Government HSR studies sought to model this for a whole host of postulated origins and destinations, seeking to ascertain if total travel time could on average be brought down below 3 hours for each of the Melbourne-Sydney and Brisbane-Sydney lines. This is why so much emphasis was given to finding the closest to straight, and closest to flat, lines for the HSR corridors. The strong emphasis on achieving this objective, especially in the Phase Two study, seemed incongruous with, for instance, the omission of Maglev technologies from the terms of reference.

Another key omission, in the author’s viewpoint, was the difference between the level of productivity of workers whilst travelling on an aircraft route versus on High Speed Rail. For, it is widely recognised that the ride on modern high speed rail (as exemplified in Europe, China and Japan) is smoother, and enables large periods of productive work time, with full access to Internet plus electricity for re-charging mobile devices. This has value which was not properly taken account of in the economic studies of 2012-13, and possibly has been under-estimated in all Australian studies to date – though it is granted that the same value analysis cannot apply to leisure travel, where no rational economic time value can be ascribed to time on board the train. That is intangible.

The recent developments – Japanese SC-Maglev

It was alluded to in another post that Japan has progressed its technology substantially with its technical breakthroughs using the new field of SC-Maglev. So much so that the Japanese Government has approved the Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central out here, JR Tokai in Japan) to build a duplication of its most successful route from Tokyo to Osaka using this SC-Maglev version, on a route called the Chuo Shinkansen. Officially regulated top speed of this service, pre-construction, is 505 km/h and estimated average speed over the interval between Tokyo and Nagoya is 429 km/h. Rail technology has certainly come a  long way since Stephenson!

It does appear as if Japan has thus far taken a leap forward past the Chinese and Germans who have not (yet) beaten the scientific challenges of using the Superconducting form of Maglev, especially to the status required of a commercial operation. [For various answers on SC-Maglev we suggest you try viewing the US web site for The North East Maglev, or TNEM, project – also see this article about progress with Maglev in Maryland, USA].

The new project by JR Central  will have an initial stage between Tokyo and Nagoya similar to the distance from Canberra to Sydney, which they state officially will be covered in a time of 40 minutes, with 4 intermediate stops.  Construction of the line commenced in December, 2014 and it is expected to be operational by 2027.

More recently, as part of a final phase of testing for the service, the project’s L0 series Maglev, operating in a 7 car manned train set, established a new land speed record for rail vehicles of 603 km/h. This run, whilst setting the record, was actually carried out in order to acquire performance data on speeds exceeding 550 km/h, which data is to be used to help optimise designs for the commercial line. Reading between the lines of this, though the Japanese Government originally approved the project with a restricted top operating speed of 505 km/h, it seems to us possible that the eventual line may be run even faster.

For the present time, therefore, unless new data comes forward, we are assuming that the Japanese SC-Maglev can be run at a top speed of 505 km/h, quite an advance on what the Phase Two study utilised in 2013, resulting in an even greater query on why this technology has not been studied further for Australia. At these speeds, if a suitable corridor could be defined and secured, then the travel time between Melbourne and Sydney could work out at more like 2 hours than 3 hours. Indeed, due to the reported acceleration potential of the technology, whereby the time taken to reach 500 km/h is less than 2.5 minutes, we think it could be used in situations that the official Government studies here have not yet considered. The recent tests show that it takes approximately 10kms to get to top speed, and about the same distance to decelerate and stop. We are informed that it can maintain top speed on a gradient of up to 4 per cent and even on a 10 per cent gradient can maintain the sort of speed that the TGV service achieves at its maximum.

That is the sort of travel speed and time that would have to be transformational for our country. It truly is almost a “jet train”.

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