Riding the AVE from Madrid to Barcelona

[This video has subtitles in both Spanish and English]

After riding the very fast train from Madrid to Barcelona, I began wondering why there isn’t an equivalent service between Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s an idea that has been talked about for more than 30 years, yet for some reason, every feasibility study seems to come to the conclusion that it’s “not economic”.  The Why is something of a mystery… Other advanced economies such as Japan, France and Spain seem to have no problem making high-speed rail successful. What’s different about Australia?

Opponents say that the Australian distances are too great, or the population is too low. But if you compare Sydney and Melbourne to Madrid and Barcelona, the two Australian cities have a combined population of more than twice the Spanish pair (10.1 million vs 4.7 million), so there shouldn’t be any problem with passenger patronage.

It’s true that the rail distance between Sydney and Melbourne is greater – about 880 kms versus the 504 from Madrid to Barcelona, but high speed rail also works from Paris to Barcelona, which is the same distance as Sydney is to Melbourne.

Generally speaking, from city centre to city centre, fast train journeys are twice as quick as driving by car. On longer journeys this advantage becomes greater, even when the car has more than one driver and doesn’t need to stop because of driver fatigue.

Of course, flying is fastest on longer journeys. On shorter flights, much of the airspeed advantage is lost on the ground before take-off and after landing. That’s the time it takes you to get to the airport, to check-in, to queue through security and then board. Plus at the other end, the time to de-plane, collect your luggage and take ground transport to wherever you are going.  On the Madrid – Barcelona route, the AVE fast train takes about 3 hours, which matches or is quicker than flying.

On the longer Paris – Barcelona journey, flying is about an hour and a half quicker, total journey taking around 5 hours all up. On the fast train, (including its 8 short stops) it takes about 6 hours 30 minutes. The time difference isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker when you consider that the train is far more comfortable, has on-board power and Wi-Fi if you want to work, and much more interesting scenery if you don’t.

Australian fast train critics always make the comparison with flying – as if that’s the only type of transportation fast trains compete with. Fast trains are much faster and safer than cars, and by taking traffic off the highways they reduce congestion,  increase road safety and improve every driver’s productivity. The trains also provide intangible national security and foreign exchange benefits because they reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil and aviation fuel.

And of course, there’s the very big and no longer ignorable elephant in the room – Global Heating – which makes the need for worldwide reductions in carbon emissions not just urgent, but now imperative. High-speed trains are electric and can be entirely powered by renewable energy – something which is now also technologically possible for cars, but not yet and maybe never will be for commercial jets. In terms of the immediate future, you have to wonder how much longer it will be before the polluter-pays principle means all transport powered by fossil fuels will become dramatically more expensive.

On the other hand, for airlines, Sydney-Melbourne is the second most lucrative city-pair in the world, (after New York-London). Qantas alone generated US$ 855 million from SYD-MEL in 2018-19.

As every now-forgotten short-term thinker always said – What’s the problem? Why change anything?

Further reading:

Crikey: BZE: How we found high speed rail to be commercially viable

World’s busiest airline flight routes: Melbourne-Sydney now world’s second busiest

ABC: High-speed rail has been an Australian dream for decades, but will it ever be a reality?

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