Peter Swan

On Thursday the Gillard Government launched Phase 2 of their High Speed Rail study that was produced as part of a political agreement with the Greens.

The very optimistically projected cost is $114 billion for 1,800 kms of rail to link Melbourne to Brisbane via Canberra and Sydney. Approximately 8% of the route requires exceedingly expensive tunneling, giving huge scope for costs to blow out.

The projected (internal) financial return is 0.8% compared with a minimum of 15% to be considered for a commercial project. Hence it could never be financially viable and is likely to require on-going subsidies even if the Government provided the entire capital cost.

Can the project be justified in cost-benefit terms? Certainly, the Report claims that there is a positive benefit/cost ratio at low discount rates with the benefits roughly equal to the costs with a 7% discount rate.

These benefits consist of consumer and producer surplus. It is my belief that these benefits are likely to be vanishingly small in practice with the costs far outweighing the benefits.

These benefits are assumed to arise largely from time savings due to better access and egress compared with airports such as Tullamarine. A high-speed rail connection between Tullamarine and the City could be built for less than $114 billion with considerable time and convenience savings. There might even be some spare change.

Such assumed time savings also presumably drive the 55% of passengers who are assumed to switch from air to rail and the 19% induced passenger increase.

It is hard to imagine that the 23% of passengers that are assumed to switch from cars will gain sizeable subsidiary benefits to motivate a switch. In fact, many who currently drive will face car-rental and other out-of-pocket costs that are likely to be sizeable.

In my view, these passenger estimates are likely to be even more upward-biased than the pie-in-the-sky estimates that led many toll-road providers to the bankruptcy in both Sydney and Brisbane. Projected toll-road/tunnel usage exceeded the reality, typically by 100% or more.

At least one would think that private providers taking and equity stake would be cautious in accepting ludicrous estimates of traffic projections. Governments looking for juicy election bribes have no such hip-pocket concerns. All of these failed projections tended to give excessive weight to traveler time-saver benefits.

The first question to ask is what is a high-speed rail network? It is largely duplication of air passenger routes provided for ‘free’ by nature. Unlike air-routes high-speed rail is exceedingly capital intensive with an exceedingly long gestation period.

The Report projects that cash-flow will be positive for the first time around 2060, about 45 years after commencement. Once of the few routes that is commercially viable is in major Japanese city pairings with population density about 1,000 times higher than major pairings in Australia.

Even Japanese bullet trains received a bailout in 1987 and Taiwan’s line needed rescuing only two years after commencement. In China the high-speed network is highly problematic with severe speed limitations imposed on some lines. One line was even reduced to 45 kms an hour. Even in much denser Europe, only a few city pairs are financially viable.

There is no indication that any success will be achieved in North America. The Californian line that commenced in 2008 had spent $630 million within three years without constructing even one kilometer of track.

Thus the benefits of high-speed rail are largely illusory, especially in Australia with its exceptionally low population density and existing network of relatively efficient airports. Removal of curfews could greatly improve airport efficiency, especially in Sydney. Unfortunately, the costs are not illusory and are likely to be massively understated in the Report.

There have been quite few very-fast train schemes in Australia, mostly centering on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor.

The first one was proposed by the then head of the CSIRO who carried the appropriate handle of ‘Wilde’. Hence the ‘Wilde scheme’, of which the latest incarnation from the Gillard Government is yet another example of an exceedingly white elephant.

It is also well timed as a tempting election bribe where it joins the Gonski Report into school funding, the National Disability Scheme and numerous other unfunded projects.

Professor Peter Swan is the Professor of Finance at the Australian School of Business.