High Speed Rail: A bogus solution to an avoidable population problem

The Guardian has continued its series on high-speed rail (HSR), which has turned its focus away from East Coast HSR – linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane – to smaller branch HSR rail lines linking regional cities, like Goulburn, with their respective capital cities:

A lack of vision and political will, short-termism, genuine concerns about viability and vested interests have all played a part in creating stumbling blocks.

But now there is a renewed push, this time by state governments as well as by a few in federal parliament. It’s driven by a new concern that congestion and the cost of retrofitting major cities with mass transport is crippling Australia’s competitiveness and making cities unliveable.

“One of the problems with high-speed rail, for too long it was seen as a method of getting from Sydney to Melbourne as an alternative to flying,” says the Liberal MP John Alexander, who has chaired several inquiries into the future of cities and is now an evangelist for high-speed rail.

“The real problem we are trying to address is housing supply and affordability,” he says.

“Because we have had no plan of settlement, we have had an imbalance of settlement. It has resulted in congestion in our major cities and the second highest cost of housing in the world”…

Roads into the city are clogged, trains are full and there have been big increases in housing density around railway stations…

With high-speed rail, he says, “Gosford, the southern highlands and Wollongong could be 15 minutes from the centre of Sydney and Newcastle, Goulburn and Nowra 30 minutes”.

“You are uplifting the value of that land enormously to compete with one of the most expensive markets in the world.

“You can reduce the number of cars coming into Sydney and you can strategically rebalance our settlement.”

These smaller regional HSR lines contain a major roadblock: the massive cost of getting from the outskirts of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane into the CBD.

These trains are not compatible with suburban commuter trains unless they slow to the same slow speeds due to alignment and congestion, in which case they are no longer HSR. Further, the current commuter train systems in Sydney and Melbourne are already at capacity and cannot cope with existing demands, let alone imposing a HSR network.

This means HSR would need to be separated from the existing commuter network via new train lines and stations. And since our major cities are already build-out, this would necessarily require acquiring some of the most expensive capital city real estate in the world or tunnelling under it, either of which would cost a small fortune.

Ultimately, the best way to deal with “congestion and the cost of retrofitting major cities”, as well as improving “Australia’s competitiveness” and liveability, and addressing “housing supply and affordability” is to address these problems at their source by cutting immigration:

Immigration is the fundamental driver of Australia’s population growth and the primary driver of these problems, which HSR would fail to overcome despite its huge expense.

Leith van Onselen


  1. A good technique in cases like this is to ask why?

    Then when an answer comes, ask WHY?

    Why should we transport thousands of people from their comfortable, distant homes (complete with backyards) to the centre of some city many kilometres away? WHY?

  2. What has been driving population concentration in Sydney and Melbourne (particularly by immigrants) is crystal clear and it is the same thing that has been bending our economy out of shape since the 1970s.

    Driving the economy with taxpayer guaranteed private bank credit creation that is directed towards unproductive speculation in asset prices and secured by those rising asset prices.

    When that is the fundamental driver of economic activity it is no surprise that the largest cities will be the centres of that activity for the simple reason that rising asset prices secure more leverage which drives asset prices higher which then secures more leverage. The cycle continues especially when the taxpayer is effectively the guarantor of the credit creators – aka the private banks.


  3. Japan has had a shrinking population for the last 10 years and it is still building a 500 km/h maglev line. Construction began in 2014.

    Spain has less people now than it did in 2009 but it is still building high speed railways.

    China will have a shrinking population from 2024 onwards and if it builds a high speed railway after 2024, that would be another example of building a high speed railway despite having a shrinking population.

    Population growth does not cause high speed rail to be built – just look at Bangladesh – the desire to reduce CO2 along the world’s 2nd busiest air route and the desire to speed up journey times should cause high speed rail to be built.

  4. This country just doesn’t really do infrastructure. If this was china we’d have steel mills in the kimberleys and FNQ and a big rail line linking the 2 across the top of Australia – shipping coal one way and iron ore the other. Then exporting the steel after we had done the value add …

    • Philly Slim,

      Are you smoking something?

      Value add?

      Downstream processing?

      We are the Saudi Arabia of dirt and not some trickery from a factory.

      Next you will be suggesting we should be world leaders in high tech woollen clothing production instead of torturing live mutton on troop ships.

  5. “The real problem we are trying to address is housing supply and affordability,” he says.

    “You are uplifting the value of that land enormously to compete with one of the most expensive markets in the world.

    Um, is it just me, or are these two statements completely contradictory? He says he wants affordability, then goes on to say that building HSR to a town will drive the price of housing up in that town.