Apr 12, 2013

High speed rail offers big gains for regional Australia – Opinion – Fairfax Digital

Imagine living in Shepparton and you need regular visits to a specialist in Melbourne. Within 43 minutes, you can step from the platform at Southern Cross Station and be in the heart of Melbourne. Maybe you run a small export business in Port Macquarie and need to pop up to Brisbane to check on dispatches. Within a couple of hours you can be at your mailing house. Or perhaps you live in Taree but are studying at the University of Newcastle and need to pop down for the occasional tutorial. Half an hour later you will be there.

These possibilities have been flagged in the most extensive report into high speed rail in Australian history. With half of all high speed rail users predicted to be people coming or going to a regional destination, the project could transform the lifestyles and employment opportunities of regional towns along the route. 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. This would flow on to more economic activity in the regions themselves, unlocking local jobs and boosting productivity.

Beginning in Brisbane’s Roma Street Station, the train would include the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle and the Central Coast before arriving at Sydney’s Central Station. From there it would stop in the Southern Highlands, en route to Melbourne via Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton. A spur line would connect to Canberra.

This report is not simply a feasibility study. It has detailed designs, right down to the stations with estimates on costs and benefits, construction schedules, patronage predictions, environmental implications and, importantly, a proposed optimum route. All this information is now readily available online and I urge people everywhere to get involved and have their say.

The project includes 1,750 kilometres of dual, electrified track with trains running at up to 350 kilometres per hour. Intercity and regional services would run 18 hours every day. And there would be high-frequency peak services and at least hourly off-peak services.

The report provides a sobering reminder that with or without high speed rail, moving people up and down the coast is going to become more of a challenge. By 2065, journeys along the eastern seaboard will more than double to 355 million trips per year, placing enormous pressure on our roads, air services and conventional rail. High speed rail could play an important role in alleviating this pressure.

The report suggests that most of the upfront capital cost would need to be borne by Governments. However ultimately, the link would bring significant economic benefits to Australia, a return of at least $2.30 for every dollar invested.

Environmentally, high speed rail is a winner. On a per passenger basis, it produces less carbon than either cars or planes.  The route was chosen to minimise the environmental and community impact.

This report puts all the issues on the table. It provides a solid basis for an informed debate. My department’s High Speed Rail Unit is consulting with local councils along the preferred route and with community groups. I have also convened a High Speed Rail Advisory Group of leading transport and urban planners and business experts. It will include former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, a long-time supporter of high speed rail and the Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott.

High speed rail will also be considered by relevant State and Territory Ministers who I will be calling on to help protect the preferred corridor, as a first step. We must not let the decisions we make today undermine the potential of tomorrow. High Speed Rail could transform the way we live, work and travel.