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Can rail investment act as an economic growth driver?

International Railway Journal

ONE of the most interesting observations to emerge from the first International Railway Congress, staged jointly in Vienna on March 18-19 by Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and Russian Railways (RZD), was made by Dr Stefan Buske, owner of Buske Law, who pointed out that the World Bank estimates a $US 50 trillion investment gap in all types of infrastructure including rail up to 2040.

“We must close the investment gap to prevent us from economic downturn,” Buske told delegates. Buske says there needs to be a focus on private investors because of limited public funding. “The good news is that we have outstanding prospects for infrastructure financing and for rolling stock in particular,” he continued. In addition to scarce government resources, Buske says the need for private investment is being driven by further liberalisation, such as Europe’s Fourth Railway Package, and an enhanced regulatory framework such as the expansion of the Luxembourg rail protocol, which aims to encourage private investment.

China is continuing to invest in infrastructure in order to spur economic expansion. As we report this month, China has decided to ramp up expansion of its already colossal high-speed network to help prevent a further reduction in the rate of economic growth. Having already built a 29,000km high-speed rail network – by far the world’s largest – its original plan to reach 30,000km will be achieved shortly and it now intends build another 8000km by 2025 and to reach 45,000km by 2030.

China is not alone in expanding its rail network. Russia plans to construct 20,730km of new lines by 2030, particularly in the far east. Apart from the Moscow – Kazan high-speed line, most of the new lines are for freight. Unlike China, where new lines are funded by the state leading to serious concerns about the level of debt, Russia intends to use a mixture of public and private finance.

Russia also plans to invest around €2.7bn in rolling stock and €1.3bn to acquire 23,000 locomotives. Buske says around 25% will be funded privately.

Investment in new railways should be based on a sound business plan to develop the infrastructure when it is completed. Yet some of the Chinese lines are being built in the sparsely-populated western part of the country for strategic rather than commercial reasons, unless the plan is to use them for freight to reduce transit times for container traffic between China and Europe as part of the ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure programme.

Unfortunately, the new standard-gauge railways in east Africa are being built with little thought to how they might operate commercially. Faced with a severe lack of freight traffic, the Kenyan government has tried to force shippers to use the new railway between the port of Mombasa and Nairobi rather than sending their goods by road. This is hardly the best way to attract new customers.

Returning to Asia, a lot of effort has been put into reducing rail transit times between China and Europe to make rail more attractive, but it was only when China started to subsidise rail freight that traffic started to grow. The big question is how long will the Chinese continue to subsidise the traffic? More effort needs to be made to remove bottlenecks between China and Europe to make the rail offer more compelling.

This point was illustrated by Mr Oleg Belozerov, RZD’s CEO: “We cover 4000km in five days, but we need to stop at the borders for two days, which kills all the time saving achieved. We must put more effort to speeding up border crossings.” Belozorev says there was a 9.7% increase in transit volume last year to 23.7 million tonnes, and 34% increase in container traffic to 553,000 TEUs. “We want to achieve 3 million containers a year,” he says.

Mr Vladimir Morozov, head of Belarussian Railways, acknowledged that despite a lot of effort to streamline freight operations on the China – Kazakhstan – Russia – Belarus corridor, there are still problems to solve. “Since 2013, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan have been cooperating, and work has stepped up to create a high-quality product with high standards of service for customers, while technical standardisation has much improved,” Morozov told delegates. “We have concluded contracts with more than 50 companies which has led to a shortage of wagons. Trains are often stopped at Brest [on the border with Poland where the gauge changes from 1520mm to standard]. The waiting times are too long, not only at Brest but at other border stations, which needs to be solved. In one month, we will inaugurate another border station.”

RZD believes that extending the 1520mm-gauge network from Kosice in eastern Slovakia around 400km west to Bratislava and Vienna, would be one way to accelerate traffic from Asia to Europe. RZD forecasts the extension could carry 22.9 million tonnes of freight by 2050. “We must give maximum attention to this project so that it can be implemented,” Belozerov urged delegates.

