Canberra-Sydney High Speed Rail: Civic or Airport Terminal?

When it comes to constructing a high-speed rail link between Canberra and Sydney, where the link terminates doesn't really matter, right? Well, no.

When I travelled on the 300km/h high-speed rail service from Shanghai to Hangzhou (return) recently, I experienced two different terminal locations: An airport and a city centre.

The high speed rail station in Shanghai is based at the Hongqiao International Airport. This is not the main international airport (which is known as Pudong) but is an older airport that services domestic flights and various Asian international airlines. The airport and the rail terminal are huge. Waiting times for trains are up to 45 minutes. Although getting to the terminal took about 30 minutes in a taxi, from the time the gate opened until we were in our seats took only a few minutes. Security was the same as any airport.

When we arrived in Hangzhou, the terminal was located in the middle of the city. Exiting took about the same time as exiting from any regular train service. We were immediately in the middle of the city and were able to walk around to all of the locations we had time to see.

In a previous post, I examined the problems we had purchasing tickets for the return journey in a mini-ethnography. What I did not do was explain the return journey from the Shanghai terminal to our hotel.

On arrival, we thought we would take a taxi and pay the extra to return to our hotel, rather than take a regular train and then walk the 2km at the end of a long day. However, we were in for a rude shock.

As we approached the taxi rank, numerous "unofficial" taxi drivers offered to take us home. We had read up on these characters and decided there was no point pushing our luck. None of the other people were engaging with these characters so we followed suit.

As we attempted to ignore one, he stated confidently, "Come with me or it will be a two-hour wait for a taxi!" The line for the taxi rank extended beyond the horizon. He was right.

Unperturbed, we about-faced and walked back to the Shanghai Metro, caught the regular train to within walking distance of the hotel and were home within the hour. We had options.

My point is that having a terminal for a high-speed train at Canberra Airport might be useful to overcome the problems of parking in Civic, but surely the Sydney terminal must be in or near Central Station. Otherwise, what is the point?

For Canberra, a train station at the airport would justify the extension of the Capital Metro tram from Civic. For Sydney, a train station at the airport would defeat the purpose of the train. Why not fly if you need to catch a taxi from the airport anyway?

With high-speed rail between Brisbane and Melbourne back on the federal government's agenda, it is important to know what purpose it will serve.

In the forthcoming ACT election, voters have clear choices between alternative transport policies. But the re-invigorated interest in high-speed rail adds another layer to the complexity of transport infrastructure design.

My experience of the Shanghai-Hangzhou service suggests two alternative approaches to terminal location. Given that Shanghai's population is greater than Australia's (yes, Australia's entire population), the trip to the Hongqiao Airport to catch the fast train is facilitated by extensive ring roads and elevated free-ways that make the drive from Sydney airport to the CBD feel like a caravan trip along the Silk Road. In Hangzhou, the convenience of a centrally located terminal was obvious.

If high speed rail is to solve air traffic problems in major airports (for example, Sydney is the 5th busiest airport in the world), then this is quite different to high-speed rail introducing an element of competition or choice in transport between the major metropolitan centres. 

Further, if high-speed rail is meant to improve travel times, particularly in the 300-450km distance range where train travel has the potential to be faster than air travel if the terminals are closer to city centres, then terminal location becomes an important issue.

Prime Minister Turnbull's current plan for a high-speed train between Sydney Airport and the proposed Badgerys Creek makes some sense, especially if the link passes through the CBD, which seems to be on the agenda.

But I wonder if the logic for a high-speed rail terminal at Canberra Airport makes sense? Saving a few dollars by avoiding a tunnel through Mount Ainslie while ignoring the much greater cost of tackling the Brindabellas seems rather pedantic. 

And if you have to catch a tram from Gungahlin to Civic, then from Civic to the Airport, then a train to Sydney, why not cut out all the middle-men and simply catch a cab to the airport and fly to Sydney as we do now? 

Whether such seemingly simple issues can be thought through and implemented well remains to be seen. But if the to-ing and fro-ing (or argy-bargy in contemporary parlance) between interest groups that beset the Gungahlin Drive Extension is anything to go by, the ACT Government, regardless of which party is in power, certainly has its planning work cut out for it.