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The Need for Speed – The Costs of Slow Trains


Like many cars, my speedometer goes to 220km/h, although I never go anywhere near that speed officer. Our current trains also have the capability to travel at a higher speed, but they don’t, or if they do, only for part of the journey.

Most of our current trains are able to exceed 100km/h, and some able to hit 145km/h. Even the XPT train introduced way back in 1982 was rated to 160km/h. So, are we wasting money on buying new trains to run at an average speed of around 30km/h to 40km/h slower than our current maximum train speed capability or should we be fixing the existing network to allow our current trains to travel faster?

We seem to suffering from another form of “NBNitis” which focuses more on the delivery rollout and service levels, and less on the potential maximum speed. Is the NSW Government’s $2.3 billion budget for the New Intercity Fleet of trains simply a waste of money? The new train fleet will not average anywhere near their rumoured maximum speed of 160km/h. It has seating which half the passengers will ride backwards (but it will have wifi to help distract you, that is if you can get a seat). On top of this, an absolute fortune is being spent on widening existing tunnels so that the new trains can fit, and constructing a new maintenance facility in a flood prone part of the Central Coast. Government spending on infrastructure is important and usually benefits the overall economy, but could this money be spent better? Surely the focus should be on fixing the actual network to allow trains to run at faster average speeds. Has anyone asked the public if they would much rather fight for a seat, or stand if their train ran twice as fast?

According to Transport for NSW website (https://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/sydneytrains/facts-about-sydney-trains), “Sydney Trains operates quick, frequent and reliable trains in the greater Sydney suburban area (bounded by Emu Plains; Berowra; Waterfall and Macarthur), and there are over 1 million customer journeys per weekday.” The focus on running on-time results is at the sacrifice of speed. A slower network is easier to maintain an on-time system (think of an aeroplane trip where the captain announces they will catch up on the lost time after a take-off delay to ensure they arrive on time).

Recently, the NSW Government announced that they would be converting the signalling to digital and that trains will arrive every 2 ½ minutes on some lines, but little mention of speed. The focus was on more trains. Speed was however the focus of another announcement regarding a feasibility study of a fast train from Central to Parramatta, but the times discussed are 15 to 20 mins trips. Sounds exciting but these times are equivalent to an average of 70 to 93km/h, which although is considerably faster than the current travel time, it is not what the rest of the world would consider as a “fast train”.

The potential of a fast train network in the future is often discussed in the media, but is the public aware that many of our current trains are averaging speeds well below what they are capable of? Tables 1 shows the maximum potential speed of our current trains.

Table 1: Maximum speeds of main current trains
Train Speed

Source: TS TOC.1 : TS TOC.1 : 2017 issue 2. Train Operating Conditions (TOC), Manual – General Instructions, TS TOC.1 : 2017 issue 2, Version 10.0, Issue date: 07 September 2017

If we can’t afford world-class fast trains, then we need to at least focus on the problem regarding our current network which is limiting our trains reaching their top speeds. Let’s compare it with the actual current average speed for a selection of trains arriving at Central Station around 9:00am on a weekday.

Table 2: Current Train Trip Times & Average Km/h to Central Station
Source: https://www.nswrail.net/infrastructure/locations.php (rail distances) and Google Maps (timetable) & https://channels.com.au/trainspeedcalc/ (Train Speed Comparison)

Something is just not quite right is it? We actually have faster trains already. Okay, they are not as fast as a Japanese Bullet train (with an operating speed of over 300km/h!), but if our current trains averaged near their top speed, it would make a huge difference to commuters, and help decentralise our growing population. If we can’t afford a new fast train network, then maybe we can just work on the existing network infrastructure and timetable planning, and stop spending money on new trains which never average near their top train speed. I note as this article was being written that additional express services are being added from Sydney to the Central Coast which will have limited stops, and hopefully leads to shorter trips for commuters.

