In the world of infrastructure, planning is critical.
While Governments of today must deliver the projects needed in the near term, if they are any good, they also think ahead to the projects that will be needed in the longer term.
When it comes to railways, this makes corridor protection very important.
This is a point made recently in a report by Infrastructure Australia, which called for the establishment of a national framework for corridor protection for major rail projects.
The report noted that protection and early acquisition of the seven corridors identified as national priorities on Infrastructure Australia’s national priority list could save Australian taxpayers as much as $11 billion in land purchase and construction costs.
The argument is simple – if we know we are likely to build a particular project in the future, we should take steps to secure or protect the corridor now.
If we don’t preserve corridors, we will have to pay more in the future after they are consumed by urban sprawl or other land uses.
Infrastructure Australia recommended action now to secure corridors for projects including the Outer Sydney Orbital, Outer Melbourne Ring, Western Sydney Airport Rail Line, Western Sydney Freight Line, Hunter Valley Freight Line, and the Port of Brisbane Freight Line.
But the organisation said its highest priority was preservation of the corridor for the proposed High Speed Rail Line between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
High Speed Rail is a transformative project that would revolutionise interstate travel, allowing people to travel between capital cities in under three hours.
It would also turbo charge the economic development of the regional centres along its route, including the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, the Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.
High Speed rail is complex but viable. The High Speed Rail feasibility study conducted for the former Labor Government concluded it would return $2.50 for every dollar invested.
On that ground alone, the Australian Government should be acting now to preserve the corridor.
That would represent a common sense approach.
Indeed, that is exactly what the former Labor Government attempted to do in 2013, when we appointed an expert panel to assess the feasibility study and propose the next step forward.
The panel, which included former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott and the late Bryan Nye, of the Australasian Railways Association, recommended creation of a High Speed Rail Authority to preserve the corridor and advance the project.
In the 2013 Budget we allocated $54 million to create that authority, which would have included representatives from the Queensland, New South Wales, ACT and Victorian governments, private sector representatives, as well as a representative from local government and from the Australasian Railways Association.
Unfortunately, the incoming Abbott Government scrapped the idea.
It has not protected the corridor or sought to co-ordinate planning between the various government jurisdictions involved
But at the same time, High Speed Rail technology is being rolled out across Asia, Europe and North America and Australia has seen a literal parade of visitors from international rail companies offering their expertise.
Under the wost-case scenario in Infrastructure Australia’s report, unrestricted development in the corridor today could mean that when High Speed Rail is built, more tunnelling will be required at a cost of $100 million per kilometre in today’s dollar terms.
IA noted: “If we protect infrastructure corridors we will reduce project costs and especially minimise the need for underground tunneling, where the cost to government and therefore taxpayers can be up to ten times higher than it would have been’’.
The Australian Government should take this advice seriously.
The current dead-bat approach risks making the project unviable down the track.
Every Government has an absolute right to fund or not fund projects according to its own priorities.
But every government also has a responsibility to take expert advice about future needs.
That involves exercising vision – imagining a better long-term future and taking steps to make that vision real.
This piece was first published in the October, 2017, edition of Track and Signal Magazine.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.