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Special feature: Where is Australia's high-speed rail network?

Posted by Emily O'Dowd on Dec 7, 2016

High-speed trainThere's no shortage of stories around the world featuring high-speed rail. It's no exagerration to say that if we wished, we could probably do five stories a week on this topic. For China, Japan, South Korea and several European countries there are many new or ongoing high-speed rail developments. And even America disusses (if not actually builds) many proposals and ideas around this area. But the same cannot be said for Australia. Yes the benefits of high-speed rail are clear, experts show that high-speed rail is important for a country’s infrastructure for two main reasons: firstly, it connects passengers a lot faster whilst providing an alternative to flying which cuts carbon emissions and secondly it can create jobs and fuel investment in cutting edge-technology.

For Australia, air travel is still the most efficient mode of inter-city transport but the most used transport is still by far the car. Research has shown that the travel time on a high-speed train would be faster than air travel in the country. For example, the 2013 High-Speed Rail Study Phase 2 Report estimated that the journey from Melbourne to Sydney would take two hours 44 minutes and the journey time from Sydney to Brisbane would be two hours 37 minutes. If a high-speed development was provided to connect Australia’s most popular regions then it is expected to link 60% of the population. High-speed rail has been deliberated in the country since the 1980s. Governments have investigated the feasibility yet it has never gone beyond the planning stages. Recent proposals have evoked interest from the private sector but these still lack support from the government. So what is preventing Australia’s high-speed rail development?

Australia’s population is estimated to be around 24 million. Most of this demographic live in urban areas and is expected to exceed 28 million by 2030. It is predicted that the country will face big challenges meeting its infrastructural needs especially as freight is likely to double over the next 20 years and treble along the East Coast.

Nick Clearly chairman of Consolidated Land and Rail in Australia announced that “Sydney and Melbourne have an overcrowding problem. We’re jamming a lot of people in, we’re moving people further out, congestion is at an all-time high, and moveability is certainly reducing on a daily basis.

“It’s time to recognise that there is a problem with that, and even if we are working on solving the problem that’s there now and that currently exists, we also have to acknowledge that our population grows both in Sydney, Melbourne, and in Australia, we need an alternative solution.”

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Rail transport developments taking place:

As it stands, the Australian rail network consists of 41,461 kilometres (25,763 miles) of track. From the 1990s through to the beginning of the 21st century, their railways were restructured and privatised. As it stands, the Australian government are providing some updates on their railroads but the developments are mainly occurring for freight services.

Inland Railway – Melbourne and Brisbane

  • Inland Railway is currently being constructed to deliver a faster transit time for freight between Melbourne and Brisbane. The cost of this has been settled at $893.7 million. When the project begins operation it will compete alongside road travel with a route stretching 1,730 km in length. It will use the existing interstate rail line through Victoria and southern NSW but will also require approximately 400 km of track upgrades and 600 km of new track. The government have pledged that Inland Rail is an investment in strategic infrastructure for the future, providing capacity to serve the east coast freight market for the next half century and beyond.

Australian Rail Track Corporation

  • Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is an organisation which manages and develops Australia’s track infrastructure as a single entity. It is a public company whose shares are wholly owned by the Australian Government and operates the interstate freight rail track on a commercially sustainable basis.

Austraila train-min.jpgMoorebank Intermodal Freight Terminal

  • Moorebank Intermodal Freight Terminal will facilitate a rail ‘port-shuttle’ in south-west Sydney between Port Botany and the Moorebank precinct, a separate terminal for interstate freight and warehousing. SIMTA will provide up to $1.5 billion in private investment for the project. Construction by SIMTA expected to commence in late 2016 and the terminal to be operational in 2018. The Moorebank Intermodal Terminal will operate as an open access facility with capacity for up to 1.05 million import-export and 500,000 interstate freight containers a year by around 2030 and alleviate road congestion by reducing the total distance travelled by import-export trucks in Sydney by over 60,000 kilometres each day. Over 1,300 jobs will be created during the construction phase, with around 7,000 jobs on site directly from intermodal activities and off-site in related industries and surrounding businesses in south-west Sydney once the intermodal terminal precinct is fully developed. The total economic benefits of the project have been estimated at close to $9 billion.

Melbourne Metro

  • Melbourne’s Metro is the latest passenger rail development which will require a 9km long tunnel in Melbourne to connect Sunbury and Dandenoug. Upon completion it has been outlined that 20,000 passengers will use the train on an hourly basis. The Victoria Government allocated $2.9bn for the construction of the metro rail project, in the 2016-2017 budget. The Melbourne underground metro is the biggest project of Melbourne railways, after the City Loop. The project is estimated to cost $10.9bn. Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2017 and operations are expected to start in 2026.

Sydney's driverless metro

  • $6.2 billion towards the Sydney Metro City & Southwest project and $5.8 billion for Sydney Metro Northwest over the next four years – fully funding Australia’s biggest public transport project. A new standalone railway network, Sydney Metro is the solution to clearing the city’s public transport bottlenecks. Construction will finally begin in 2017 and more information about the proposals can be read here.

So what are the reasons for delaying Australia’s first high-speed railway?

“For 50 years it’s been debated, and certainly it’s the feeling of most people that it’s a great idea that will never happen… But we want it to happen.” said Nick Clearly.


The price of constructing a high-speed railway stands at an estimated cost of $84 billion - but this cost is relative. The government are already spending $18 billion on road maintenance every year. Therefore, it would take just over four years of road funding to build a high-speed rail to connect east-coast cities. Additionally, there is already news that private sectors are willing to invest. Lauren McMah writing for News AU reports that “former trade minister Andrew Robb said international investors were ready to throw money at the project which is priced between $68 billion and $114 billion, because it is seen as a safe, long-term investment right now.”

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Australia’s population density has come into question with records showing that Australia is the third least densely populated country in the world. To counteract this, the journey from Sydney to Melbourne is the world’s fifth busiest air route. With most of the country's population living in urban locations it suggests that demand would be sufficient especially as 60% of Australians would be living within 50km of the proposed route. Additionally, the distance time between most of Australia’s major cities are further apart than most European cities so high-speed rail is an opportunity to make Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane better connected.


So far the Australian government have received two reports on the feasibility of high-speed rail in the High-Speed Rail Study Phase One and Two. The HSR Phase 2 Report identified early planning for a preferred high-speed rail corridor is the next important and critical task. The Australian Government is currently consulting with the governments of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the ACT on the best approaches to protecting a corridor for a future high-speed rail network and other considerations for the project. Once fully operational (from 2065), the train could carry approximately 84 million passengers each year. If these statistics were met at the fare levels proposed, the track could generate sufficient fare revenue and other revenue to meet operating costs without ongoing public subsidy. High speed rail could substantially improve accessibility for the regional centres it served, and provide opportunities for regional development.

Editor’s comment: Whilst we are in the 21st century, Australia still has eight million people in Melbourne and Sydney relying on planes, cars and an ageing rail network to connect them between city centres. It appears that funding and demand are not holding the project up as first believed but it is the government’s ineffectiveness at prioritising the right changes in future rail projects.

For other related stories you might be interested in:

Launch of world’s longest driverless freight railway is delayed in Australia.



Read the Rail and Metro Innovation Guide 2017


Topics: Smart city

Emily O'Dowd

Written by Emily O'Dowd

On graduating with a degree in English Literature at Royal Holloway University of London, Emily joined the editorial team. When she isn't writing articles for the website or interviewing experts in the industry she enjoys reading, running and sailing.

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