Today’s forum is the perfect opportunity to share your thoughts on the long-term future of high speed rail in Australia.
I commend the Australasian Railway Association for your vision in convening this gathering.
Today’s discussions are a timely contribution to the consultations my Department has been undertaking.
I am on the record as a strong supporter of high speed rail.
It could be a real game-changer with implications right across my portfolios of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.
But let me broaden the picture and kick things off by saying that this Government gets the importance of rail in our transport mix.
Passenger and freight rail are absolutely critical to the long-term prosperity of this country.
We get the fundamental need for effective urban and long-distance rail in keeping our supply chain moving and our communities connected.
We also get that improving our rail networks is key to building a low-carbon, highly-productive economy.
As former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer will no doubt point out, following its golden age in the 19th Century, rail was expected to take a back seat to air and road transport.
But contrary to expectations, rail is now seen around the world as the ground transport mode of the 21st century.
On a per passenger basis it produces less carbon than either cars or planes and combines comfort, safety, reliability and great speed.
Under this Government’s watch, we are undertaking a $60 billion Nation Building Program so that Australians can enjoy the smoothest and most integrated transport system possible, for both passengers and freight.
The simple maths are that the more people and goods on rail, the fewer trucks and cars on our roads.
That means less congestion and cleaner air for all of us.
HIGH SPEED RAIL
Let’s turn now to the business of the day – high speed rail.
It is not the stuff of The Jetsons, or flying cars that seem to fascinate some of the simpler-minded members of the media when we released the report.
It’s actually been around for some time.
Japan’s first high speed rail system was commissioned for the Tokyo Olympics — fifty years ago next year.
France was next in 1981 with the Paris to Lyon TGV.
Today there are high-speed rail services across Europe, China and Japan.
In 2009, President Obama got right behind the concept when he gave his nation a 25 year deadline to connect 80 per cent of Americans. He said:
“Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.”
To date, Congress has invested $10 billion in planning and development.
Here at home, we have been bandying the concept around since 1981 when the Institute of Engineers proposed the Bicentennial High Speed Rail Project.
Over time, the vision languished and more proposals came and went.
It took the election of the Gillard Government to return it to the national agenda.
We didn’t do so just for the sake of it.
The simple fact is that with or without high speed rail, moving people up and down our east coast is going to become ever more of a challenge.
By 2065, travel on the east coast will double to 388 million trips a year.
This will place enormous pressure on our transport infrastructure and governments, as they look for ways to reduce congestion and improve services for travellers and commuters.
Without high speed rail, all this extra travel will have to be met by our existing forms of public and private transport — road, conventional rail and air.
As we know, these are already facing capacity, cost and logistical constraints.
HIGH SPEED RAIL STUDY PHASE 2 REPORT
A couple of months ago, I released for public comment the second and final phase of the study into the implementation of High speed rail along our eastern seaboard.
It is the most detailed study ever undertaken in Australia into high speed rail and it draws on overseas experience — especially from Japan — including manufacturers and suppliers.
For the first time, all the issues are on the table.
We now have a solid basis for an informed public debate about how high speed rail could help meet our transport challenges.
It looks at population growth, travel demand, regional development opportunities and the liveability and sustainability of our major cities.
It details costs and benefits, and examines issues around construction, patronage and economic viability.
The study identifies, in detail, a route between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, with spur lines to Canberra and the Gold Coast.
It is a route that minimises the environmental and community impact including the amount of private resumptions that would be required.
It would be a dual, electrified track with trains running at up to 350 kilometres per hour.
Intercity and regional services would run 18 hours a day with high-frequency peak services and at least hourly off-peak services.
Twenty-one stations would form the route from Brisbane’s Roma Street, through Central in Sydney and on to Southern Cross in Melbourne.
Sydney would have two peripheral stations and Melbourne and Brisbane would each have one to cater for people not wanting to travel into the CBD.
A crucial issue is cost which is around $A114 billion in today’s dollars.
The network would be built in stages, reducing up-front cost.
However, the report concludes that the returns from investing in construction would not be enough to attract major private funding, so these costs would have to be mostly borne by governments.
Once it is operational and provided the traffic projections are met, high speed rail could generate enough revenue to cover operating and asset renewal costs.
The report did find that the economic benefits for Australia could be as high as $2.30 for every dollar invested.
This is a good return for a major piece of transport infrastructure.
Many of these benefits would derive from business travel between CBDs – under three hours between Sydney to Melbourne and from Sydney to Brisbane.
If fully-operational by 2065, the forecast demand is for almost 84 million passengers to use it each year.
High speed rail has, understandably, caught the imagination of the regional towns along the line, who are excited by its economic growth and development potential.
With half of all users expected to be regional users, the network could transform their lifestyles and job opportunities.
Regions such as the Central Coast and Southern Highlands could become magnets for new residents who could viably continue to work in a major city.
Commuting between Sydney and Newcastle would be an easy 39 minutes.
With the right range of complementary policies, high speed rail could be a real catalyst for regional development.
While decisions about high speed rail are ultimately the task of Government, it must involve industry, business and the community.
The report is out there – I’ve put all the facts on the table for public scrutiny, consistent with my longstanding approach to public policy making as the Infrastructure Minister.
I’m delighted that people are interrogating the report and its conclusions.
In the meantime, my department’s high speed rail unit has been busily consulting with local councils along the preferred route, with community groups, Regional Development Australia committees and industry organisations.
So far, 27,000 people have logged into the report’s web-site and we have responses from industry, business, individuals, councils and RDAs.
Through Austrade, we are meeting with agencies, contractors and operators in Asia and Europe.
The High Speed Rail Advisory Group, led by my department’s Deputy Secretary Lyn O’Connell, has already begun meeting.
I’ve also formed a subgroup of State and Territory Transport Ministers who make up the Standing Council on Transport and Infrastructure.
An early task is to address the complex issue of corridor preservation, something that will require considerable Federal and State cooperation.
Finally, as Infrastructure Minister, I am proud that we’ve had the vision to commission this comprehensive and definitive study.
But we now need to move beyond the study.
What are the practical, tangible, sensible actions we should be taking now… next year… over the next five years – to maintain the momentum for high speed rail?
How best should we engage State, Territory and Local Governments, the private sector and communities?
How do we ensure that the corridors are not lost to other development?
How do we manage the inevitable tension between the high up-front financial costs versus long-term economic benefits?
How do we maximise the opportunities and tackle the challenges?
These are the fundamental issues that forums like this must grapple with.
I can’t say often enough that we must not let the decisions we make today undermine the potential of tomorrow.
Planning is not a high-cost exercise — but lack of planning will cost us dearly.
I hope as a nation we have the vision to make the decisions to secure the future.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.