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AuHSR Mini Conference - summaries and reflections

Updated: Jul 7

The Australian High Speed Rail Association's 2024 Mini-Conference drew a capacity audience at the Sydney Masonic Centre on the afternoon of 25th June.

Today I am pulling together some summaries of the presentations at the Conference.

Joe Langley, AuHSR Director

Joe offered the following summary:

The most memorable quote of the day came from Dr Garry Glazebrook from FastTrack Australia:

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got".

Master of Ceremonies Tracey Holmes conducted the Conference like a well-tuned orchestra, seamlessly managing speaker presentations while drawing audience engagement into each session. After the main presentations, she skillfully guided the panel in responding to numerous questions from the audience.

Panel Discussion. Left to right: John Alexander, Graham Nelmes, Dr Garry Glazebrook, Professor Andrew McNaughton and Tracey Holmes

Keynote speaker Prof Andrew McNaughton shared pearls of wisdom across a range of topics, including:

  • Stakeholder consultation must be continuous and political consensus is essential at national, state and local levels.

  • Begin with a long-term strategy and build in stages to deliver early community and economic benefits.

  • HSR is rarely about very long distance services - large flows tend to be between cities which are 1-2 hours apart.

  • HSR allows people to remain in regional areas where housing, jobs, infrastructure and spare capacity already exist.

HSR Authority General Manager Graham Nelmes outlined some of the key characteristics guiding the Sydney to Newcastle Business Case team:

  • Trains will be designed to travel in excess of 250/kmh on dedicated, standalone track.

  • Target travel time is Sydney - Newcastle - 1 hr - and for later project stages:

    • Sydney - Canberra - 1½ hrs

    • Sydney - Melbourne and Sydney - Brisbane - 4 hrs

  • Australia will use existing HSR technology.

  • Local manufacturing of major components will be a key program benefit.

Dr Garry Glazebrook from FastTrack Australia outlined three options for integrating high speed trains, fast trains and existing rail lines servicing regional centres:

  • Separated - a new line serving HSR and fast trains on new tracks with new stations outside of existing regional centres.

  • Parallel - a new line serving HSR and fast trains, running parallel to existing low speed lines and new stations in some regional centres.

  • Interlined - express HSR line serving HSR and fast trains, with fast trains travelling on existing low speed lines into existing regional centres.

These integrated options depart from the standalone approach used in Japan and China, as well as the approach being investigated by the HSR Authority for Australia. Integrated rail networks have been successfully developed in Europe. They provide some advantages over standalone HSR networks and should be considered for Australia.

Shishir Saxena

Shishir posted a summary which he has kindly allowed AuHSR to republish here:

Fantastic to attend the Australia High-Speed Rail (HSR) Association’s Mini-Conference hosted by Joe Langley and Damien Ottaviano.

The conference included a great selection of speakers, who reinforced that investment in HSR can:

1) unlock significant socio-economic value for Australia’s regions,

2) improve location choice and housing affordability by levelling settlement patterns more evenly between mega-cities and regions,

3) contribute to net zero targets by enabling mode shift at a radical scale, and

4) produce more equitable outcomes across geographies.

The speakers reiterated that:

  • Investment in HSR needs to be staged. Funding aside, securing appropriate skills to deliver will be a challenge.

  • If decision-making and focus was based merely on BCRs, then the business case may only stack up if ten trains operated an hour. That will most certainly not be the case on day one. The focus needs to be broader, i.e. on unlocking value - and not just value for today’s generation, but value for the future.

  • Importantly, the conference emphasised that HSR and air-services between Sydney – Melbourne and Brisbane, can co-exist. The two modes serve very distinct markets. Whilst air routes connect the mega-cities directly, HSR will enable connectivity between regions and the mega-cities.

In my view, and this is just my view, some fundamental questions remain:

Cross-jurisdictional coordination:

Land-use planning, and settlement patterns are a state-remit in Australia, not national. It would be interesting to see how the  High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) works to deliver a program that requires cross-jurisdictional coordination and agreement on alignment, station locations, and staging.

Choosing from an array of feasible solutions:

Finding a feasible high-speed solution will be akin to solving a constraint-optimisation problem. There will be an array of possibilities, noting geographical, topographical, technical, and affordability constraints. Some solutions may meet the available funding envelope but may not meet expectations on alignment and station locations. Others may satisfy speed and alignment expectations but may be cost-prohibitive. What tools will Government use to select a solution that delivers value?

Funding challenge:

Let us be clear and realistic. Any investment in HSR will be a multi-billion-dollar investment. How will Government muster the funds, and more importantly, the courage, to find alternative sources of funding, noting that a critical mechanism, namely value-sharing, remains contentious ?

Opportunity cost of HSR:

Funding challenges aside, investment in HSR will have to be at the expense of other initiatives. What frameworks will be used to decide if this investment represents better value relative to others?

Stakeholder buy-in:

Stakeholder engagement and buy-in will not be easy. The average person will most likely be focused on the BCR, which in my view, may not be that high, at least for the first section between Sydney and Newcastle. How will the Government marshal support for such a large program of works and meet the expectations of its stakeholders?

Should you wish to discuss Shishir's thoughts with him, he can be reached on +61 (0) 401 100 768 or by email on

Ross Lowrey, FastTrack Australia

Ross has provided his own summary on FastTrack Australia's web site blog, entitled "Take-outs from our mini-conference".

Peter Fagan

I took some notes during Professor McNaughton's presentation. Amongst other things, he said:

A high speed rail line or network must be designed for the future (as opposed to the present). However it should use existing, proven technology.

High speed rail lines are inherently high capacity. Many trains can traverse them each day. Therefore it only makes sense to build them where there is identified high demand. Long lines connecting capital cities do not in themselves provide the required level of demand. For example, 50 flights per day between two capital cities might transport 9000 people (180 passengers per flight). But if this only equates to ten trains (900 passengers per train), it is not sufficient to justify the cost of building, operating and maintaining such a long high speed rail line.

The "magic distance" for high speed rail is 300 kilometres; the "magic journey time is 1.5 hours. Each of these is a third of the values for high speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne.

Time matters to customers, speed does not. Therefore the objective should not be to achieve a particular kilometers per hour speed, but rather to achieve an identified journey time.

A high speed rail line or network is not just a transport project. It is a whole of government project, involving transport, finance, and urban and regional planning and development.

Station location and development are critical. There must be sufficient low value land around each station site for a development zone to be established, all of which is within 10 minutes of the station. A major reason for proposing totally new high speed lines is that the land around major stations on existing lines is already heavily developed. A good example is Gosford, where there is little available land close to the existing station.

Proponents of a high speed rail project have to find out what people actually want for their communities. High speed rail will dramatically change each community it serves. Do the people living there want that change ?

Influencing in favour of a high speed rail project has to continue until the trains start to run. As projects inevitably run over budget and over time, the case for completing the project must continue to be made.

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