The challenge is to convince the Slovakians that building the line, the majority of which would be on their territory, will be to their advantage. RZD plans to stage three more annual International Railway Congresses in Vienna, as it is deadly serious about building this line. But this should not divert attention away from the need for other improvements to the Eurasian landbridge.

Can rail investment act as an economic growth driver?

Albanese labels Budget ‘con job’

Railway Express, 4 April 2019

Shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese has slammed the Coalition’s Budget released on Tuesday night, saying most of the Government’s big infrastructure promises aren’t accounted for over the four-year forward estimates.

Albanese on Thursday warned voters not to fall for a “pre-election con job,” noting they would actually have to re-elect the Coalition at least twice before the bulk of the promised spending on big infrastructure projects would actually happen.

Despite making $6.1 billion in new infrastructure promises in New South Wales, Albanese says the Coalition’s Budget only includes $241 million of that over the next four years – or just four per cent.

He said $2.6 billion of promised extra funding in Queensland translated to nothing in the next financial year, and just $313 million, or 12 per cent, over the four-year forward estimates.

And in Victoria, just two per cent of a $2 billion promise to connect fast rail to Geelong is included in the next four years of planned spending.

Albanese accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of “reluctantly” acknowledging the need to invest in infrastructure, but “deferring any action to reverse his previous cuts and neglect”.

“Overwhelmingly the Budget announcements won’t commence in the next term or maybe even the term after that,” Albanese said. “These are grand promises on the Never Never.”

On Wednesday, the former deputy PM also accused the Coalition of copying Labor in its infrastructure promises, suggesting Labor was “leading from Opposition” on infrastructure.

“Projects including Adelaide’s South Road, the Perth Metronet, the Rockhampton and Mackay Ring Roads, Melbourne’s South-East Suburban Road Package and the Western Sydney Rail are all existing Labor commitments,” Albanese said.

“Projects like Tasmania’s Freight Rail Revitalisation Program and the Gladstone Port Access Road were funded by the former Labor Government, cut by the Coalition and have now been reinstated on the pretence that they are new.”

Albanese labels Budget ‘con job’

There’s Nothing Ridiculous About Trains Replacing Planes High-speed rail in California was a disaster. But there’s a better way.

Slate, 12 February 2019

What a train wreck.

Last week, the rollout of the Green New Deal brought sustained attention to the idea of high-speed rail in the United States for the first time since the early years of the Obama administration. Various Democratic presidential contenders endorsed, albeit in the vaguest possible terms, the idea of getting more people to more places via faster and more dependable train service. The office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went one further, suggesting—by mistake, apparently—that a souped-up rail system could replace domestic air travel.

D’oh. A GOP meme was born. “The authors of the Green New Deal assume that technocratic planners can master the movements of 328 million Americans and design a transportation system so that ‘air travel stops becoming necessary,’ ” David Brooks jabbed in the New York Times. “This is from people who couldn’t even organize the successful release of their own background document.” By the time Rep. Liz Cheney discussed the plan on the House floor, Democrats were planning to “outlaw air travel” within the decade.

That was fancy. But reality wasn’t on the Democrats’ side either. On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would be truncating the nation’s flagship public high-speed rail project, the train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to run between … Bakersfield and Merced. Driving that great strawberry patch takes just 2½ hours.

It’s a staggering step back from the plan as it was envisioned more than a decade ago, and it feels like a blow to the idea that high-speed rail can meaningfully compete with air travel beyond the Northeast Corridor. It shouldn’t: High-speed rail is in fact eating into domestic airline industries from Italy to China, making travel easier, cheaper, faster, and cleaner. Modern, purpose-built high-speed rail has captured 90 percent of the market between Paris and Lyon (267 miles) and 85 percent of the market between Tokyo and Osaka (320 miles). Insert your favorite short-distance U.S. airline route here.

