Francis Vierboom's Blog

A blog about things. Mostly news, ideas, and Sydney

$100 billion for high speed rail? Or some law tweaks and cheaper, easier plane flights?

with 5 comments

High speed rail is brilliant. And as Albanese points out announcing the new report on the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne rail proposal, one of the great things about trains is how much less hassle catching a train is compared to a plane.

But with the prospect of spending $100 billion on fast rail, it crosses my mind that maybe we should try and just think of ways to make air travel less of a hassle.

The question that comes to mind is: what’s the minimum amount of security that could be required to operate a domestic aviation industry?

I know in a rural airport it means: show your ticket at the desk, throw your bag on a trolley to get put in the hold, and walk out to the plane on the tarmac.

Couldn’t this be done across the board?

Check in at the gate, throw your bag on a conveyor belt, and get on the plane. Skip the double check-in and security process. Straight away, air travel sounds a lot better. You just have to be at the airport fifteen minutes before takeoff.

It would lead to some slightly traumatic job losses and business shutdowns in the security industry. But not exactly enormous ones.

Planes are a bit more fragile than your average terrorist target – a smallish bomb can cause big problems – but really, if you’ve gone to the effort of making a bomb, you can use it on a plane or a train and you’ve made your point.

You could mount the argument that a plane is a different target to a train because there’s the September 11 scenario of using the plane as a weapon, but the thing about that attack is that it will never work again. Indeed it stopped working within an hour of it being used – United 93 crashed in a field when passengers stormed the cockpit. A planefull of people are never going to let terrorists fly the thing again.

Also consider that aviation – even in terms of hours spent – is safer than riding a bicycle, which is in turn safer than sitting in a car – see for some slightly ancient but still probably roughly correct statistics. The security is all theatre.

What am I missing here?

I think it would be fair to ensure that anyone putting luggage on the plane has to board it – if you’re going to bomb a plane you have to be at least willing to go down with it. So that just means the luggage loading part is after the boarding gate process.

Possibly a better argument in favour of high speed rail is the prospect of peak oil price scenarios – if the rail line is built in thirty years time when the price of oil is twenty times higher, the government is going to look pretty wise. But as far as the comparison goes today, it seems like scaling back some of the crazy security red tape on aviation would be a good start on improving transport efficiency in Australia.

Sam Roggeveen makes the same point over at the Interpreter.


Written by Francis

August 4, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. I think ‘what you’re missing here’ is a little thing called global warming.

    Fast rail represents the best low-carbon domestic travel option out there. On average, planes emit about three times the CO2 (for every passenger) that trains do, and they pump this greenhouse gas directly into the upper atmosphere, where it does way more damage of the same quantity at ground level.

    If you accept this then I think that channeling any of our collective energy into making air travel ‘less of a hassle’ is pretty… erm, nuts.

    Climate change aside, I think you’re also missing the fact that – airport security rigmarole or not – train travel is a decidedly nicer experience than flying over short distances. (Case in point: the popularity of high-speed rail in Europe has meant that some intercity flights have now been permanently cancelled).

    And it makes sense. I mean, who would really choose air travel with all its associated unpleasantness (dodgy airline food, deep vein thrombosis, expensive airport transfers, an inability to use your mobile phone, etc) if fast, cheap city centre-to-city centre train travel was an option.

    In summary: trains rule.

    Jessie Mawson

    August 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm

  2. Well I know train travel can be extremely pleasant. Over both long and short distances. But as far as the climate change pitch goes it’s a bit iffy.

    If all of the existing seven million annual passenger trips on the Sydney-Melbourne air corridor were completely replaced by high speed rail, it would save 756,000 tonnes of carbon every year (according to

    Let’s say an aviation tonne is equivalent to four regular tonnes because it’s released higher up. (I have no idea if this is vaguely right.)

    And let’s say we should credit one tenth of the value of this project to ‘carbon abatement’.

    If the whole thing is $100 billion, and $10 billion of that is to eliminate 3 million ‘effective’ CO2 tonnes … then that’s a carbon price of $3300 a tonne.

