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Japanese Shinkansens (bullet trains), Odawarra station, Japan, 18 April 2018. Japan introduced the first high speed trains in 1964.

The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) on its way from Paris towards Dijon, 1 July 1984. France’s TGV commenced service in 1981. Photo: TGV, Wikimedia Commons.

 High Speed Rail

David Matheson

26 August 2019

High Speed Rail (HSR) is generally accepted to be train services that operate at speeds of 250 km/h or more for new lines, and 200 km/h or more for existing lines that are upgraded for faster trains. In countries where it has been introduced it has been very successful, and has led to expansion of high speed rail networks. HSR uses trains designed to operate at much faster speeds than conventional trains and dedicated tracks that are not used by other services.



The world’s first high speed train services commenced running on 1 October 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, a distance of 515 km. Named the Tokaido Shinkansen, it was the beginning of an extensive network of high speed lines throughout Japan. France introduced its first high speed train, the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), between Paris and Lyon, a distance of 427 km, on 27 September 1981. Other countries in Europe followed, with Italy and Germany commencing high speed train services in 1988, Spain in 1992, Belgium in 1997, the United Kingdom in 2003, the Netherlands in 2009 and Austria in 2012. High speed lines owned by Germany and France also traverse part of Switzerland.


High speed trains were introduced to more Asian countries when China began services in 2003, South Korea in 2004, Taiwan in 2007 and Turkey in 2009. China began a program of widespread high speed rail expansion in 2008, with over 25,000 km now in operation and more than 1200 high speed trains running on these lines. It now has significantly more high speed railways than any country in the world.


Further high speed railways are being developed or beginning operation in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States. High speed lines are also under consideration in some countries in Eastern Europe and other countries in Asia. In June 2018 there was a total of 41,908 km of HSR in operation throughout the world, with a further 15,115 km under construction and 41,079 km planned.


Australian Proposals 1984-2000

High speed rail has been discussed in Australia since the 1980s and various studies have been undertaken. The massive investment required has been a significant deterrent to its development, and there has been no strong government commitment to high speed rail. Nevertheless, it is a possible future project which has received considerable attention.


An investigation into the feasibility of electrifying the Sydney–Melbourne line was commissioned by a 1979 Premiers’ Conference. The report, released in June 1980, was supportive of the concept, indicating that it could decrease rail travel time between the two cities from over 12 hours to under ten hours. It would also provide energy, staff and maintenance cost savings. However, a 1980 Senate report found that the proposal was probably not justified economically or for energy efficiency reasons.


In 1981 the Institution of Engineers proposed the Bicentennial High Speed Railway Project, designed to be operational by 1988. The project would link Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide, using some new lines and some upgraded existing track. Under the plan, a Sydney–Melbourne rail journey could be completed within nine hours, Sydney–Canberra in three hours, Melbourne–Canberra six and a half hours, Brisbane–Sydney in under 12 hours and Adelaide–Melbourne in under eight hours.


The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) proposed a Very Fast Train (VFT) between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne in 1984. Trains would be based on the French TGV and operate at speeds up to 350 km/h. Initially a coastal route was suggested, but an inland route was later considered. Later in 1984 the Bureau of Transport Economics reported that the proposal had significantly underestimated the cost of the line and concluded that it would be uneconomic.


In September 1986 the Very Fast Train (VFT) Joint Venture was established by several private companies. They planned to build a high speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne via Canberra. A concept report was completed in December 1988 and responses were sought from the Australian, New South Wales, Victorian and Australian Capital Territory Governments. Various Government committees considered the proposal and further inquiries were undertaken. Governments were generally supportive of the VFT proposal. A 1991 report by Credit Suisse First Boston Australia Bank for the Joint Venture partners found that the project was not viable without government tax concessions. The tax concessions were rejected by the Australian Government and the Joint Venture folded in August 1991.