A dollar for your time

To take it one step further, what are the costs to a commuter of the extra time spent on a train. Faster trains can lead to more leisure time or more income. Using a scenario with an average of 100km/h and a median wage of $30 per hour, it is evident of the opportunity costs, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Comparison of current and potential average trip times at 100km/h

Source: http://www.abs.gov.au/ (median wage) & https://channels.com.au/trainspeedcalc/ (Train Speed Comparison)

Table 3 is a little unfair as it doesn’t allow for train stops, even though we are using an average speed of 100km/h. Let’s assume the selected trips have just 4 stops at 4 minutes each, including time for acceleration and deceleration. The results are shown in Table 4.

Table 4: Comparison of current and potential average of 100km/h & allowing for 4 stops at 4 minutes each (includes time for acceleration & deceleration)

Source: http://www.abs.gov.au/ (median wage) & https://channels.com.au/trainspeedcalc/ (Train Speed Comparison)

The end results from Table 4 highlights an equivalent median wage costs of between 50 cents and $19.50, which does not sound like a huge amount, but this is only one person, on one train trip. Table 5 looks at estimate of totalling the costs over a population.

An average train carriage can hold 100 passengers and therefore a 4 carriage train can hold a maximum of 400 passengers or 800 for a 8 carriage train, although according to the Transport for NSW website (https://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/sydneytrains/facts-about-sydney-trains), one eight-carriage train can move 1,000 customers, but it depends on the trains specifications.

Now not all trains are full, and not all passengers are working, and to be conservative, let’s use a figure of 100 wage earners per train, whether 4 or 8 cars. From this conservative figure of 100 wage earners per train trip, Table 5 shows the total costs of 100 wage earners based on the $30 median wage per hour figure per train trip, per day (including return trip), per week, and per year (again using a conservative figure of a 40 week working year – I wish).

Table 5: Time costs comparison of current and potential average of 100km/h & allowing for 4 stops at 4 minutes each (includes time for acceleration & deceleration) for 100 wage earners

Source: http://www.abs.gov.au/ (median wage) & https://channels.com.au/trainspeedcalc/ (Train Speed Comparison)

The original 50 cents to $19.50 median wage saving per trip converts to $20,000 to $780,000 per annum (using 40 weeks) depending on which destination you travel from. This is only a very small sample, but you can clearly see that the costs to the economy of not allowing the current fleet of trains to work to their full potential is costing the economy millions per annum.

Transport Sydney Trains says that their punctuality performance target is to have at least 92% of peak services arrive within five minutes for suburban services and six minutes for intercity services. It is time to stop focusing on being on time and work on saving time, which we can then either use for more employment or leisure time.

The lack of pressure to change the status quo may simply be that travel time is often taken for granted and people just accept that’s the way it is. However, if consumers think about and start adding up the additional time they are giving away traveling on a slow train just to travel to work or study, they will be staggered. In many cases, they will find the current train system is costing them an hour per day, therefore 5 hours per week Monday to Friday, and a massive 200 hours over 40 weeks. That’s more than 8 full days over the example 40 weeks which is a conservative figure, and if we used 50 weeks, it works out to be over 10 full days and that is just for one commuter.

On top of this, the pressures on society are increasing due to the growing prices of mandatory-like service charges (MLSC’s) and other living expenses, combined with wages basically remaining stagnate. If someone could save the 1 hour per day in travel time, this could be used to increase their income to help cover the rising living costs, or provide more time with their family. Commuters need to become more vocal and push our government to take us beyond the current twentieth century network, which will save us time to use as we wish, and ultimately benefit the economy.

Talking about time, I wrote this draft a few months ago, but haven’t had time to work on it further. I decided to publish it as is just to help with the conversation and you are most welcome to forward it on by clicking on the Facebook icon and other links below, or alternatively make comments below or send a direct message by clicking here (direct feedback).

A draft Train Speed calculator is also available at https://channels.com.au/trainspeedcalc/


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  1. […] train is going as fast as it could.  Check out the Train Speed Calculator and have a look at the Need for Speed article and let everyone know what you […]