But first you have to lay the tracks.

In 2008, California voters approved a $10 billion bond for a new train route between the Southland and the Bay. At the time, the project was supposed to cost $32 billion and finish in 2029. Last year, a revised business plan had it at $77 billion, finishing in 2033. The state broke ground on the 119-mile Central Valley segment in 2015, but still hadn’t acquired all the land in the corridor as of last year. The entire route is 520 miles.

To Californians who have followed the project, Tuesday’s announcement comes as no surprise. In December, Newsom professed his support for the so-called “Valley-to-Valley” section of the California project, the first to break ground, but otherwise thought it was “time for a fresh start.” “What Newsom said today wasn’t news. It was news that he said it out loud,” said Nadia Naik of the grassroots group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, which supports the high-speed rail plan but has argued for greater transparency and accountability. “For Californians, it’s really sad. We knew California could be a model and that if we screwed this up, people would point and say we shouldn’t do that. All the fears have come to pass.”

What makes this failure so biting for environmentalists and rail advocates is precisely the fact that high-speed rail projects around the world have proven to be exactly what Ocasio-Cortez’s office suggested: major threats to domestic airline routes. A broader lesson is that the greatest threat to a progressive national agenda lies with its own incompetent administrators.

Opponents of high-speed rail often invoke some kind of American exceptionalism, arguing that America is too big, too dispersed, and too car-dependent to have a market for intercity train travel. In reality, the only American exceptionalism is our debilitating lack of expertise. “I’ve always quoted Churchill when it comes to high-speed rail,” says Anthony Perl, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. “The Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

A recent overview of research suggests that planes and high-speed trains are competitive on routes under 600 miles. Internationally, that includes routes like Rome–Milan, Tokyo–Osaka, and Paris–London. Domestically, it might include Atlanta–Charlotte, Los Angeles–Las Vegas, and, yes, Los Angeles–San Francisco. Under 300 miles, rail becomes dominant. “Several regions in the United States have comparable density that might support the success of high-speed rail,” says Yu Zhang, one of the report’s authors. Park-and-ride, Uber and Lyft, transcontinental flights, and short-haul, low-ridership airplane shuttles should all be viewed as complements to new high-speed rail, which is often linked to airports as well as city centers.

Even long routes can succeed if passengers are willing to sacrifice a couple of hours for the comfort of the train. Beijing–Shanghai is only a bit shorter than New York–Chicago (though with more forgiving terrain—a U.S. version would have to trace the old Erie Canal). At 4½ hours, it’s one of China’s most popular and profitable routes.

California’s project had little in common with its peers in France or China. “You hear a lot about best practices,” says Jeff Davis at the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank in Washington. “This particular California project has a series of worst practices.” Those include:

• A meandering route through the Central Valley devised to win support at the ballot box, locking planners into a scheme that took the route away from its goal of connecting the state’s biggest cities.
• A mad rush to begin construction without knowing the route, acquiring the right of way, studying the geology, or securing the funding.
• An irresponsible partner in the federal government that rushed California to get going and encouraged the state to proceed with half-baked plans.
• A balkanized planning process teeming with eager private-sector beavers who were afraid to report how flawed the enterprise was, a system that Naik called “no consultant left behind.”
• The determination not to engage French and Chinese engineers who offered to just build the damn thing for us. “The equivalent of Bangladesh saying they’d go to the moon with indigenous technology” is how Perl describes the general attitude. “We excluded all the learning and tech that happened elsewhere.”

Is there reason to be optimistic? Perhaps: Newsom’s promise to bring transparency to the high-speed rail project can serve as a teachable moment for the state and others that want to follow in its footsteps. “It’s a very expensive misstep,” says Naik. “But if Gavin Newsom is able to make a real change, and get more accountability, it’s probably worth more to California than any amount of rail.” Once a useless Central Valley spur is in place, there might be appetite to try again. (We could ask the Japanese to clean up our mess.)

