Australian holidaymakers have a difficult choice to make this Christmas break, with record high domestic flight prices and soaring petrol costs making flight and road trips less appealing. Following months of higher-than-average domestic air fares, travellers are facing prices not recorded since March 2004.
Last week, Guardian Australia reported that more and more Australians were opting for cheaper overnight trains to travel interstate, with patronage between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane more than doubling in recent months and services booked to capacity. Coach travel is also increasing.
Besides the lower cost, trains offer a less emissions-intensive way to travel. France has moved towards banning short-haul domestic flights that can be covered by a train journey of less than 2.5 hours.
Australia’s sheer size, as well as decades of inaction on high-speed rail and neglect of the existing train network, make a similar law here impractical, but the rising financial and environmental cost of flying or driving between cities is shifting the equation.
So what is the best option for you and your family this holiday season?
Here, Guardian Australia – with help from Beyond Zero Emissions’ researcher Rowan Moorey, and drawing on historical research conducted by the Grattan Institute and the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics – looks at the financial, time, convenience and emissions costs of travelling Australia’s most traversed route, from Sydney to Melbourne.
Distance: About 880km, from Sydney to Melbourne, CBD to CBD (route via Albury).
Time: About nine hours, with no stops, depending on traffic.
Emissions: About 105kg of C02 a person, based on average car emissions and load factor of a vehicle of 2.26 passengers – the average for such a trip. This figure varies depending on the vehicle type, number of passengers, luggage and weight. The footprint will be slightly smaller for a diesel vehicle.
For the average electric car in Australia the trip will consume about 180kWh, with the carbon footprint depending on how the electricity used to fill the car is generated – that varies between states.
Cost: $165-$180, plus tolls depending on origin and destination (based on BITRE’s average fuel consumption rate of 11.1 litres for every 100km, and an average fuel price of $1.80 for unleaded E10 petrol). In an electric vehicle, this trip can cost as little as $12, depending on energy prices, load factor and vehicle type.
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Verdict: Travelling from Sydney to Melbourne by car can be a budget-friendly option, especially when there are several people in the car, and it produces less carbon emissions than flying. While convenient for travelling when staying at your destination, doing the drive is tiring and requires rest stops if there is just one driver. Breaking up a trip with an overnight stop can incur significant accommodation costs.
Distance: About 720km, from Sydney airport to Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport.
Time: About 90 minutes, including average taxiing time.
Emissions: About 185kg of C02 a person, based on the efficiency of the average short-haul aircraft that flies the route, with the estimate of 152 passengers based on average load factors on the route. Emissions include radiative forcing.
Cost: $200-$250 one way a person in economy this December on a budget carrier, more than $500 with full-service airlines.
Verdict: The fastest but most polluting option. Also important to consider is the time required to travel to Sydney and Melbourne’s airports, having to arrive early for a flight and going through airport security, which can dwarf the amount of time in the air. Also to consider is the cost of airport transfers – about $40 total a person for rail/bus transfers on each end – and of adding luggage to your ticket.
Distance: 953km, Sydney’s Central station to Melbourne Southern Cross.
Time: About 10 hours and 50 minutes.
Emissions: About 76kg of C02 a person, based on the emissions efficiency of the existing XPT service and a passenger estimate in line with the recent surge in patronage. Studies have shown that the carbon footprint of a future high speed rail service could be just under 50kg of C02 per person, using a fully electrified track in an era when a much larger share of Australia’s energy is generated from renewable sources.
Cost: $78 for economy, cheaper for children and concessions. $234 for a sleeper bed on the overnight service for a full fare adult.
Verdict: While the train trip takes longer, it is much better for the environment than flying or driving. It can offer a cheaper alternative to flying and because it is government-run with fixed prices it can also be a good option for those booking at the last minute.
Tickets are flexible, luggage is included in ticket prices, and travellers will save on airport transfers. It is important to consider that the currently rolling stock began service in the 1980s – there are no power outlets or wifi on board, and phone reception is patchy.
Distance: About 950km, from central Sydney to central Melbourne via Canberra (the route taken by Greyhound’s service).
Time: About 12 hours, depending on traffic.
Emissions: About 17kg of C02 per person, based on average ridership data and emissions efficiency of vehicle operating the route.
Cost: $140-$240, although cheaper early bird deals are available.
Verdict: The most environmentally friendly mode of transport by a long way, but also the longest option, and not the cheapest. Other downsides include the relative discomfort of being cramped in your seat for so long, and the lack of food on board. However, Greyhound Australia buses feature reclining leather seats, free wifi, in-seat USB charging, air conditioning and an onboard toilet, and make several stops for snacks and toilet breaks.
And the winner is …
Your best option for travelling Sydney-Melbourne (and most routes along Australia’s east coast) really depends on personal preference.
If you’re after the:
Fastest route, flying can’t be beaten, but it’s going to cost you in this holiday period. This option also leaves the heaviest carbon footprint.
Cheapest option, the train will be your best bet if travelling solo, but driving yourself will likely be your best bet if you’re in a group.
Greenest option, then coach travel is the clear winner.
Overall, if you’re after a cheap alternative to flying that is relatively stress free and environmentally friendly, and you’re not in a rush, the train is a good option right now.
• The illustrations associated with this story were updated on 12 December 2022 to depict the correct type of train that travels from Sydney to Melbourne. The previous illustrations depicted a suburban Melbourne train.