Why are motorways good but fast trains bad for regional cities?

While I was overseas a few months ago in Tbilisi (among other things looking at the city’s transport systems) I read The Conversation article by Todd Denham and Jago Dodson – Regional cities beware – fast rail might lead to disadvantaged dormitories, not booming economies critiquing the Federal Government funding of nine business cases assessing fast rail opportunities in NSW, Queensland and Victoria. At the time I wrote a response on social media but thought I would turn this into a longer article.

VLine VLocity Train, currently the backbone of the Victorian regional rail network. Source: Public Transport Victoria

Denham and Dodson’s article concentrated on the plans to develop a fast rail connection between Melbourne and Geelong. The crux of their argument is that fast rail strategies treat “regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres”. Furthermore, they claim that:

Reduced travel times can mean regional businesses become less efficient than metropolitan competitors that can offer a wider range of specialist goods and services. This may lead to regional business closures, employment losses and wage decline. Unless a regional city is able to develop a specialised set of high-skill, high-wage industries that complement or outcompete the metropolis it risks being economically disadvantaged by faster rail.

Dodson amplified some of these arguments recently in another article specifically addressing the population impacts of high speed rail. I have a lot of time for Jago Dodson’s work and I would like to see the full research work behind the claims in both articles, but the problem I have with this sort of analysis is that it often treats fast rail in isolation, ignoring parallel investment in other transport infrastructure.

Regional centres like Geelong are also connected to the capital cities by motorways, to which exactly the same arguments that Denham and Dodson are making can be applied. The problem, of course, is that nobody ever does that. The benefits of building motorways to connect these centres to capital cities, and well beyond, are still rarely questioned. Consequently, we end up repeatedly privileging – and massively subsidising – motorway construction and use over more environmentally sound alternatives such as rail.

There is some merit in the Denham and Dodson’s argument when you are talking about highly centralised and very high-speed rail systems like the French TGV, though as the article notes even in France some centres have succeeded in establishing themselves as regional hubs. In Australia, however, when we use the term “fast rail” we are still largely talking about “moderate speed” rail (ie, up to 200 km/h) rather than “true” high speed rail (around 300 km/h).

In practice, as I pointed out in an article about the NSW Government’s fast rail proposals, this results in rail journey times slightly but not dramatically better than the fastest equivalent trip on a motorway outside of peak hour – say Canberra-Sydney in around 2 to 2.5 hours rather than the current time by train of 4+ hours.

More generally, I agree with the article’s comments about the need to position these centres as regional hubs, connected by rail to other regional centres, and to develop sophisticated employment and economic development strategies to ensure they don’t lose jobs to the cities. However, this argument can be applied equally to all transport infrastructure including motorways – though, in my experience, the plans that are developed for such investments are often largely superficial, inadequately resourced and almost never fully implemented.

The most troubling aspect of the article is the attempt to apply the argument about the negative impacts of high-speed rail investment in Europe to the Geelong proposal. Much of the European evidence advanced by Denham and Dodson relates to the impacts of national, long-distance systems in countries such as France and Spain and therefore is unlikely to be applicable to the much more modest “moderate-speed” fast rail proposals over medium distances currently being advanced in Australia.

For example, Melbourne and Geelong are only 75 kilometres apart. All the proposed fast rail connection will do is reduce travel times from one hour to 30 minutes. Yes, that’s a 50% reduction and would be very competitive with the one-hour motorway trip, but I have major doubts that a 30-minute time saving is going to have such a huge impact on Geelong.

What investment in fast rail would do is mitigate the impact of the extra 145,000 residents the article identifies will be moving to Geelong under already-announced plans, many of whom will otherwise be using the existing motorway anyway. While I have my doubts about whether a major investment in fast rail over such a short distance should be the highest priority for national investment in the rail network, on balance I think that’s a good policy outcome.


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