A Bullet for Canberra

Within the canals of the Internet’s social media swamp, one encounters all sorts of special interest groups. For example, on Facebook, one can find Bullet train for Canberra, classified as a Community Page about High-speed rail, though in the details, one learns that it’s a Facebook presence for a single-interest political party. One that wants a high-speed rail network on the Eastern seaboard, apparently at any cost.

To illustrate the depth of thought they’ve devoted to their pet project, here’s a question from somebody else:

… how would you fund the bullet train? …

To which they respond:

… the Bullet Train will need to be funded mainly by private industry. …

If it were something for private industry to fund, then that can only be under the motivation of profit. I’ll get back to how that can’t be a credible means of funding with the aid of some simple arithmetic.

One can bypass the arithmetic with a sanity check: Were such a project profitable for private industry without substantial support from taxpayers, they would be knocking on the doors of government, getting planning permission. Private business isn’t doing that. QANTAS says that it can’t be justified; even when distorting reality to the limits of plausibility, fantasies about Canberra becoming Sydney’s second airport:

I don’t think even Michael O’Leary from Ryanair would have had a goal to claim that Canberra was a second Sydney airport, and he makes outrageous claims on airports around the world.

Not that such dissuade Canberra Airport supporting the fantasy. I have difficulty in seeing the commercial zone around Canberra airport being levelled so that A380’s from China (or elsewhere) could land there. It’d certainly be an interesting exercise given the usual approaches taken by airliners. Never mind the need for a vast international terminal, with a new railway station; presumably underground; as the route would be through most of Canberra.

I won’t venture to guess why some people want to gain seats in toy town’s local government, in order to push the issue.

The FB page owner posted this “photo” to promote their high-speed coal train.

I posted questions initially asking

Fast and very-fast trains between Australian cities are out of the question unless Australia gets nuclear power stations. With coal-fired power stations being shut down in the near future …
  • how they would ensure a reliable supply of electricity, seeing how several of the larger coal-fired power stations will be offline before the trains would be on the rails.
  • about the investment needed to Australianise the rolling stock, given the track record of deploying European technology in our environment, perhaps even to develop a hybrid which uses diesel fuel to survive power outages

Their response:

Some very interesting points there Bernd, however, we will be looking at a number of possible scenarios and choosing the best solution for Australian conditions and requirements that will maximise efficiency and lower travel time. If you would like to know more, check out the first stage of the Government’s report into High Speed Rail.

So I downloaded the report and tried to find answers. No answers. Just more questions. My response (with pytos corrected):

The 300+page report makes scant reference to electricity generation capacity. The one reference to the risk analysis methodology looks promising, but the cited section D7.3.3 is missing from the report.
The report *assumes* that because the *assumed* electricity consumption of the trains is a small percentage of existing generating NSW capacity, that there would be enough to spare and reliably available without building additional, reliable electricity generating infrastructure.
The report doesn’t take into account the imminent closing of power stations on the East coast grid, which will lead to further electricity shortages.
What I didn’t mention before is the recent track record of Australia choosing rolling stock that’s inherently unsuitable to Australian conditions. The European stuff never seems to be able to cope with ambient temperatures consistently above 30°C. Germany’s ICE trains fail very often to provide sufficient airconditioning and the trains provide no refuge from the heat in the event of an electricity outage.
Australia would have to adapt, at the cost of hundreds of million, rolling stock and perhaps power heads with diesel fuel, so that the latter will be able to operate the train at diminished performance when electricity for traction isn’t available. IIRC, Germany had a “hybrid” head developed and perhaps in use, some time ago. The present “ICE TD” (605) has a top speed of “only” 200 km/h.
The lack of security in ERTMS/ETCS wasn’t addressed. Perhaps they didn’t see the CCC conference presentations from a couple of years ago. Not only is the security of the signalling protocols wanting, the train presence systems are vulnerable trackside furniture which has no robust protection against either tampering, or from being fed false data.
I’m surprised that report failed to tackle important risks that have been part of international news over the past 5 to 10 years.
As a mechanical engineer, I have a passing interest in the technology. Why can I find gaping holes in the report at a cursory reading?
There are a dozen other things that come to mind, but I doubt they would cause somebody to take a proper look before deciding to spend other people’s money.

