Assessment of Railway Technology

There is no doubt that railways have transformed where and how people live. A brief overview of the railway technologies and their implications is instructive in view of Australia’s population needs.

Traditional rail

Railways were a foundation of the industrial revolution. They took over transport from slow canals and stage-coaches in England where railways first began in 1830.

In Australia, railways took over from horse drawn carts and river paddle steamers for freight. Their construction in the 1880-90s predated trucks and bulldozers. They were built by pick and shovel, and horse and cart. To reduce construction cost they followed the contours where possible and avoided expensive cuttings and embankments as far as possible. As a result, there were many twists and turns in the tracks. Some curves were only several hundred metres in radius. These restricted train speeds.

In addition, the Australian states chose different rail gauges, Victoria broad gauge because it was flat, Queensland narrow gauge because it was hilly and NSW standard gauge in between. This meant transfer of interstate goods and passengers at the borders, which slowed delivery further. Steam locomotives were slower than the diesel locos that took over from them as oil replaced coal post WW2. The express steam train ‘Spirit of Progress’ averaged some 70km/h, including transfer, between Sydney and Melbourne. Rail predated city growth, so terminuses were built right in the CBDs in Australia.

In the 1960s, a standard gauge track was built between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane following existing tracks and connecting the cities more effectively and faster by diesel trains. The Sydney to Melbourne ‘Southern Aurora’ diesel passenger train trip time was about 12-13 hours without border transfers, or about 80km/h. Flying was much faster, and airlines gradually replaced interstate passenger rail as fares were reduced and volume rose. Today, airlines have a market share of around 90%. Semi-trailers took over interstate rail freight on the east coast. They were faster and cheaper door to door. The interstate railway was old, out of date and slow. It could not compete. Interstate road transport was competitive and gained a market share of about 90%, but wages raised the freight rate high over time. A slow, patchwork, inland freight line is planned to connect town between Melbourne and Brisbane.

High Speed Rail

Interstate road freight is now expensive compared to modern fast freight rail that would be electric and driverless. When constructed next to HSR tracks, it would have average speeds of 125-150km/h compared to manned diesel road transport average speeds of 70km/h. Fast Freight Rail (FFR) would halve the cost and delivery time of road freight. It would end the competitive isolation of major cities.

HSR was considered in the 1980s for passenger service between Sydney and Melbourne. It did not go ahead. It has been considered several times since, but was set aside each time. The latest study by the Government in 2013 envisaged completion in 35 years. It has been indefinitely differed.

Until recently, HSR was always seen as an interstate passenger railway project. Now it is seen primarily as a means of distributing population away from eastern state capital cities into regions between on a large scale before it doubles. New cities of +1m on the HSR line can be 2-300km away and connected to established CBDs in under an hour by HSR. This cannot be done by traditional rail, road or air.

Settlers are already showing the trend by moving to the central coast of NSW with +2-hour commutes each way by rail or road. This would be cut to less than an hour by HSR. Clearly, HSR would relieve Melbourne and Sydney of doubling their populations to +8m and would sustain their liveability.

Protecting against loss of Australia’s special, spatial, world leading liveability is the main reason for HSR. The objective is to settle +10m of the projected 24m population increase in the next 3-4 decades in the regions in new cities on the HSR line. This is not the objective of the Government or the Opposition. They are preparing for +8m city populations with the consequent loss of Australian spatial liveability. This should not be. It is undesirable. HSR makes it unnecessary.


HSR wheel-on-rail technology pioneered in Japan is a practical, well tested, established technology. It is very fast at 350km/h. It is like traditional rail, but is electric. It requires a minimum 7km radius of curves and a maximum of 3% incline of hills at this speed. It is safe: Japan has not had a HSR fatality in the more than 50 years of operation. There was a fatality on the first day of operation of the first passenger railway in the world in England in 1830. Sadly, there have been many on traditional railways since.


Maglev (magnetic levitation) passenger transport is ‘cutting-edge’ technology. It is more expensive than HSR to build because it requires a concrete bridge or viaduct from Melbourne to Sydney with large copper coils every few metres. It is faster than HSR at 450-550km/h. It is relatively safe. It has been tested on a 40km track in Japan and about a 40km commercial track from the airport to an inner Shanghai suburb. Maglev cannot carry shipping containers like FFR.

The Japanese are planning a major maglev project between Tokyo and Osaka. To build it through high density Japan where property prices are high is not commercially viable. The project is to drive a straight and level tunnel through the mountains for approximately 230km. It would cost less than buying property and building a viaduct, which would destroy value of adjacent property. The advantage is that there would be no curves or hills to destabilise passengers at these very high speeds.


Hyperloop is a new ‘bleeding edge’ technology. It plans pods for passengers in a plastic tube that has a partial vacuum to reduce air resistance. Pods would travel at 900-1000km/h. Sydney to Melbourne would take under an hour. The tube must be straight and flat to avoid throwing passengers about like a ‘Big Dipper’ at these extreme speeds. It is cheaper to build than maglev, but difficult to build to travel long distances in a straight line, especially in Australia over the Great Dividing Range between Sydney and Melbourne and the hillier parts of the Sydney to Brisbane section. Curves, if contemplated, would have to be more than the 7km radius and hills less than the 3% of HSR for passenger comfort. The safety of hyperloop is not yet established. It would be difficult to exit from a semi-vacuum in a viaduct tube maybe 10 metres above the ground in an emergency.

The first hyperloop system is being built in Saudi Arabia, but is not yet operational. It will take some years to test and prove, if it is ever to be practical for passengers over long distances in a straight line. The number of intermediate stations needs to be minimised as the whole system must stop or have large time gaps around them for safety at these extreme speeds. Hyperloop cannot take big containers.


For Australian purposes of population distribution, which has greater priority than interstate travel, maglev is too expensive. Hyperloop is too embryonic and limited to be adopted soon enough to be in place to distribute a large part of the huge increase in population into the regions before growing too big in the major cities. There need to be stops at many new cities to provide connections.

The innovative, profitable and robust VFT2 concept for HSR/FFR in Australia would meet the objective of distributing +10m into the regions instead of the major cities. It would be self-funded by building dwellings above train lines in trenches in the cities and selling them before construction was completed. The construction cost would not have to be recovered from higher fares over 40 years of operations. There is minimal risk of failure and government intervention. HSR is a practical, successful, readily available technology to adopt and it serves the purpose well. It would be built rapidly in time to catch the population increase before it doubles and swamps Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. FFR would end their isolation and reduce the cost of living through greater competition, innovation and productivity.


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