Bullet trains will never fire in Australia. Here’s why

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Who doesn’t love bullet trains? They gobble up scenery at the rate of almost five kilometres per minute, they take you from city centre to city centre, they’re comfortable, sleek and exciting and their safety record is second to none. So why don’t we have them here?

Bullet trains have been running in Japan for more than 50 years, but they are unlikely to ever be rolled out here. Credit: iStock

According to the latest figures from travel data provider OAG, the air route between Melbourne and Sydney is the world’s fifth busiest, with 811,000 seats available in the month of August 2023. That suggests up to 13,500 passengers travelling in each direction a day. Advocates of a very fast train between the two cities say that proves the case.

There is a distinction between a fast train and a very fast train. On a dedicated passenger track a fast train can travel at 180km/h with a diesel-powered engine. We can build those along existing rail corridors, and they are not hugely expensive and ideal for an east coast rail line. A very fast train gallops along at up to 300km/h. It requires overhead electrical power and a dedicated track with gentle curves and inclines of just a degree or two, the rails welded to make a seamless joint to reduce vibration and the impact of wheels. They are super expensive to build.

In the 1990s, a government-sponsored feasibility study put the cost of a Brisbane-Melbourne high-speed rail line at $33-59 billion. A 2013 Rudd government study costed the same line at $114 billion. More recent studies have the cost nudging $200 billion. The Grattan Institute’s comprehensive Fast Train Fever report of May 2020 put the construction cost of a Melbourne-Sydney fast train line at $10,000 for every Australian taxpayer.

Once built, operating costs run high, and few survive without government subsidies. That would mean a contribution from the taxpayers of non-eastern mainland states to fund an enterprise that has zero benefit for them. While every air traveller between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane pays the full cost of their travels, for every traveller on an east-coast high-speed train someone on the ground would be digging into their pocket.

The final nail in the coffin of a very fast train, Qantas won’t have it. And if you’ve followed the news lately, it seems that whatever Qantas wants, Qantas gets. End of story.

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