Their response:

I am sure if you go beyond a cursory glance of the first phase of the report Bernd, more of your concerns will be addressed, remember too that this report is just an interim report. I assume you will be looking forward to the second phase of the report to be released later this year. I am quite confident the report, authored by AECOM with the assistance of KPMG, SKM, ACIL Tasman, Booz & Co, Hyder and Grimshaw Architects will answer all of your concerns and if not, they do take public submissions if you are interested. (highspeedrailstudy@infrastructure.gov.au) All information and points of view will be taken into consideration before public monies are spent. We should have some faith in governmental processes Bernd, even if we don’t always agree with them.

Virtual hand-waving and appeal to authority as an argument… I avoided mentioning the miracles in expenditure achieved on the advice of consultants and government processes in Queensland Health’s payroll system, blowing out from an initial budget of $20million to over $1000million. Instead I responded some hours later:

As you’re so sure and such a confirmed enthusiast, please point me at where in the report the above concerns are addressed. I didn’t just flick through the pages. I looked for the sections that should have addressed those concerns.
One should take the word of consultants with a very large grain of salt. It’s important to understand the impact of the assumptions, the parameters and the methods that are used in order to arrive at derived conclusions. All readers need to think independently about the validity of those things. e.g. is it valid that rolling stock can be leased to be excluded as capital expense (capex) yet the leasing costs not be considered an operating expense (opex); based on observations and conclusion that rolling stock will have to be developed for Australian conditions?
Pardon the pun, but that looks like a train wreck to me.
The report already acknowledges (Executive Summary) that HSR networks never recover their capex.
The scope of the Phase 2 study (Section 6.5) doesn’t appear to specifically address any of the concerns that I’ve mentioned.
BTW: I don’t see any support for having faith in governmental processes. Rather the opposite with cost and schedule over-runs being the rule; as well as under-delivery of promised services.
Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to see a fast rail network. But that’s only my heart.
My head says that rail is inefficient for moving people and inconvenient for people as well. It never seems to pay for its operating expenses with ticket prices that are competitive against other modes of transport. i.e. every ticket has to be subsidised by taxes on something else in order to make rail attractive to travellers.
That might be OK if the costs (to the taxpayer) of providing other modes of transport are greater. I don’t see a direct comparison. I know off-hand that the 11 point something litres/100km assumed for cars is likely to be substantially off the mark. As a rule of thumb; 3 to 4 litres of diesel per tonne (and around 25% more for petrol) is appropriate for extra-urban cruising with current model cars (and trucks).
Aircraft manufacturers quote under 3 l/100km per passenger on medium to long-haul. Perhaps double that is for the short SYD_CBR hop. It’s hard to tell with flights into CBR because they aircraft seem to have average fill factors of only around 70% (BTRE Australian infrastructure statistics yearbook 2012)
In their fuel costs, motorists pay a great deal of fuel levy, GST and carbon tax. They also finance their own rolling stock, insure it and pay for its maintenance. For moderate annual use, maintenance costs are “fixed”, being periodic. If a car is already owned, about half of the opex are “fixed” and taking the train instead only saves them a little bit as fuel cost; against the price of a train ticket.
People also value their time greatly. Usually their own time much more greatly than the time of others, but that’s a different fettle of kish.
In terms of travel time, the whole trip time has to be considered, not just train station to train station. Because people also use that to value their travel options. They have to get from their front door to the station in time not to miss the train, catch the train and then use another form of transport (or several) to get to the door of their destination.
That’s not just a matter of “convenience”.
Quarter to two… way past bed-time.

Their response was to block me from their FB page and to delete my questions and comments. Of course that now leaves their answers apparently talking to ghosts.

But before they clamped their hands onto their ears and started shouting “la la la la la la”, I got a chance to comment on their “Fast Facts” poster:

BTRE says only about one seventh of CBR-SYD travellers fly in/out.
The chart is very pretty but without any hints as to how and from where the numbers were obtained, the chart is no more than propaganda.
As for CO2 emissions; what’ve you got against plants? Don’t you know that their drought tolerance improves with CO2 levels?
Good luck trying to fill a hot-air balloon with CO2. I’m a mechanical engineer, not an aeronautical one, but I’m guessing that a hot-air balloon won’t fill in a normal atmosphere which is 98% nitrogen-oxygen; much lighter gases.