    So I don’t think the carbon argument is really the best option, or even a significant one. It’s really just a nice side effect. The proposal has to stand on its own two feet with other benefits – either a return on capital or a public good. I agree about all the other things – but if we could spend a tenth of that money on renewables research and installation, while getting rid of red tape on airports, we’d make a wayyy bigger dint in CO2 emissions. 🙂


    August 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm

  3. Actually my point there is rather bogus on the figures I use, because it’s 756,000 tonnes *per year* it would save. If you assume the annual cost of $10 billion in capital is about $575 million (at current 10-year bond rates), it comes down to $192 a tonne of carbon, which sounds vaguely reasonable to me (as a far left radical).

    But that’s only allowing for one tenth of the project – it’s still got to be worth it for some other reason than your luxurious travel aspirations Mawson.


    August 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  4. Okay. If we’re talking about this project purely in terms of carbon abatement then you’re right – there are definitely more efficient and cost-effective ways to do this. By all means let’s invest more in renewables and, while we’re at it, let’s stop woodchipping old-growth forests (which sequester enormous amounts of carbon) and selling them to the Japanese for peanuts. There’s loads of stuff that Australia could do tomorrow that would have a more immediate and profound impact on lowering CO2 emissions.

    It’s hard to speculate about exact figures with this kind of stuff, but I’m a bit suss on your Melb-Syd carbon savings figure. According to my (quite possibly incorrect) calculations, Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge) suggests that tonnes saved would be about 50% more than the 750,000-odd suggested. (This wiki page also verifies that the IPCC reckons that aviation’s total climate impact is 2-4 times that of its direct CO2 emissions alone, and includes a nice little anti-air travel tirade from your pal George Monbiot.)

    But whatever… exact figures aside I think the ‘environmental impact’ argument still has legs. I’m crap at economics, but I don’t think it’s as simple as dividing the cost of the project by the tonnes of saved carbon, cause there would be a whole bunch of related environmental, economic and ‘human good’ benefits that aren’t accounted for.

    (Allow me to dot point!)

    – As mentioned in the blog you pointed to, Sydney needs another airport. And if the east coast population continues to grow as expected, Melbourne will be in the same boat before too long. New airports could conceivably cost $25 million a pop, and building them will have a significant effect on house prices in the area, meaning less government revenue from a random assortment of rates, taxes, etc. New airports will also make life generally more rubbish for the people who live in those areas – unless they happen to be soothed by the sound of 747s taking off…

    – Once you’ve established the ‘bones’ of a high-speed rail network, it’s (relatively) cheap and easy to build upon. High speed rail to regional centres (like a Melb-Geelong route, for example) would give people heaps more choice about where to live in the future. This would help to decentralise the major cities, taking the pressure of land resources, infrastructure, etc, boosting the economy of these regional outposts, and generally improving the quality of life of a whole bunch of people.

    – You can carry more than just people on high-speed rail – you can carry freight. Freight off the roads (specifically, off the Hume highway) not only makes roads heaps safer (reducing public health costs as well as the toll on human life) it makes them cheaper to maintain (cause most of the wear and tear is caused by heavy vehicles).

    Given all this – and probably a bunch of other factors – I think it’s likely that the value of this project in terms of reducing environmental impact accounts for more than 10 per cent of it’s total cost.

    So, am I also a far-left radical? 🙂

    Jessie Mawson

    August 5, 2011 at 11:33 am

  5. I think the missing bit is that airport security isn’t so much about security but about the feeling of security. So the question isn’t what level of security procides a good amount of safety but what level of security provides a good amount of appearance of safety and I’d wager that inconvenience to traveller and appearance of safety are well correlated.

    Also, the second Sydney Airport argument is probably the best one I’ve seen for high speed rail, it’s the only one that makes it economically viable anytime in the near future. Carrying freight doesn’t make sense and externalities aren’t too important when stacked up against $100 billion.


    September 1, 2011 at 1:34 pm

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