Critics will whine, as they always do, that high-speed rail can’t pay for itself. The evidence suggests it hasn’t and won’t. (Though a private company is trying in Texas.) But neither do highways or airports, especially when you account for their enormous externalities. Democrats are right to want to subsidize the development of a transportation mode that brings us less close to a global meltdown than the other subsidized transportation mode. Once operating, many high-speed rail routes are self-sufficient, with ticket sales covering operations and maintenance. What makes the failure in California so frustrating is not that it was crazy to suggest the train could sharply curtail California’s intercity air travel—but that it might have, if we’d done it right.

IA adds six rail initiatives to priority list

Rail Express, 15 February 2019

Infrastructure Australia’s newest Infrastructure Priority List has been welcomed by the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), with six new or updated rail initiatives included.

Capacity on Victoria’s Cranbourne and Hurstbridge lines, port access at Melbourne, and connectivity on the Gold Coast and in Perth are all new aspects of the latest List, released on February 14. The List is compiled by Infrastructure Australia, arranging proposals into early-stage ‘Initiatives’, and ‘Projects’, whose business cases have been approved by Infrastructure Australia, thus recommending them for federal funding.

In all, the ARA counts 54 rail-related projects and initiatives among the 124 on the new list. “As Australia’s population grows, rail infrastructure will increasingly become the backbone to meet Australia’s growing passenger and freight needs,” ARA chief executive Danny Broad said. “To manage the challenges posed in our cities and regions in the long-term, Australia will need to ensure that it continuously invests in rail infrastructure.”

The list is developed using data from the Australian Infrastructure Audit, and submissions from state and territory governments, industry and the community, including more than 100 submissions in the last year. Not much has changed at the top end of the list produced on February 14. Three ‘High Priority Projects’ have graduated from the list entirely: New South Wales’ WestConnex road project and Victoria’s Monash Freeway Upgrade Stage 2 and North East Link projects. No ‘High Priority Projects’ have been added, and no rail-related ‘Priority Projects’ have been added or removed from the list.

Six new rail-related Initiatives are included on the new list, however.

1. A new Priority Initiative concerns the duplication of eight kilometres of the Cranbourne Line between Dandenong and Cranbourne southeast of Melbourne, which the Andrews Government has already committed $750 million to deliver by 2023.

2. Another new Priority Initiative is for capacity on the state’s Hurstbridge Line. Before last year’s election the Andrews Government targeted marginal seats with a $530 million proposal to build a new train station at Greensborough, and duplicate sections of track along the line.

3. An initiative concerning container terminal capacity at Melbourne was updated to include the near-time landside transport initiatives needed to support capacity growth, “including road and rail access from metropolitan, regional and national networks”.

4. Stage 3A of the Gold Coast’s G:link light rail line was essentially added, listed as ‘Public transport connectivity between Broadbeach and Burleigh Heads’. The Federal Government in November 2018 committed $112 million to the project, and the Queensland Government is progressing with the plan.

5. Transport connectivity between Morley and Ellenbrook is a new Priority Initiative, the third of Perth’s Metronet urban rail projects added. WA’s Government submitted the Morley-Ellenbrook Line for the list in September, and it joins the Yanchep Rail Extension, a High Priority Project, and the Thornlie-Cockburn Link, a Priority Project. Metronet’s Forrestfield-Airport Link was also once on the list, but has graduated.

6. Also in Perth, a new Priority Initiative is to improve the Canning Bridge public transport interchange, to improve public transport patronage and reduce impact on the adjacent road network. Canning Bridge station is on the Mandurah Line.