It probably wasn’t a smart move to poke fun at more than one of their fantasies at a time. But then, I’d abandoned hope that I was conversing with rational people.

StockholmSince my eviction, the fantasists seem to be out-bidding each other. Perchance trying to fill one of those hot air balloons by their own exhaled breath.  Thus they mention the Stockholm connection, glossing over the facts that:

Bringing my first comment on the back into focus. Were it still visible.

Addendum on Costs

I promised to provide some costings… so here goes:

  1. Interest payments on $10,000,000,000 loan come out to around $50,000,000 a year … so if initially 1 million passenger movements a year are by high speed train, then $50/ticket is necessary to pay the interest on the loan for capital expenditure.
  2. Rolling stock maintenance, based on German ICE-3 experience is about €1/km, which for a CBR-SYD or CBR-SYD leg works out to around $1/ticket with 400 passengers on board.
  3. Electricity; estimated at 10MWh for such a trip which at about $60/MWh distributed cost makes $1.50/passenger. Keep in mind that the empty train weighs 420 tonnes. and that 400 passengers add only around 10% to that. If the train is only about 65% filled, as per domestic flights on that leg, then one must allow $2/ticket.
  4. Staff costs, allowing 2 hours for the turn-around and 8 staff for the moving train at a cost of $100/hour would require $4/ticket.

And so there’s a ticket price of $57.00, before any capital costs are paid off or profit is made by the private industry which is supposed to fund the “investments”. That doesn’t look like it’ll ever be competitive with other transport options.

One might ask if that competitive with the cost of somebody driving their car. On pure fuel costs; probably not. A turbo-diesel sedan would be using less than 6 l/100km on a slow cruise such as is permitted on the highway. 18 litres of diesel costs less than $30.

For most people, car ownership costs are dominated by fixed ones; registration and insurance. So other wear items such as tyres can be accounted for with another $10. Of course, there is also greater utility for the operator of the car because it takes them from door to door; they don’t have to pay for public transport to/from train stations. (Parking costs may be a counter-argument.)

P.S. (2012-10-11) The revisionists at the FB page have now removed their orphaned responses as well as the comments from others who either wondered about the responses; or why my comments were removed. Let the cover-ups commence.

P.P.S. (2012-10-14) One Hand Clapping shows how the single issue fanatics broaden their social media base. Regardless of being unable to respond to salient questions with anything other than deleting the questions and blocking further comments from those who have thought a bit more deeply about the issue.

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3 Responses to A Bullet for Canberra

  1. Pingback: Bullet Dodging Answers | contrary2belief

  2. Brad Tittle says:

    Keep it up Bernd. Don’t expect anyone to complete the cost analysis on the “environmental” side of the debate. It is all about feelings and what “common sense” tells them. If someone builds mass transit, I will use it. That doesn’t mean I will support it on the front side. I might pay the $57 ticket fee, but that will be based on convenience. Here is the Puget Sound we now have a train that goes from downtown Seattle to the Airport. It costs about $2.50 to make the trip. It also costs about 10 blocks uphill walking from the ferry for me. You have to compare this to the $32 cab ride though. I am a cheapskate and will plan ahead and walk up the hill. Those cabbies aren’t hurting too much though. Lots of people don’t want to walk up the hill. When my family walks up the hill though, that differential gets smaller.

    That rail line out to the airport will never pay for itself. The numbers are such that it would have been cheaper to pay for people to take taxis everywhere. It makes the environmentalists feel warm and fuzzy though.

  3. manicbeancounter says:

    Hi Bernd,
    I clicked on your blog early this evening (in the UK) and have put some initial thoughts of my own on the project proposals.
    In brief
    1. The project looks real cheap compared to the 190km line approved from London to Birmingham.
    2. Population growth projections seem high, especially for the Brisbane area. The Brisbane stretch of line is also hardest to justify.
    3. Capital cost is probably not going to be recovered in ticket prices. HSR is therefore unfair competition to the airlines.

    Other elements to look into another day.
    1. Cost of compulsorily purchasing land in cities and towns not included.
    2. Commuter fares for Newcastle / Sydney are projected to be subsidised. The revenue from the commuters will have been factored in, but has the cost of the extra subsidy?

    http://manicbeancounter.com/2012/10/15/east-australia-high-speed-rail-opening-comments/

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