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We need to get off this magic roundabout (it's going nowhere)

By Ross Elliott - posted Wednesday, 6 December 2023

Heavy commuter rail is a frequently mentioned "solution" to congestion. But just as frequently, it is revealed as horrendously expensive to build, expensive to operate and seemingly incapable of moving the dial on mode share: that is, it doesn't succeed in getting many cars off the road.

Explosive cost blowouts are all around us. In Melbourne, the proposed "suburban rail loop" was promoted by then Premier Andrews as costing $50billion. It was later revealed the cost has already ballooned to four times the original estimate to $200billion – which exceeds the entire state debt of Victoria.

In Queensland, the Cross River Rail was persistently promised to be delivered for a fixed $5.4 billion but it is understood to be over budget by $1 billion at around $6.3 billion. It's hard to work out what this includes as related works like yards are understood to be under separate budgets.


Then there's the Queensland Train Manufacturing program, which was originally budgeted at $7.1 billion but which is now estimated at $9.6 billion – a blow out of $2.4 billion.

Add to that the Logan and Gold Coast Faster Rail project, which duplicates lines over an 18klm section of the network with station upgrades and better alignment. That was to cost $2.6 billion but has now been revealed to cost an estimated $5.75 billion – an increase of $3.1 billion, more than double the original costs.

Prior to all this was the new Moreton Bay Rail line to Kippa Ring, a new 12klm line with 6 stations which opened in 2016 at a cost of $1.15 billion – roughly $100 million per kilometre. That almost looks cheap compared with over $300 million per kilometre just up upgrade the Logan-Gold Coast line.

Undeterred, we are now also canvassing a new 37 kilometre line from Beerwah to Maroochydore, with perhaps 7 new stations and a tunnel section. No costs for this yet and its fate is hard to determine. But if we used the per kilometre upgrade cost for the Logan-Gold line, and multiplied that by 37 kilometres, we could easily be looking at a project costing $12 billion. My bet is that an initial estimate will come in closer to $20bn BB. ("BB" = before blowout).

Are your eyes starting to water? Worried about where the money is coming from? Maybe consoling yourself that this is all necessary to support transport infrastructure in a growing state and to "solve" congestion. With better and more train services, loads of people will happily give up their cars and use public transport, and all this is supported by rigorous business cases which are readily accessible by members of the taxpaying public. No?

Here are some numbers for context.


The population of the greater urban conglomeration of SEQ (Greater Brisbane plus Sunshine and Gold Coasts, Ipswich and Toowoomba) was 3.6 million people (2021 Census). Of that number, 1.58 million went to work – somewhere. 280,000 worked at home. How many of the 1.58 million caught a train or light rail as at least part of their journey to work? Only around 44,000. The 2021 Census was taken in the midst of Covid so an unfair year to sample train travel. The comparable figure from the 2016 census was around 64,000 people catching a train.

With Covid behind us, passengers are returning but are still at only around 80% of pre pandemic levels. Because rail people like to use trip numbers (which are much bigger numbers to talk about given just one person can generate more than 10 trips in one week) direct comparisons with actual numbers of people are hard to find. But if you assume current passengers are around 80% of the 64,000 pre pandemic, there might be around 55,000 people using a train to get to work in South East Queensland today.

Why do more people not catch the train? And will all this investment mean it becomes a more attractive proposition?

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This article was first published on The Pulse.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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