RAILWAYS: by Jacinta CumminsNews Weekly
A transport revolution for Australia?
, May 13, 2006
The latest generation of ultra-fast trains is set to revolutionise transport overseas. Jacinta Cummins looks at what such trains could do if they were introduced into Australia.Could high-speed trains one day replace the thousands of trucks currently on Australia's highways hauling goods from one location to another?
A new generation of ultra-fast trains is set to revolutionise passenger and goods transport in Western Europe, Russia, South Korea and China.
These are new-look, sleek-nosed trains which operate at speeds much greater than conventional trains.
French manufacturer Alstom - inventor of the famous train à grande vitesse
(TGV) - defines a high-speed train as one with a top cruising speed of 240 kilometers (or 150 miles) an hour; and a very high-speed train as one with a top cruising speed of 340 kilometers (or 210 miles) an hour.
Recent technology has made these trains lighter, enabling them to travel faster and to brake and accelerate more effectively.
Instead of a single locomotive hauling a long line of carriages, every second carriage has miniature motors built into its axles, allowing it to accelerate, travel and de-accelerate much faster than a conventional train. This also results in less wear on rails and wheels.Electromagnetic fields
Other features include so-called eddy current brakes, which use electromagnetic fields instead of disk brakes to reduce speed or stop.
The extra space normally taken up by a conventional locomotive can be converted into an extra 20 per cent seating space.
Japan pioneered rapid rail transport 42 years ago with the unveiling, on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, of its famous bullet train.
Since then, France, Italy and Germany have introduced their own versions, with high-speed and very high-speed railway trains successfully competing with air and road travel. Asian countries, such as communist China and South Korea, have recently enthusiastically embraced the idea.
Last November, China placed a US$804 million order with the German firm Siemens for 60 high-speed trains. This order is just one instalment in China's ambitious 15-year program to upgrade its railways, including the introduction of 290-kilometer-an-hour trains.
President of Siemens's trains division, Dietrich Möller, says: "Up to 2020, they [China] want 12,000 kilometers of high-speed rail." (International Herald Tribune
, December 31, 2005).
How advantageous would such trains be for Australia?
At the very least, high-speed and very high-speed rail transport could greatly reduce travelling time and ease road traffic congestion.
With the likelihood of continuing rising fuel prices, owing to political instability in the Middle East, the use of high-speed and very high-speed rail may become an increasingly attractive option for transporting people and freight.
With greater speed of delivery of produce, not only across Australia, but also to ports for transportation to the populous Asian markets, Australia's agricultural and horticultural industries would enjoy the prospects of being able to supply fresh produce to an ever-greater potential market.
Is Australia's population big enough to enable such a project to pay its way? A major criterion for successful high-speed and very high-speed rail ventures is the density of a population.
Marco Ponti, transportation expert at Milan's Polytechnic Institute and a former World Bank consultant - who cautions against the overuse of high-speed and very high-speed rail, owing to environmental effects such as noise, pollution and energy consumption - acknowledges "there is a place for high-speed trains for medium distances and in very densely populated areas". (International Herald Tribune
, December 31, 2005).
Australia of course has much lighter overall population density than Japan, China or Western Europe. Nevertheless, should passenger transport not turn out to be so profitable for Australia, high-speed freight transport between population centres, and to ports for export, could be.
Overseas environmental groups have predictably opposed the development of high- and very high-speed railways, arguing that they are noisy and damage the environment.
However, the California Department of Transportation, and the California High-Speed Rail Commission's study, The Full Cost of Intercity Transportation: A Comparison of Air, Highway, and High-Speed Rail
, has concluded that, of the three major modes of transport (air, motor and rail), high-speed rail is the most efficient in terms of social costs alone, such as accidents, air pollution, congestion, energy consumption and noise.