Infrastructure Australia chair Julieanne Alroe described the 2019 list as the independent advisor’s “largest, most comprehensive and most diverse” yet. “With a record 121 nationally significant proposals and a $58 billion project pipeline, the Priority List will guide the next 15 years of Australian infrastructure investment,” she said.
“The 2019 Priority List provides a credible pipeline of nationally significant proposals for governments at all levels to choose from. As an evidence-based list of opportunities to improve both our living standards and productivity, the Priority List reflects the diversity of Australia’s future infrastructure needs across transport, energy, water, communications, housing and education.”

Alroe noted many of the new projects would respond to the challenge of population growth in Australia.
“Congestion in our cities and faster-growing regional centres not only has significant consequences for the Australian economy, but has direct impacts on communities, reducing people’s access to education, health services, employment and other opportunities,” Alroe said.

Citing the forthcoming NSW and federal elections, Alroe urged politicians to avoid making politically-motivated funding commitments, and to trust the independent advisor’s analysis when making budget decisions.
“Infrastructure Australia is urging decision makers to commit to solving any emerging or growing problem by embarking on a feasibility study to identify potential options, rather than a pre-defined project that may not be the most effective solution,” she said. “Decision makers at all levels will best serve all Australians by continuing to consult the Priority List as a source of informed analysis on the projects that represent the best use of our infrastructure funding.”

One of those decision makers, deputy prime minister and minister for infrastructure Michael McCormack, said the Government was now taking this approach. “Once upon a time there was a ‘build it and they will come’ sort of attitude,” McCormack said when the new list was released. “There were also the political ramifications and implications and benefits of spending money on infrastructure. But the fact remains that we need rigour and accountability around what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and where we’re delivering it.”

IA adds six rail initiatives to Priority List

Five new lines open in two days

Railway Gazette, 27 December 2018

CHINA: Revenue services began on two more high speed lines on December 25, with another inaugurated the following day, along with two new mixed-traffic railways. First to open on December 25 was the 293 km Harbin – Mudanjiang Intercity Railway, running southeast from the capital of Heilongjiang province to a major city close to the Russian border with a population of 2·5 million inhabitants. Authorised in 2014 at a cost of 33·6bn yuan, the line has been built for 250 km/h operation. It includes 109 bridges and viaducts totalling 103 route-km and 39 tunnels accounting for a further 69 km, leaving 121 km at grade. Intermediate stations have been built at Xin Xiangfang Bei, Acheng Bei, Mao’ershan Xi, Shangzhi Nan, Yimianpo Bei, Weihe Xi, Yabuli Xi, Hengdao Hezi Xi, and Hailin Bei; a further station at Mudanjiang Xi is expected to open in the summer. As part of the project, the existing main stations at Harbin and Mundanjiang have been remodelled and extended. Journey times between the two cities have been cut from 4 h 30 min to 90 min by the fastest non-stop services. In the longer term, plans are being discussed for a 380 km cross-border extension to Vladivostok.

Also opened on December 25, the 287 km Hangzhou – Huangshan Passenger-Dedicated Line forms the eastern section of the Hangzhou – Nanchang high speed axis, which is due to be completed throughout by 2022. This route has intermediate stations at Hangzhou Dong, Hangzhou Xi, Fuyang, Tonglu, Jiande, Qiandaohu, Sanyang, Jixi, Shexian and Huangshan Bei. The biggest engineering works included the 12 km Tianmushan tunnel and the 4·1 km Shinuishan tunnel as well as the 2·3 km Chuanfang viaduct. Designed for 250 km/h operation, the line is initially provided with 11 trains each way per day, offering a fastest end to end journey time of 1 h 43 min. The line is expected to provide a boost to regional tourism, as Huangshan is one of China’s four ‘sacred mountains’, while nearby towns such as Qiandaohu have become tourist destinations in their own right.

350 km/h network reaches Qingdao

December 26 saw the long-awaited opening of the 350 km/h Jinan – Qingdao trunk line, which boosted capacity on the important corridor connecting the two principal cities in Shandong province. Forming part of the national ’10 x 10’ high speed grid, the 307·8 km line is connected to the Beijing – Shanghai route at Jinan, this line allows travellers from those two cities to reach Qingdao entirely on 350 km/h routes, apart from a short section between Jiaozhou Bei and Hongdao which is restricted to 250 km/h.

