Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Bullet Train to Somewhere

By Ian Lowe

A strong case has been made for a high-speed rail network passing within 50 km of 60% of Australians.

An exciting plan for high-speed rail along the eastern corridor of Melbourne–Canberra–Sydney–Brisbane is the centrepiece of a new strategy for low-carbon transport. Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) has held a series of launch events featuring leading politicians to promote the scheme.

Having travelled on the Japanese bullet train nearly 50 years ago and used the modern high-speed rail systems in Europe more recently, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the technology. It is fast, comfortable and potentially much better for the environment if the power comes from renewable energy.

The proposed Australian system would link the four capitals but would also serve the cities of Newcastle and Gold Coast, as well as 12 regional centres, six between Brisbane and Sydney with another six between Sydney and Melbourne.

A detailed analysis estimates the capital cost as $84 billion, including a fleet of 87 trains to allow services every 10 minutes at peak hours. BZE says that the network could be operational by 2025 if there was political commitment.

BZE estimates that the journey times of less than 3 hours from Sydney to Melbourne or Brisbane and attractive fares of around $100 would see airline traffic between those cities drop from the current level of about 60 million to about one-third of that, with the majority of travellers using the train system, as has happened in Europe. With those fares, the operating profits would repay the capital cost within about 40 years.

Some 60% of Australians live within 50 km of a station on the proposed network, so it would revolutionise inter-urban travel. With several million fewer passengers using Sydney airport, it could remove the pressure to spend huge sums building a new airport at Badgery’s Creek.

The construction of a high-speed rail system along the south-eastern corner of Australia, where most of us live, would be a significant nation-building project. While I think it would be a rational investment in our future, it is difficult to see majority support for it in the new Parliament.

I was in South Australia recently and witnessed an amazing public discussion about electricity. The state has the greatest amount of wind power of any jurisdiction. As wind is by some measure the cheapest form of electricity, you might expect South Australia to have lower power prices than other states. It doesn’t, for a variety of reasons.

One is that the wind doesn’t always blow, so other forms of power are needed on still days. Because coal-fired power stations can’t adapt quickly to changing demand, those old installations have been closed and South Australia now uses gas turbines to supplement its wind and solar.

The price of gas has increased dramatically in recent years as a result of a developing export industry in Queensland, inflating local prices to those on the world market. There is now a very close relationship between gas prices and the cost of electricity in South Australia.

A third factor is the privatisation of the industry by the Olsen Government, burdening consumers with the margin that the private operator builds in to make a profit.

All these factors combine to put South Australia’s household power prices right in the middle of the Australian range: cheaper than the Northern Territory, NSW and Tasmania in the most recent year for which figures are available, and more expensive than Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland.

In an ideal world there would be strong connections with Victoria and NSW, allowing South Australia to export its surplus power when the wind is blowing and import cheap back-up electricity on still days. The present system allows only limited exchange across state borders.

A second problem is the widespread misconception that wind and solar are expensive. I have seen letters in the Adelaide newspaper claiming that South Australia has the most expensive electricity in the world as a result of its heavy emphasis on wind! In fact, as the national regulator said in its latest report, wind “puts downward pressure on prices” – economic jargon for recognising that it’s cheaper than power from coal or gas.

In the absence of strengthened connections to the eastern states, South Australia probably needs pumped storage to smooth out the mismatch between the available wind power and the fluctuating daily demand.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.