White elephant watch

The Guardian has been running some articles on the long-delayed Inland Rail project, proposed to carry freight between Melbourne and Brisbane (or possibly, if Barnaby Joyce has his way) Melbourne and Gladstone. Apart from the usual megaproject problems of delays, cost overruns, mid-project redesigns and so on, there appears to be a fundamental and unfixable conflict in the thinking behind the project.


To have any prospect of economic success, the rail line has to get a large share of the market from Melbourne to Brisbane (or at least some destination in Queensland). At a minimum that means beating the existing rail route via Sydney. The article suggests that shippers like Woolworths want a transit time less than 24 hours.

But to deliver any of the proposed benefits to towns along the way, trains have to stop at lots of different places, which means travelling more slowly between them. I’m not a railway man, but putting slow vehicles with frequent stops into any transport system slows everyone down.

I’m not expecting much from an Albanese government, except getting rid of the current gang. But I hope Albo expresses his well known love of trains by putting Inland Rail in the deep freeze, and using our scarce resources to upgrade the main Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane.

18 thoughts on “White elephant watch

  1. A very fast train for commuters and for freight between Sydney sand Melbourne is an option. Could substitute for one of the world’s busiest air corridors and reduce the carbon imprint from aviation.

  2. A double-track line with passing loops can easily accommodate both non-stop and local traffic – if it has the right signalling and control. I take it the point of the line is to enable rapid interchange between all three east coast ports. Port Botany lacks a good rail connection (trains have to compete with the overloaded commuter network) and Melbourne handles most of the tonnage for Adelaide via rail, but also lacks space for expansion. Container ships usually do a loop around (Fremantle/Melbourne/Port Botany/Brisbane or reverse), and one major issue is clearance times from off-load to deport in the outer suburbs where most of the industry is. With good interchange you could do Brisbane-Parkes-Blacktown faster than Port Botany-Blacktown.

  3. The Gravy Train is all about coal, coal that on farmers and economic pressures will never be dug. The tunnel needed to cross the Great Dividing Range near Toowoomba will only be done with massive costs and unknown damage to aquifers that the Darling Downs depends on. The carpet baggers that followed the railways of the American West have been reinvented once again in this country.

  4. At a minimum that means beating the existing rail route via Sydney.

    Traversing the terrain of the north coast region of NSW is on highly reactive ground. It rises and falls with the tides. I’d suggest there’s basically no hope having a fast rail service there. A less challenging engineering option for fast (or high-speed) rail is taking a more inland route north of Newcastle.

    Unstable geology in the NSW Helensburgh to Thirroul rail corridor is also an ongoing engineering challenge.

    But to deliver any of the proposed benefits to towns along the way, trains have to stop at lots of different places, which means travelling more slowly between them. I’m not a railway man, but putting slow vehicles with frequent stops into any transport system slows everyone down.

    Stopping trains can divert off the mainline when approaching local stations for stops at a passenger platform or freight load/unload depot along the route, then after picking up or setting down local passengers/freight, resume back into a safe slot onto the mainline, leaving the mainline clear and safe for express and limited stop services to overtake local stopping services.

    Before COVID-19, per Wikipedia’s List of busiest passenger air routes, the Sydney-Melbourne air route was 3rd busiest, and Sydney-Brisbane was 18th busiest. Rising aviation fuel prices (and potentially also scarcity) are likely to radically change this statistic.

  5. Peter T and Geoff: Anything is possible, given a large enough capital outlay. But as a general principle, attempting to achieve radically different objectives in a single project is rarely successful. I don’t see any reason to expect that Inland Rail will be different.

  6. Sydney Melbourne flights are about 1.5 hrs and you can fly down early, spend all day doing your business and be back home the same evening.

    The train takes about 10.5 hrs. If they were able to match the Paris/Bordeaux TGV it would still take 3 maybe 4hrs.

  7. @Peter T “A double-track line with passing loops can easily accommodate both non-stop and local traffic” Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, given the cost), Inland Rail will mostly be single track.

  8. I’d suggest that mostly-single track is the norm for long freight corridors with less than, say, 1 train per direction per hour.

    The passing loops (for trains meeting each other head on) will be built with certain frequency expectations. The schedulers know where the passing loops are and how fast the train can go. Similarly, I would be very surprised if trains that are loading up weren’t in sidings.

    If demand increases beyond the original design assumptions, there are options. More passing loops can be built half way between existing ones, and trains can be “fleeted” (run 2+ per direction on each others’ tails). Eventually, of course, some additional sections may need full double-tracking.

    Passenger trains have a bit of a different problem to freight. We want to be able to run them at much higher frequencies and stop them every 10-20 train-lengths! So 2+ tracks are far more necessary.

  9. I think high speed rail is largely a waste of money in Australia. People always point to Europe but the population density and distances there are for the most part way more amenable to HSR.

    If Woollies needs 24 hour delivery from Brisbane to Melbourne this is easily done via the road system. Upping the speed limit from the pathetic 110 to 130 kph, and large 24 hour autonomous (electric) truck convoys driving between super depots well outside city limits would easily do it. These trucks would be designed to never enter the city and travel in large convoys. The distance is < 2000 KM.

