A new report released this week suggests that in addition to serving as a viable means of reducing transportation-related carbon emissions, high speed rail in Australia would also be an economically profitable undertaking.

The research is a collaborative effort between climate change think tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the University of Melbourne’s Energy Research Institute.

Two years in the making, the report recommends an alignment broadly similar to the government’s recent study, connecting the cities of Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne as well as 12 major regional centres.

Dr. Stephen Bygrave

Dr. Stephen Bygrave

According to BZE CEO Stephen Bygrave, “the research shows that high speed rail can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport, in addition to the regional development and economic benefits previously identified.”

The report finds that high speed rail ticketing revenue could not only cover operational costs but also repay construction costs. The passenger demand estimated would generate $7 billion of gross operating revenue in the year 2030, with HSR fares priced cheaper than the equivalent average air fares. Operating costs are estimated to total $2.3 billion for the same year. The net operating profit is $4.6 billion.

The $84 billion total estimated construction cost including rolling stock, project management and contingency. Melbourne-Sydney is estimated to cost $40 billion, and Sydney-Brisbane $44 billion.

According to the report:

  • 90 per cent of the proposed HSR network is on track at ground level, in cuttings or on embankments. The alignment has been carefully designed to balance the need for expensive infrastructure such as tunnels and bridges, with the need to limit impacts on people and the natural environment
  • 60 per cent of Australia’s population live within 50 kilometres of a proposed high speed rail station
  • 45 per cent of Australian regional travel is contained within the proposed High Speed Rail network corridor
  • Journey times will be less than three hours from the centre of the Sydney CBD to the CBD’s of Melbourne and Brisbane
  • Comparable high speed rail projects around the world have been built in 10 years or less
  • Greenhouse emissions from transportation would be reduced by 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over 40 years of operation

“Regional travel in Australia is highly concentrated in the east coast corridor, generating some of the busiest flight paths in the world as well as significant traffic on our main interstate highways,” said the report’s lead author, Gerard Drew.

One of the reasons Sydney Airport is facing capacity constraints is because it is shares two of the world’s busiest flight paths; Sydney-Melbourne is number five and Sydney-Brisbane is number 13. The report says that if the proposed High Speed Rail network were operational by 2030, reduced air travel demand would require 82 fewer daily aircraft movements than the current average of 850.

“For too long the discussion has been misled by concerns of low population density in Australia rendering HSR inappropriate for this country,” Drew said. “The fact is much of Australia’s population is highly concentrated in the capital cities on the east coast and there is a high degree of travel between them by world standards.”

He added that all this travel is increasingly dependent on imported fossil fuels adding to Australia’s carbon footprint and that it is doubtful emissions free air travel will ever eventuate.

BZE’s prime motivation behind the recommendation of high speed rail is the fact that it runs on electricity, which means, unlike air travel, it can run on one hundred percent on renewable energy. Emissions created from the HSR construction would be offset after 5 years.

“A high speed rail system on Australia’s east coast will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from regional travel in this busy corridor by almost 30 per cent,” Drew said. “On top of this high speed rail will continue to provide affordable, convenient and comfortable travel for Australians into the future without the uncertainty of fuel supply and price.”

The report’s launch follows the introduction of a private member’s bill in Federal Parliament to establish a development authority charged with the reservation of land and further preparations ahead of the detailed design and construction work for the high speed rail system.