High-speed rail link eyed off as better transport alternative

FALLING quality of service at Australia's major airports and a low-cost airline "race to the bottom" has improved the case for a high-speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne, a leading transport expert said on Tuesday.

Curtin University Professor of Sustainability Peter Newman is also an Infrastructure Australia board member and sits on the Commonwealth's expert panel on the high speed rail proposal.

Prof Newman said an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission report on the performance of Australia's major airports showed service quality was lacking.

He said a 7% to 9% fall in overall ratings for quality of service at airports and the continued push towards low-cost airlines was creating a race to the bottom which improved the prospects of a high quality national high-speed rail link.

The rail link between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne garnered widespread political support at the last election and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese released a long-awaited study of the proposal's potential earlier this month.

Prof Newman said the proposal was becoming more attractive as service quality fell at airports, particularly for business and leisure travellers looking for a higher quality option between the capitals.

"The overall ratings for quality of service and the lower-cost carriers - there is a link, and eventually that will mean that you'll be getting very crowded services and that will continue to drive people away to look for a better quality of service," he said.

"There's no doubt about the market for people to use high-speed rail - you look at what's happened in Europe and Asia and it proves around the world it's a good market."

Prof Newman said the biggest challenge to the huge infrastructure project was the $110 billion price tag, but it would pay dividends in lower carbon emissions and improved options for domestic travellers

."There's no doubt that high speed rail will happen at some point - the link to fuel and carbon is driving a lot of transport issues at the moment, and the days of cheap fuel are over," he said.

"It's becoming a clear driver; at some point the extra costs of building an electric, high-speed link will become cheaper to build and more viable."

Prof Newman compared the proposal to solar panels, saying once the mass-production of photovoltaic panels began, the product became cheap enough to install around Australia, helping to reduce coal-fired electricity usage.

He said a high-speed rail link could tap into the sun and other bio-fuels to ensure a longer-term future for the project, and decrease reliance on fossil fuel-based air flights between the major cities.

"It's a very connected world these days - anyone can go on the internet and see what's happening overseas with high-speed rail, and start asking; 'Why aren't we doing that here?'" Prof Newman said.

The ACCC report found while airport profit continued to rise in 2011-12, the quality of service fell and increased demand for flights demanded further investment.

Commission chairman Rod Sims said the continued growth in passenger numbers was placing pressure on existing infrastructure and contributing to lower service standards.

He said the report's findings reinforced the need for more interments in capacity at Australia's airports to meet demand.

But Prof Newman said rather than funding more expansions of existing airports or funding new airports, the money would be better spent on the high-speed rail link.

He said such a link would be lower in carbon emissions and provide a new alternative to the crowded experience on many domestic flights currently in demand on low-cost airlines.