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Fast train’s Canberra snub a win for Yass, Goulburn

By Charlotte Harper - 18 July 2016 22

A still from CLARA's promotional video for their proposed high-speed rail network.

I reckon ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr is just as disappointed as I am in the latest proposal for a very fast train between Sydney and Melbourne, and for the same two reasons: because it bypasses – nay, snubs – the national capital; and because even if it does defy the odds and go ahead, it won’t be completed till we’re octogenarians.

The $200 billion train line announced by a Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) last week would be 917km long, connecting Melbourne with Sydney via Shepparton, Albury, Gundagai, Yass and Goulburn, bypassing Canberra altogether, with travellers to access Canberra Airport via a separate high-speed spur line from Yass.

Route map CLARA

The project’s advisory board consists of a ex-Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb, former NSW premier (Barry O’Farrell) and ex-Victorian premier (Steve Bracks) as well as several people with political and business connections in the US.

I contacted Mr Barr’s office three days ago to ask some questions about all of this, and have yet to hear back [UPDATE: They responded this afternoon, please see comments below]. Here are the questions I’ve asked:

What does the Chief Minister think about the fact that the proposed line doesn’t service Canberra directly? Would it be his preference that it did, and if so, why would that be better for Canberrans?

Steve Byron has said the ACT Government endorses the airport hosting the station for the high-speed spur line from Yass. Is that right, and what are the benefits of the station being at the airport rather than in the CBD?

Has CLARA been in touch with the ACT Government about any of this?

My guesses at his answers are that he doesn’t like the fact that it skips Canberra; that he would prefer to see Canberra on the route itself rather than tacked on because the economic and social benefits would be enormous for the capital; that his government does endorse the airport hosting the station for the feed-in train because building such a station in Canberra’s CBD would cause a major headaches; and no, CLARA haven’t been in touch with the ACT Government about any of it.

But those are just my guesses. I’ll update this article if Mr Barr gets back to me with his thoughts on the matter.

I’m particularly frustrated about all of this because it is so hard to catch a train from Canberra to Melbourne now, and surely this is something developers should try to fix if they’re going to build a new fast rail network between Sydney and Melbourne.

As it stands, there is no direct train between Melbourne and Canberra. Passengers are required to take a bus to a regional centre such as Yass or Goulburn to join the Sydney to Melbourne train. If you want to join the overnight train from Sydney to Melbourne at Goulburn, you need to drive there and leave your car parked at the station, or catch a bus earlier in the day and find a way to entertain yourself for the few hours till the train arrives at midnight. Cafe hopping, perhaps? Dinner and a movie? It might work for some, but not with small kids in tow, which is why on a recent trip we elected to take the day train and found a bus that connected with it in a timely manner (after three hours on the road, mind you) … at that hub of inter-city transportation, Cootamundra.

While Canberra would miss out on many of the benefits a fast rail network could provide to the capital, if the CLARA proposal went ahead, Yass and Goulburn would score big time, with Sydney suddenly just half an hour away via a direct fast train.The chairman and co-founder of CLARA, Nick Cleary, told the Australian Financial Review last week that the company planned to build eight new “smart cities” along the fast train route, and to fund the rail line entirely through proceeds from land deals rather than public funding.

My hair is turning grey just thinking about how long it will take to build the planned network: 40 years all up, with the first stage being between Melbourne and Shepparton. I might be able to take the spur line to Yass then change for the fast train to Sydney in time to celebrate my 85th birthday.

I’m making light of this, but it’s actually incredibly disappointing. Politicians have been talking about a fast train between Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne since I was a little girl. I have long believed one of them would find a way to make it happen while I was still mobile enough to make use of it. Now I wonder whether I’ll live long enough to see it at all.

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