Fast train fever: why renovated rail might work but bullet trains won’t

High-speed rail Trains Transport infrastructure Australia

Australians seem to love the idea of fast trains. And now that we’re in a severe economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister wants to fast-track construction where possible, arguing that transport infrastructure projects will help kick-start the economy. State governments agree.

There’s no doubt fast trains are popular. Every ten years or so, there’s a grand new proposal; the latest is federal Labor’s plan for a bullet train from Melbourne to Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane. Federal and state governments also have a suite of more modest upgrades to existing services linking regional centres to Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane.

Rail renovations may make sense in Australia, and may improve life for people in regional cities. But even so, they’re unlikely to fulfil the overblown claims made for them: that they’d take pressure off crowded capital cities while at the same time boosting struggling regions. When the French TGV sped up connections between Paris and Lyon, it was Paris that benefited most. Australia’s regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail, including better internet and mobile connectivity and freight links. And governments would help a lot more CBD commuters by improving transport options for people in the outer suburbs rather than the regions.

This report shows that while a bullet train may be a captivating idea, it’s not realistic for Australia. Our population is small and spread over vast distances; the countries most like us – Canada and the United States – don’t have bullet trains either.

Publication Details


License type:
Grattan Institute Report No. 2020-07