Getting high speed rail on track

Roads & Infrastructure Magazine sat down with Shohei Yoshida from the Central Japan Railway Company to find out how viable high-speed rail would be in Australia.Roads & Infrastructure Magazine sat down with Shohei Yoshida from the Central Japan Railway Company to find out how viable high-speed rail would be in Australia.

High-speed rail (HSR) is an idea that has been floating around Australian politics for the last 30 years.

In 1984, the CSIRO pitched the Very Fast Train Project to link Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. It was picked up by a private sector joint venture a few years later in 1987, with studies taking place to show how viable it would be.

The proposal never took off and folded in 1991 when the Federal Government rejected taxation changes that would have been necessary to fund the project.

Since then, proposals to build a HSR have been raised and rejected every few years and even saw a single-issue political party, Bullet Train for Australia, register with the Australian Electoral Commission from 2013 to 2017.

Australia’s size makes such a large project expensive, costing billions of dollars to build, so is it possible or just an infrastructure pipe dream?

Japanese innovation

HSR originated in Japan, which was the first country to implement the technology in 1964 with the Tokaido Shinkansen route that travels between Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. It was a project born out of necessity, as transport congestion in Japan became a major social issue.

Since its construction, HSR in Japan has become a major part of how people get around the country.

Shohei Yoshida, General Manager for the Central Japan Railway Company in Sydney, explains what HSR has done for Japan and the possible benefits it could bring to Australia.

Mr. Yoshida says the key features of the HSR in Japan are safety, punctuality and mass transport.

“More than 452,000 passengers take the Tokaido Shinkansen every day, with no injuries or accidents occurring due to train accident in the entire 52 years the rail line has been operational. HSR is also more environmentally friendly, taking up a fraction of the energy and greenhouse gas emissions than if you were to fly,” he explains. Each year, 157 million people use the Tokaido Shinkansen in Japan, which is more than the population of the entire country. Mr. Yoshida says this is because of a significant increase it has had on tourism as well.

He says HSR has transformed the Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka regions into a “super mega region”, transforming areas outside of city centres and connected to the new rail system into economic hubs.

“There was a lot of urban development that took place around new station hubs, and the government was able to increase the nearby property value, improve quality of life and connect regional centres with jobs.”

Australia’s future

While the benefits of HSR are clear in Japan, its viability in Australia is still in question. Mr. Yoshida says that Australia’s public transport infrastructure and culture could see it becoming a reality.

“To make HSR viable there needs to be travel demand, with a good public transport network and strong safety culture, which Australia has,” he says.

“The distance of the potential corridor between Sydney and Melbourne is around 900 kilometres, which is an ideal distance for HSR. The key point is keeping travel time to below four hours. HSR can go between the two cities in three hours, which is more competitive than airlines and with more frequency and less risk of cancellation.

“Australia already has a very strong safety culture and the national railway sector is doing quite well. The only issue is there is not much experience in building and operating HSR. Following Japan’s methods and building dedicated lines with a proven automatic train control system is important to keep high safety and punctuality standards high.”

Australia’s regional areas would benefit from its implementation, Mr. Yoshida explains. More people can get to work while living further from the CBD. This would have an effect on property prices in regional areas and attract businesses to spread out.

“HSR has helped decentralise Tokyo and we have seen the land value increase as demand around HSR stations grows,” he says. “It also helps regional development. For example, Albury-Wodonga could be a commuting area to Melbourne. HSR changes the mindset of people who live further away from the city and it provides an increased opportunity for employment.

“In terms of housing prices, which are lower in regional areas, businesses can be encouraged to set up offices in cheaper properties and maintain a good connection to a wider labour market.”

A similar HSR link is being designed in Texas to connect the two major hubs of Houston and Dallas. While the distance between the two cities is much shorter at 400 kilometres, Mr. Yoshida says that by connecting two major cities, it turns them into a mega region.

“If Sydney and Melbourne were to do that, the cities could unify and reduce the need to compete with each other. This means that the cities can focus on competing with global markets,” Mr. Yoshida says.

To build such a project is expensive, though. Mr. Yoshida estimates the total cost of the project would be more than the Melbourne Metro Tunnel Project, the Sydney Metro Upgrade and WestConnex combined. He says even though the initial cost is large, the benefits gained from building it outweigh it.

“The Australian Government is already building big infrastructure projects and spending a lot of money on them. The government might feel as if the cost is too big, but it is less than how much is being spent already in total,” he says.

“This kind of project requires a forward-thinking government for a long-term project. For HSR, the government needs vision and a master plan.”

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