In the jargon of American rail workers, a “hot rail” is a section of railroad over which the passing of a train is imminent; the closer or faster the approaching train, the hotter the rail. Most of Australia’s railways have been cold for decades, and there is no political, business or community will to change this – it is generally agreed that railway construction is too expensive, and passenger numbers too low, to justify rebuilding and reopening the lines.
On the other hand, people will line up to advocate a High Speed Rail megaproject between the major east-coast capitals. Most recently, in 2013 the federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development released a study by the multidisciplinary engineering firm AECOM, proposing a 1,748km railway linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane, with a design speed of 400km/h. It’s certainly exciting, even visionary, but if the 40-year construction timeline didn’t guarantee the political death of the project, the headline price of 114 billion dollars sure did. To use the Queen’s English, it ain’t gonna happen, dude!
And yet Australia should be a perfect market for medium-haul intercity fast rail. Our major cities, especially the East Coast capitals, are in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, driven largely by the fact that there just isn’t enough land within easy commuting distance of their CBDs. The average Australian mortgage is closing in on ten times the median wage in some states. Urban sprawl is concreting over much of Australia’s best farmland. The capitals are spreading out, and also crowding in, as we all try to find a place to live that’s close enough to jobs and nightlife, but quiet enough to raise a family. However it seems there just aren’t enough of those places to go around.
Meanwhile, many of Australia’s regional townships are dead or dying. There are dozens of such pinpricks on the map within two to three hundred kilometres of the major cities – no longer needed to house labourers for the mechanised farms of today, but too far from the big cities to house commuters. Post offices, hotels and train stations lie abandoned, and large blocks can be bought for surprisingly low prices in some of the prettiest countryside in Australia. Yet they languish on the market for years – no access to the jobs in the capitals means no buyers.
This is what reopening the rails can change – not bankrupting Qantas by capturing the entire passenger market for the hugely profitable Sydney-to-Melbourne run, but opening up access to a myriad of tiny hamlets as dormitory towns for the capitals – places you can’t currently get to without a long and difficult drive. It would revitalise every town on the line, without resulting in the unsightly “ribbon development” like we have along the east coast freeway. Each station would become a development node, with thousands of new residents funding some of the most interesting new town developments ever seen in Australia.
But the very aspect that makes intercity rail interesting is also what makes it affordable. When the relevant route is just two or three hundred kilometres, rather than a thousand, you suddenly don’t need the 400km/h supertrains; 200km/h will do just fine. And if 200km/h will do just fine, you don’t need a brand new, gunbarrel-straight track (and all the bridges and tunnels needed to achieve that). You just need the existing tracks to be upgraded. Upgrading existing railways is, relatively speaking, cheap as chips.
This purpose of this blog is to propose a realistic strategy to get Australian rails hot again. Using a combination of satellite imagery and digital elevation models, modifications to the existing track alignments will be identified and costed using the same cost assumptions used in the 2013 AECOM report, or another reliable source where that report has no data, or unreliable data. The geometry of new sections of track will be determined using existing Australian and worldwide rail standards for a design speed of 200km/h or higher.
High speed rail does not have to be impossibly expensive with decades-long construction timelines. In order to be either politically or economically feasible, it has to be possible with existing technology, without a stratospheric budget, and completed within a few years of the project being green-lit. I intend to show how this can be done.