In August 1993 Speedrail Pty Ltd proposed a high speed line between Sydney and Canberra. It would involve building new tracks and would reduce travel time between the two cities to 75 minutes, with services operating hourly. An inter-government task force was established to consider the proposal. The following year the Victorian Government established a committee to investigate the feasibility of a VFT between Melbourne and Sydney.


A Swedish-built X2000 tilt train was brought to Australia in early 1995 and ran trials in New South Wales country areas. Tilt train technology was favoured by the New South Wales Government at the time. It was hoped that the tilt train could reduce the rail travel time between Canberra and Sydney to about two hours, with trains running on existing lines. However, the condition of the tracks resulted in the trials being less successful than hoped.


A report released in June 1996 by the South East Australian Transport Study (SEATS) group considered both the Sydney–Canberra and Sydney–Melbourne VFT proposals. It concluded that both concepts would bring potential benefits, but that these benefits were outweighed by the costs. Nevertheless, in September 1996 the VFT received support from both the New South Wales and Victorian Governments, and in December a Commonwealth-NSW-ACT joint venture was announced to investigate a high speed train service. In December 1997 four international consortia joined the final tender process for the Canberra–Sydney high speed rail link, and in August 1998 the Australian Government announced that Speedrail had submitted the preferred tender. The following year Speedrail submitted a feasibility study, but in December 2000 the Australian Government announced that it was not proceeding with the project.


High Speed Rail Study

The Australian Government commissioned a major study into high speed rail in August 2010. Phase 1 of its report was released in August 2011 and Phase 2 in April 2013.

The key findings of the reports included:

  • The proposed HSR network would comprise a dedicated route between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, a length of approximately 1748 km.

  • In addition to the four capital city stations, there would be stations at the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury–Wodonga and Shepparton.

  • The line would be fully operational from the year 2065 and could carry around 84 million passengers each year.

  • Express journey times between Brisbane and Sydney, and between Sydney and Melbourne, would be less than three hours.

  • Total estimated construction cost for the preferred HSR alignment in its entirety would be around $114 billion (in 2012 dollars).

No commitment to high speed rail between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne has been made by the Australian Government.


Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA)

In 2016 a private consortium, Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA), released a proposal to build a high speed railway line between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. It said that it had reached deals to secure half of the private land required. The line would include eight intermediate stations. An express service between Sydney and Melbourne would take one hour and 50 minutes, while an all stations service would link the two state capitals in two hours and 45 minutes.


CLARA has received funding from the Australian Government through Faster Rail, which is an initiative to investigate improving rail connections between cities and their surrounding regions. A business case will investigate HSR between Melbourne and Greater Shepparton. CLARA has indicated that travel times for the journey over the full length of the line could be reduced from around three hours to 32 minutes. It believes that uplift in land values would fund the development of infrastructure, including the HSR line. Although the Australian Government is providing financial support for the development of the business cases, this does not mean it will support delivery of the project.



AECOM Australia, High speed rail – phase 1, Sydney, 2011.

AECOM Australia, High speed rail study – phase 2 report, Sydney, 2013.

Australian Government, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities <>.

Clark, P, High speed trains, Rosenberg, Sydney, 2011.

Consolidated Land & Rail Australia <>.

International Union of Railways, High speed rail: fast track to sustainable mobility, Paris, May 2018.

International Union of Railways <>.

Laird, P, ‘High speed rail in Australia – much studied and slow to start’ Proceedings of the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies, vol. 9,


Williams, P ‘Australian Very Fast Trains–A Chronology’, Parliament of Australia, Economics, Commerce and Industrial Relations Group, 6 April

     1998 <



Electric Tilt train approaching Northgate in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, 15 January 2018. Queensland’s Tilt Train is currently the fastest train in Australia. They have a maximum speed in regular service of 160 km/h, but are not fast enough to fit the criteria for high speed rail.


Various 15.jpg

Preferred HSR alignment and stations for the east coast of Australia. Source: High speed rail study – phase 2 report, p. 5.

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