Under construction since December 2015 at a cost of 59·9bn yuan, the line runs almost entirely on viaduct, with 87% of the route elevated. The fastest timing between Jinan and Qingdao has been reduced to 1 h 40 min, almost an hour faster than the best achieved by high speed trains using the upgraded conventional route. Intermediate stations have been provided at Jinan Dong, Zhangqiu Bei, Zouping, Zibo Bei, Linzi Bei, Qingzhou Bei, Weifang Bei, Gaomi Bei, Jiaozhou Bei and Hongdao. A 7·5 km tunnel takes the line under Qingdao Airport, where an underground station has been provided. Rather than running into the city’s main station, most trains terminate at the Qingdao Bei high speed hub, where connections are provided to the growing metro network.

The same day saw the opening of a new coastal line running south from Qingdao Bei to Yancheng in Jiangsu province. This 428·8 km route with 15 stations is initially served by two daily EMUs in each direction, the faster taking 3 h 5 min to complete the journey at an average speed of 139 km/h including stops. December 26 also saw the start of revenue operation on the 318 km Huaihua – Hengyang railway in Hunan province, which had been formally inaugurated on the previous day. Another 200 km/h mixed-traffic line with 16 stations, this line had been under construction since June 2014. It required 41 tunnels and 243 bridges totalling 57% of the route length. As well as the 17 km Liangshan tunnel, major bores include the Jianfengshan (6 406 m), Xiangjiashan (4 014 m) and Baishiwan (3 788 m) tunnels. Meanwhile, the National Development & Reform Commission has approved the construction of a 292 km high speed line between Xi’an and Yan’an in Shaanxi province. Budgeted at 55·2bn yuan, the line is expected to open in 2023.

Disability compliance the focus of $18m pedestrian crossing program

Railpage, 18 December 2018
An $18 million program to ensure Perth’s pedestrian level crossings comply with disability standards has begun, with 22 crossings to be upgraded over the next 12 months. Pedestrian crossings on the Midland, Fremantle and Armadale lines will be targeted by the Public Transport Authority (PTA) in the first wave of upgrades, between December 2018 and December 2019.
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Premier’s bold plan for Victoria’s ‘biggest ever rail project’

News, 28 August 2018
IT’S slaps on the back, high fives and “job well done” at the Victorian Premier’s office this morning after arguably his biggest announcement since taking the state’s top job. Daniel Andrews shocked the electorate and shook up the race ahead of November’s state election with plans to build a $50 billion underground rail network to revolutionise the way Melburnians travel.
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Perth airport tunnel construction grinds to a halt after water leak causes sinkhole

ABC News, 25 September 2018
A water leak, which has led to the creation of a sinkhole, is continuing to delay the construction of Perth’s new $1.8 billion airport tunnel.Tunnelling for the new Forrestfield-Airport Link project was brought to an abrupt halt on Saturday afternoon. The sinkhole appeared on Sunday morning, forcing the closure of Dundas Road.

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Tram tech gains speed

The West, 2 September 2018
State and local government officials were briefed this week on the suitability for Perth of “trackless trams” — a new concept of public transport that experts believe could revolutionise inner-city travel.

A team from Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute, headed by the recently announced WA Scientist of the Year, Professor Peter Newman, went to China last month to investigate the trackless tram technology.
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‘Crush capacity’: The worst time to get on Sydney’s light rail

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2018
The number of passengers enduring “crush capacity” on Sydney’s inner west light rail line or being left behind on platforms will worsen unless the Berejiklian government buys more trams to boost the frequency of services, “sensitive” documents warn. And even if new trams are bought, it will be up to three years before they are running on the line because of the length of time it takes to procure and commission them.

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