Heavy commuter rail is a frequently mentioned “solution” to
congestion. But just as frequently, it is revealed as horrendously expensive to
build, expensive to operate and seemingly incapable of moving the dial on mode
share: that is, it doesn’t succeed in getting many cars off the road.
Explosive cost blowouts are all around us. In Melbourne, the proposed “suburban rail loop” was promoted by then Premier Andrews as costing $50billion. It was later revealed the cost has already ballooned to four times the original estimate to $200billion – which exceeds the entire state debt of Victoria.
In Queensland, the Cross River Rail was persistently promised to be delivered for a fixed $5.4 billion but it is understood to be over budget by $1 billion at around $6.3 billion. It’s hard to work out what this includes as related works like yards are understood to be under separate budgets.
Then there’s the Queensland Train Manufacturing program, which was originally budgeted at $7.1 billion but which is now estimated at $9.6 billion – a blow out of $2.4 billion.
Add to that the Logan and Gold Coast Faster Rail project, which duplicates lines over an 18klm section of the network with station upgrades and better alignment. That was to cost $2.6 billion but has now been revealed to cost an estimated $5.75 billion – an increase of $3.1 billion, more than double the original costs.
Prior to all this was the new Moreton Bay Rail line to Kippa Ring, a new 12klm line with 6 stations which opened in 2016 at a cost of $1.15 billion – roughly $100 million per kilometre. That almost looks cheap compared with over $300 million per kilometre just up upgrade the Logan-Gold Coast line.
Undeterred, we are now also canvassing a new 37 kilometre line from Beerwah to Maroochydore, with perhaps 7 new stations and a tunnel section. No costs for this yet and its fate is hard to determine. But if we used the per kilometre upgrade cost for the Logan-Gold line, and multiplied that by 37 kilometres, we could easily be looking at a project costing $12 billion. My bet is that an initial estimate will come in closer to $20bn BB. ("BB" = before blowout).
Are your eyes starting to water? Worried about where the money is coming from? Maybe consoling yourself that this is all necessary to support transport infrastructure in a growing state and to “solve” congestion. With better and more train services, loads of people will happily give up their cars and use public transport, and all this is supported by rigorous business cases which are readily accessible by members of the taxpaying public. No?
Here are some numbers for context.
The population of the greater urban conglomeration of SEQ (Greater Brisbane plus Sunshine and Gold Coasts, Ipswich and Toowoomba) was 3.6 million people (2021 Census). Of that number, 1.58 million went to work – somewhere. 280,000 worked at home. How many of the 1.58 million caught a train or light rail as at least part of their journey to work? Only around 44,000. The 2021 Census was taken in the midst of Covid so an unfair year to sample train travel. The comparable figure from the 2016 census was around 64,000 people catching a train.
With Covid behind us, passengers are returning but are still at only around 80% of pre pandemic levels. Because rail people like to use trip numbers (which are much bigger numbers to talk about given just one person can generate more than 10 trips in one week) direct comparisons with actual numbers of people are hard to find. But if you assume current passengers are around 80% of the 64,000 pre pandemic, there might be around 55,000 people using a train to get to work in South East Queensland today.
Why do more people not catch the train? And will all this investment mean it becomes a more attractive proposition?
Sadly, heavy commuter rail for Australia is battling against a changing economic geography and a changed society. An “all roads lead to Rome” centralised economic model (much like mega Chinese cities, or mega centres like NYC or London) can work for heavy commuter rail. But in our region, only around 10% of jobs are in the inner city, for which rail is well suited provided you can access a station with convenience. The greatest growth in jobs is not in the inner city, but across suburban centres. These are not typically serviced by rail.
Little wonder then that there is a high correlation between proximity to the CBD and use of public transport. Why? Because people who live in middle and outer suburbs do so because they don’t work in the CBD. People with jobs in the CBD prefer to live closer to it, and are also more likely to use a service which is CBD centred. It’s not rocket science.
(As an aside, proposals by The Greens to make public transport free would therefore most benefit inner city residents who already earn higher incomes and own more expensive real estate. And who work in the CBD. It will be of no benefit to lower income suburban workers who would in all likelihood need to pay for it via higher taxes).
Plus, once those tracks are in the ground, the wires overhead and the stations in place, there’s no changing that route - ever. Irrespective of how demand and economic geography might change, you’re stuck with that network. Buses and projects like the Metro can be re-routed, but not heavy rail.
In addition to that is social change. Trains are fixed route, schedule-based services. They were suited to a time when the trip to work did not involve any side trips and you scheduled your trips around the train timetable. For many, those trips now change every day – dropping kids to school, picking up from sport, gym classes, shopping for groceries… any number of reasons why a fixed route, fixed schedule service doesn’t appeal to as many people as it once did.
You might think the basic numbers and reality is sinking in? Not it seems with any number of economically illiterate politicians who offer nothing more than glib phrases and vague promises about “congestion busting” while proposing projects that are budget busting, and supported without transparent business cases due to “commercial in confidence” reasons.
So we are spending tens and perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars on a mode of transport which is best suited to a minority of inner city workers, and which currently carries fewer than 100,000 people in the region, and which, despite spending many many billions more, is possibly unlikely to carry many more people in the foreseeable future.
Who wins in this? Loads of consultants doing multi million dollar business cases which will never be put up for scrutiny, sheltered industries and work practices, and a very small number of commuters who will get better service at the expense of a majority who won’t.