In the early 1980s, Paul Wild, the head of the CSIRO, returned from a trip to Japan feeling particularly inspired.
He had just experienced the thrill of riding the Shinkansen, an ultra-fast inter-city bullet train that had already been in operation for two decades.
It was a ride that made his occasional commute from Canberra to Sydney, well over four hours long, feel particularly gloomy in comparison.
He conceived the idea of a high-speed railway between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, dubbed the Very Fast Train.
Dr Wild’s vision became the first Australian high-speed rail proposal to fall over, but scores have followed in its footsteps.
And as the fast rail debate rears its titanium head in time for another election year, many are wondering if it’s ever going to become a reality – or whether it should.
Can we afford it?
According to rail transport professor John Preston from the University of Southampton, very few city pairs in the world can satisfy the necessary conditions for a commercially viable high-speed rail network.
“Tokyo-Osaka is clearly one, and Paris-Lyon is another. Shanghai-Nanjing in China are possibilities, but they’re facing relatively heavy levels of demand,” he says.
“We’re talking 20 million passengers per annum in the first year of operation, and then normally fairly substantial growth thereafter.”
At home, despite of all the private sector interest – and there has been plenty over the years – no organisation has been prepared to build a network without government support.
“Tellingly, people are willing to design and build it, but no one is saying they would be willing to run it,” transport consultant Peter Thornton says.
This means that almost all proposals are reliant on governments throwing money in the kitty to get fast rail infrastructure off, onto or under the ground.
In 2013 the Rudd government put the cost of a Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra route at an eye-watering $114 billion.
This would dwarf even Sydney’s in-progress WestConnex, which at a possible $45 billion represents one of Australia’s most expensive transport projects.
It is a number that alarms Marion Terrill, director of the Transport and Cities Program at the Grattan Institute.
“Just to put that in perspective, that’s $5000 for every person in Australia – it’s a generation’s worth of infrastructure funding,” she says.
Ms Terrill also points out that fast rail would be replacing existing aviation routes that “stand on their own two feet commercially”.
“They’re very competitive, they’re fast … but we want to replace it with something with this enormous taxpayer subsidy,” she says.
“If we have got $120 billion to spare, we could equally ask the question, how would we like to spend that $120 billion? And we can all dream up great ways to do that.”
Will it benefit the regions?
At the top of the government arguments for high-speed rail is that it will help to make regional communities more viable to live in.
“High-speed rail can bring distant communities within close proximity of each other,” John Alexander, who was then the chair of the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities, said last year.
“This in turn would enable a more dispersed pattern of settlement and the creation of polycentric cities, without the attendant vices of urban sprawl.”
Ms Terrill says because overpopulation in the cities is a concern, politicians “want to distribute the population over places that don’t have many people in them”.
“It would probably help in the sense that it would get people from regional towns to work in the city, turning them into dormitory towns,” she says.
This idea is often paired with the argument that high-speed rail will regenerate regional economies.
According to Ms Terrill, this argument has less substance.
“People have found overseas that what really happens is that the bigger regional centres that get a station may well cannibalise the smaller towns,” she says.
This is not helped, she says, by the fact that for every extra region with a stop, the slower the service becomes – the more regions “regenerated”, the slower the train.
“You can’t really be dropping off at little towns and still think of it as high-speed rail. The two are just not compatible,” Ms Terrill says.
“Ninety per cent of the benefits in this proposal don’t go to towns and they don’t go to the environment – they go to individual travellers in the form of travel time savings.”
Hope from the states
In the latest effort, the 2017 federal budget set aside $20 million for business cases for fast or higher speed rail in Australia.
Three states – Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales – are now looking into their own high-speed projects.
“Instead of 300 kilometres per hour, as in Europe or in Japan, these state-based projects would be somewhere between 130 and 200 kilometres per hour,” says transport professor Rico Merkert of the University of Sydney.
In NSW four routes have been proposed, connecting Sydney with Canberra, Wollongong, Bathurst and Newcastle.
Victoria wants to cut the travel time from Melbourne to regional cities like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong to under an hour.
Queensland, preparing for an Olympics bid, is looking to connect the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Toowoomba to the Brisbane CBD in a whistling 45 minutes.
These proposals, according to Professor Merkert, are the great and possibly only hope for fast (or faster) rail in Australia.
“I was very critical previously when they looked at the four-city thing – the eastern seaboard connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne. That was just too much,” he says.
“But now that we have three independent proposals, I think each of them has merit with lot of upgrades to existing infrastructure [that will] develop those regional centres.”
Because most of these regional areas are too close to fly to, the slower fast train will make it less likely that high-speed rail will have to compete with aviation.
“All the other routes that we are talking about is competition with the cars – trying to get people out of their cars and encourage more public transport,” Professor Merkert says.
And with luck, Professor Merkert envisages the possibility of these three state projects one day combining to create the eastern seaboard fast rail long dreamt of.
“If they ensure that there is interoperability around these things, then you at some point in the future connect these three systems, then you have what was initially proposed,” he says.
Dr Wild never got the opportunity to whiz between Australian cities on an ultra-fast rail, but one day, thousands of Australians might.