    This is much more more flexible than a rail system. It would also be way cheaper and be in place well before the first rail was even laid.

    Air freight can take care of the truly urgent and is also much more flexible. It is usually cheaper as well – surprisingly.

  10. How it’s done elsewhere:
    SBS Viceland, Tuesday 1 February, 8.30pm.
    China’s New Silk Road: Yiwu to Madrid (iirc freight takes just 6 days but that may be cut by half)
    https://www.sbs.com.au/guide/channel/SBSVICELAND#/program/32139087

    As for any north-south connecting inland rail link here there should be a rail link constructed between Tennant Creek and Mount Isa. The only thing stopping such a no-brainer are the QLD ALP old boys already out to pasture on the board of the currently vastly expanding Townsville Port and others similar who also see a future comfy pre-retirement package there for themselves. Let’s get an alternate inland rail link, but let it be to connect Far North to Far South.

    https://cmc.nt.gov.au/advancing-industry/mt-isa-to-tennant-creek-railway

  11. Anonymous: – “Sydney Melbourne flights are about 1.5 hrs and you can fly down early, spend all day doing your business and be back home the same evening.

    And the rest – add getting to the departure airport, getting through check-in & security, getting to the gate lounge and waiting to board, then exiting the arrival airport at the other end and finding appropriate transport to get to where you really want to go.

    I’d suggest Sydney-Melbourne flights are not useful for those people living in outer suburban, and regional areas under the flight path. I’d suggest fast rail (i.e. speeds less than 200 km/h) and high speed rail (i.e. 200+ km/h) serve significantly more people with better travel times along the rail corridor and 100+ km either side, compared with the more limited/restricted pool of people living close to airports.
    https://bze.org.au/research_release/high-speed-rail/

    Experience in Europe and Asia is finding fast & high speed rail where available are eating into the profits of airlines flying point-to-point routes less than about 1,500 km.
    https://www.railway-technology.com/features/faster-flying-high-speed-rail-routes-taking-air-industry/

    Anon: – “The train takes about 10.5 hrs. If they were able to match the Paris/Bordeaux TGV it would still take 3 maybe 4hrs.

    IMO, current NSW regional train journey times are no better than in the steam era. Trains are more comfortable with aircon but no quicker. Although the NSW XPT services have a top speed of 160 km/h (100 mph) there are very few places in NSW where this can be achieved for long durations. By comparison British Great Western Railway 3700 Class 3440 City of Truro, a 4-4-0 steam locomotive built in 1903, some believe was the locomotive to be the first to attain a speed of 100 miles per hour (160.9 km/h) during a run from Plymouth to London Paddington in 1904.

    The delivery of fast rail has the potential to slash travel times by up to 75 per cent.
    https://www.nsw.gov.au/a-fast-rail-future-for-nsw

  12. John – moving long-distance freight to rail is a no-brainer. It’s not just cheaper in fuel and more environmentally friendly, it’s also cheaper to build and maintain than freeways. There are major constraints to doing this on the current rail network – built to funnel each state’s rural produce to ports and then expanded to handle commuter traffic in the cities. One is geography – the Great Dividing Range’s proximity to the coast. Another is the difficulty of running freight on commuter lines (or of building dedicated lines through high-density housing areas). It’s not that Inland Rail does not make sense, or is particularly costly (freeways in Sydney run around $1bn per km), If anything, looks like they are not spending enough – to double track, minimise level crossings and so on. The line can’t be looked at in isolation – it interacts with port capacity and expansion (Brisbane is the only east coast port with significant expansion capacity), urban rail networks and usage and highway planning.

  13. @ Geoff Miell January 29, 2022 at 5:27 pm
    IMO, current NSW regional train journey times are no better than in the steam era.

    This is not surprising. I noticed that some passenger trains in Ontario & Quebec in Canada in the 1990’s actually were slower than in the steam era. I suspect that this is partially due to the fact that senior business executives, including railway execs don’t travel by train a lot.

  14. John Kane: – “I suspect that this is partially due to the fact that senior business executives, including railway execs don’t travel by train a lot.

    I’d suggest there was a time when many railway executives knew their system intimately that they were managing.

    For example, there was a time, from years 1932 to 1972, when the NSW Government Railways had five consecutive Commissioners for Railways.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Department_of_Railways_New_South_Wales#Commissioner_for_Railways

    The NSW Commissioner for Railways, with his support staff, was expected to travel periodically at least once per year for inspections over the entire NSW railway network, usually in his Commissioner’s Train.
    AAH 9

  15. In regards to the issue of intermediate stops adversely affecting travel time.
    – Assume the rail distance is 1600km and the train can average 160km/h.
    – Assume six required delivery/pickup stops are needed. Each stop needs 20 minutes to process.
    – If two trains per day ran, each stopping at three stops (alternating every second stop).
    – Hence, covering the needs of six stops.
    The trip time would be approximately 11 hours.

    Note: This is obviously a rough back of an envelope calculation. 🙂

  16. I like the general tenor of the argument here. And given current realities I have to agree. I just wish we could start these projects earlier. Do them more slowly, with an eye to keeping costs low. And stay out of debt while doing them.

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