The potentially transformative high-speed rail project rolled out of the siding again last week and once more it had to be said that Canberra must be on the main line.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr unsurprisingly but reassuringly responded to the timely wake-up call from Infrastructure Australia for governments to preserve rail corridors for the East Coast (Melbourne to Brisbane) that his government is doing just that.
He also reiterated that Canberra should not be on a spur line as the East Coast proposal would have it, but firmly at the centre of the Melbourne to Sydney axis.
It’s a pity that it had to be stated at all but the history of rail in Australia is littered with bizarre decisions reflecting colonial and state rivalries, such as the different gauges that necessitated the changing of trains at state borders.
As the centre of government with world-class universities and some of the country’s most innovative thinkers, Canberra should be a destination city.
Leaving Canberra off the main line would not just be a slight to the national capital but ignore its growing importance as a regional economic centre and its burgeoning well-off population.
The recent census revealed the ACT to be the fastest growing jurisdiction in the country, with an estimated population of 400,000 plus, an increase of 11.44 per cent since 2011.
For Canberra to merely be on a connecting line to the main route north of the ACT would shortchange its citizens and be a disincentive to use the train.
Many of those Canberra newcomers feeding the ACT’s growth are escaping the crush of overcrowded Sydney and Melbourne and their prohibitive house prices.
In fact, it is the sprawl of these immigration honeypots that is behind Infrastructure Australia’s warning for governments to act before it is too late.
One of the main benefits of high-speed rail would be taking the pressure off the main capitals by promoting regional growth along the route of the line. Goulburn would be a major beneficiary of development along the Sydney-Canberra corridor.
People are already commuting for work between Sydney and Canberra, but they’re taking the Hume or jumping on a plane at weekends.
In 2017, it is ridiculous that the train to Sydney takes four hours, more time than the bus trip. Or that you can’t even take a train direct to Melbourne.
The high-speed option would also provide competition for the seemingly unbreakable airline duopoly that benefits from one of the world’s most congested air corridors and which forces Canberrans to pay through the nose for flights out of the national capital.
In a call to action to governments, Infrastructure Australia wants a national framework on preserving rail corridors, arguing that not to do so will cost more than $10 billion.
High-speed rail proposals involve serious money ($100 billion plus), considerable environmental impact and require enabling legislation.
The Business Council of Australia is supportive, as it well might be considering the substantial benefits to its members from such a big project.
The Gillard Government’s Phase 2 HSR report projected an economic benefit of $2.15 for every dollar invested between the Sydney and Melbourne leg.
But it’s going to take government leadership and public funding to make the running on such a project of national significance, before private investors here or from overseas join the party.
You can talk all you like about “value capture’ along the route that will turn the project into a giant real estate scheme to help finance it but at a time when the private sector is loath to invest and infrastructure is falling way behind demand, it’s time government stepped up after years of neglect from both the main parties, despite the resources boom and the era of cheap money post-GFC.
We’ve had boondoggles, pork barrels and white elephants aplenty in this country, just ask Barnaby Joyce, but this is a real nation-building project screaming out for leadership, and it’s got to come from Canberra.
So for any proposal to even consider leaving Canberra as a siding off the fast track to the future is just unthinkable.
Does high-speed rail stack up or is it just a pipe dream? Would you take the train or still drive the Hume?