8 September 2022

High-speed rail back on track and Canberra must be part of it

| Ian Bushnell
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Chinese high-speed trains. Labor does not want Australia to be left behind as other nations build lines. Photo: Supplied.

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.

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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.

High-speed rail map

A route map from a previous study. Image: Supplied.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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As a test, lets finish the Melbourne-Geelong “Fast Rail” project first – $4B joint Fed/Vic investment saves 15 minutes over 81km @ $266m/minute. Once we’ve got that out of the way, we can decide if a coupla thousand kilometres makes sense. I think HSR is inevitable – but something’s gotta give.

ChrisinTurner5:32 pm 15 Sep 22

Remember the Federal plan was for a HSR station on Ainslie Ave but the ACT government built apartments instead.

If there were a price on carbon, the price of air travel would be quite different. Whether that would suffice to justify fast rail, I have no current idea.

It will never happen. The Greens will see to that. As soon as a corroboree frog colony is found the Greens will want rerouting at a few billion in additional costs – and that’s just for a couple of frogs

thoughtsonthesubject10:53 pm 10 Sep 22

Finally, long overdue. By far a much better investment than $3 billion plus for 11.5 km tram between Civic and Woden taking nearly twice as long as electric buses. Hopefully the Canberra/Sydney stretch will be a priority. A large amount of C02 saved from constant bus and air traffic. Medium fast trains are used in Canada, Switzerland etc. which would be cheaper and permit satellite towns along the way. This would eliminate the need for high-rise high-density housing in Canberra and the resulting Urban Heat Island Effect already plaguing Sydney and other large cities.

I have caught the train a few times to Sydney and it is my preferred method. Very relaxing and a different view than the car. You also pass though some of the smaller towns you miss in the car. If they fixed the leg from Canberra to Goulburn it would probably save 1/2hr as the train has to travel very slowly on this section. Once it gets onto the mainline it cruises along pretty well.

Seen this play book before on ‘Utopia’ very funny ?

Sounds like another episode for ‘utopia’ coming your way soon.

HiddenDragon8:38 pm 09 Sep 22

This chart –

https://www.macrobusiness.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Capture-327.png

on this webpage –

https://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2022/09/labor-launches-500m-high-speed-ponzi-rail-authority/

provides a sobering distance/population density perspective on the comparisons between the viability of HSR in Australia and in other countries which have actually done it.

An equally relevant table would be a comparison between the costs and speed of building infrastructure in Australia – where we have a “world-beating”, “punching above our weight” genius knack for doing things as slowly and expensively as possible – and other countries.

Rather than setting up a new body to (ostensibly) plan infrastructure for Big Australia, the federal government should be doing an honest assessment of the environmental and economic sustainability of Big Australia – right now, all we have is slogans and mirages to explain how Australia pays its way in the world when big export earners such as coal and gas eventually taper down.

Tom Worthington3:25 pm 09 Sep 22

Build some new solar/internet cities along the route, and Sydney to Canberra high speed rail becomes affordable.

What in the name of utopia is a new solar/internet city? We have solar panels and internet connection in Australian cities now.

The idea sounds great but the reality seems horribly difficult and ridiculously expensive when it’ll only be used by a few East Coasters. How about building infrastructure for electric vehicles 1st and sorting out our electricity transmission grids for a renewable electricity supply. We still need some submarines and also to finish the Snowy Hydro 2. The potholed roads all over the country really need attention. Flood and fire affected communities need some major help and… blah blah blah.

Um… a few east coasters?? Suggest you look up the combined populations of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra – about 13 million approx. If you think its “horribly difficult perhaps ask yourself why Japan, China, England, France and many other countries can do it. Why would Australia not be able to do it. Try having a bit more faith in the abilities of your country.

Perhaps those countries don’t continually sell out their manufacturing sector.

Astro,
Yes, perhaps you should look up the populations of those countries, the densities and the price tag and work out why they can do it and why we can’t.

You’ve made the case why it doesn’t make economic sense well.

Macquariephil1:48 pm 09 Sep 22

Talking with friends in Japan several years ago, they couldn’t understand why Australia can’t build high speed train infrastructure. Australia should “just build it” they said.

The system in Japan was much more than paid for through the increase in real estate value along the rail corridors.

There are too many stuck in the mud naysayers in this country.

Could be something to do with the fact that Japan has 120+ million people on a far smaller land mass than us, which is what makes it unaffordable.

The original and main fast rail line between Tokyo and Osaka is 500km with 10+million people on one end and 2+million on the other.

We simply don’t compare.

Capital Retro3:16 pm 09 Sep 22

You should have spoken again with your Japanese friends several months ago, perhaps because the high speed trains there are now losing billions.

Not only in Japan but China: https://eurasiantimes.com/a-whopping-900b-debt-chinas-once-profitable-high-speed-railways/

Capital Retro4:20 pm 09 Sep 22

There were also airlines flying B747s carrying 500 passengers on this route after the fast rail opened.

Capital Retro8:40 am 09 Sep 22

This will be another problem as exotic deer in Eastern Australia are breeding up at a dramatic rate:

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/trains-japan-bark-snort-deer-off-tracks/

Gee I wonder if someone could invent something like, you know a fence….. like used on the vast majority of high speed rail lines around the world.

Strange that the article mentions a positive cost benefit ratio from 10+ years ago when far more recent analysis has shown that the previous cost estimates have repeatedly and significantly underestimated the challenges and costs and overestimated the benefits.

It’s good for the government to continue planning for this type of transport infrastructure but there’s no way it happens in coming decades unless some of the underlying factors change.

We simply don’t have the population and the travel distances are too far to make it viable yet.

At least this time around the focus seems to be on one of the few corridors where it might broadly stack up (though still going to be a weak business case). Sydney/Newcastle/Canberra (longer term) and maybe Sydney to the South Coast (noting engineering challenges) are really close to the only routes that any time soon (and as you say it might not be for a long while) may stack up.

Main thing that needs to be done now is to protect future land corridors in Sydney in particular.

JS9,
you are 100% correct on the protecting of the corridors which is critically important to being able to deliver a workable solution when it’s actually needed.

Stephen Saunders8:29 am 09 Sep 22

Fatefully, Labor has already decided on the worst possible policy, massive levels of migration, even more than the Big Australia years.

If we get something positive on the other side of the ledger, like pulling intercity transit out of the mid 19th Century, that would be a salve.

Of course, just as with Canberra Light Rail, the injured screams will go up, we hate modern transit, we can’t afford it, we don’t have the numbers, it will fade the curtains, yadda yadda.

Stupid project is a truly shocking waste of money. Like Inland Rail, or the Suburban Rail Loop, or the ACT tram, or Western Sydney Aerotropolis, this is billions and billions and billions siphoned away from optimising existing transport infrastructure, and siphoned away from schools and hospitals, childcare and aged care, police and prisons, emergency services and defence forces. If morons couldn’t get the existing rail to work well over decades and generations (Melbourne to Shepparton is a joke, ditto Melbourne-Mildura, and CBR-SYD), then it is pure delusion to expect this fast-fantasy will do it.

Capital Retro8:02 am 09 Sep 22

Everything for such a “visionary” project like this will have to be imported, including the funding so please find another fantasy to write about, Ian.

One can only hope.

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