Oct 15, 2015

It’s time to get Australia’s very fast train back on track – Opinion – The Sun Herald

Vision is the essential component of leadership.

Leaders distinguish themselves by imagining and anticipating the future, and then taking concrete action that creates that future.

When former Labor prime minister Ben Chifley began work on the Snowy Mountains scheme, he knew that although he would never see it completed, this nation-building project would drive decades of economic development in this country.

Similarly, Japanese engineers of the 1950s were thinking well ahead when they proposed linking Tokyo and Osaka with a high-speed train in the lead-up to Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic Games. Five decades later, Japan’s legendary bullet trains have carried about 10 billion passengers with a perfect safety record and were central to driving its stunning economic recovery in the post-war period.

In 2015, it is time for Australia to advance high-speed rail.

A line down the east coast between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra would revolutionise interstate travel by allowing people to move between state capitals in as little as three hours aboard trains travelling as fast as 350km/h.

High-speed rail would be a game changer — which is why a comprehensive feasibility study completed in 2013 by the former Labor government recommended it proceed.

Based on that advice and further work by the High-Speed Rail Advisory Group, