The cynical may deride it as a chimera, but high-speed rail has again left the siding with Labor introducing legislation to set up an authority to oversee the development of what many see as a nation-building infrastructure project.
Infrastructure Minister Catherine King said a High Speed Rail Authority would build on previous work, including the study commissioned under former Infrastructure Minister and now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that found high-speed rail was not only viable but would return over $2 for every $1 of investment.
“This is a visionary investment in opening up our regions to greater opportunity,” she said.
With Canberra being Australia’s biggest regional centre, it should figure prominently in plans for high-speed rail.
But Ms King also chose her words carefully, talking about pragmatic advice, and identified the population-dense Sydney to Newcastle corridor as the first leg to be looked at, backed by an initial $500 million federal commitment.
Thankfully, Canberra does get a look-in as a stop on the long imagined Brisbane to Melbourne route, with stops also in Sydney and regional centres.
It has long been one of Australia’s great transport affronts that the national capital could not even be connected to the interstate rail line, and as a city of 450,000 is still stuck with an embarrassingly slow train journey to Sydney.
So Labor’s resurrection of high-speed rail is welcome, although realistically, a Canberra link will be a long time coming.
But it does allow the resumption of a debate about what kind of link that will be and where a station (or stations) will be located.
Previous proposals had a station to the north of Canberra with a spur line to the city, or at Canberra Airport as an integrated transport interchange.
Others would prefer the line to run through Canberra proper, although that would require a corridor.
Several things have happened in the past five years since Infrastructure Australia warned that government would need to preserve corridors for an east coast high-speed rail line.
The pandemic, sky-high capital city property prices and the realisation that many people can work wherever there may be an internet connection have driven a shift to the regions.
High-speed rail has long been seen as a catalyst for regional growth, and now may be a more opportune time to actually make a start on this.
Aviation is still recovering from the devastation of COVID travel restrictions and now has to deal with the oil shock. Longer term it has fuel challenges in an era of emission reductions.
The days of cheap flights seem a distant memory, but there is still growing travel demand in the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne corridor.
No one doubts the scale of the challenge in building a high-speed rail network along the east coast, or the cost.
But Labor sees enormous benefits in the project and talks in terms of decades to get it done, warning of the loss if the project does not leave the station.
“It’s about actually what are the needs of our community, the way in which they’re going to be using transport, the way in which communities along the eastern seaboard are developing, not just in this term of government, but in the next 20, 30, 40 years,” Ms King said.
“And if we don’t start doing this now, you know, we will be well and truly left behind other nations in terms of high-speed rail.”
Whatever delivery methods are contemplated – the private sector has talked about value capture along the route as a giant real estate venture to finance the project – government will have to take the lead.
It is hoped that high-speed rail won’t suffer at the hands of the electoral cycle so it can have the continuity it needs to fully develop.
And whatever the outcome, Canberra must be an integral part of this transformational project.