High-speed rail debate: Cut the fat
Researchers say the federal government’s study on a high-speed rail link contains a lot of “fat” which, when cut out, can drive down construction costs by more than $40 billion. By Marion Lopez.
Australia’s 30-year debate on high-speed rail is raising more questions than answers. While most, including government, agree the project would improve traffic fluidity and national productivity by taking close to 84 million passengers off the country’s roads and out of the airports each year, some are still unsure whether spending $114 billion to achieve this is the best option.
Also not in its favour is the suggested timeframe for completing the rail link.
According to the federal government’s recently released $20 million study on the project, building a 1750km high-speed rail link connecting Melbourne to Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane would require 15 years of planning and 45 years to build.
The announcement of these figures raised a lot of eyebrows including those of Gerard Drew, high-speed rail researcher for climate solutions think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions, who said they were an insult to the Australian construction industry.
“Forty-five years is laughable and 15 years of planning is just outrageous really. The notion of $114 billion is questionable, to say the least,” Drew said.
“Much has been made of the technical and logistical challenge but we must get some perspective. Australia is, in large part, flat and vacant – a luxury that no other country operating high-speed rail can boast. While there are some challenging points on the alignment, such as from Sydney to the Central Coast, a high proportion of the route is flat fields.
“Spain and China have been rapidly constructing high-speed rail in order to reduce the huge cost to those countries of imported oil and have completed 3000km and 15,000km of track, respectively, in the past decade alone.
“Indeed, these findings are an insult to the capability of Australia’s construction industry.”
Unconvinced by the accuracy of the government’s study, Drew and his colleagues conducted their own analysis of the high-speed rail link in partnership with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), with findings suggesting that the government report does not promote the cheapest and fastest option available.
On the contrary, Drew said the report was based on a stretched timeline and contained more than $40 billion worth of “fat”.
“The approach in Sydney, for instance, is the most expensive way that you could possibly get in and out of Sydney,” Drew said.
“It would be one of the world’s longest tunnels that would be built – two tubes of 67km – so more than 120km of 8-10m tunnel boring and it’s just not necessary when you really look at it.
“There is a rail corridor from the south, which would get you 15km closer and also from the north there is a space for twin tracks that will get you 15km closer to the CBD, just next to the current alignment – it doesn’t even need much civil works. So there are a few savings there that are not presented as an option.”
In mapping out a route based on the design limitations of high-speed trains, Drew said he and his colleagues found the project only needed close to half of the 144km of tunnel suggested by the government study.
“Fifty-100m one way or the other could mean the difference between building a tunnel or not and every kilometre of tunnel avoided is about $150 million saved, so it is really important that those things are scrutinised.”
Additionally, Drew said billions could be saved by working against a shorter timeline.
“My colleague was picking apart the costing, which said that the infrastructure should be able to be built for $86 billion.
“Then there would be $10 billion worth of rolling stock, $10 billion worth of project management and maybe another $10 billion worth of government oversight over 45 years,” Drew said.
“So a lot of those things are just straight fat that can be cut out, simply because that’s a lot of people’s jobs for their entire lifetime – shortening that down to the shortest possible time would reduce those costs.
“The project management cost is 11% of the whole project so, if you bring down the cost of everything else, you’re effectively reducing the cost and complexity of the whole project.
“Although the timeline isn’t something we really have much expertise on to tell how long it could take to build, the information available on international projects speaks for itself.
“When there is twice as much rail being built in only eight years in Spain and 10 times as much being built in 10 years in China, it doesn’t need too much analysis to understand what’s possible.”
In light of the findings uncovered by Beyond Zero Emissions, Contractor asked the government to explain why a cheaper option had not been put forward in the study it commissioned.
Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese’s media advisor, Jeff Singleton, said the study was performed independently by a consortium of partners internationally renowned in their fields and that the findings were what they were.
However, he said that if Beyond Zero Emissions, or anyone else, wanted to submit feedback and suggestions to the federal government they had until June 30 to do so.
Contractor tried to get comments from the study’s consortium partners including AECOM, Sinclair Knight Merz, Grimshaw Architects, Booz & Company, KPMG, Hyder Consulting and Acil Tasman.
Despite the federal government stating they were allowed to discuss the released study, on behalf of all consortium partners AECOM declined to comment.
Drew said the study done by Beyond Zero Emissions and the DLR estimated that the high-speed rail link could be built for $70 billion as opposed to $114 billion.
The research paper and suggestions were submitted to the federal government for review.
A follow-up story will appear in the August edition of Contractor describing how Beyond Zero Emissions’ study was received by the government.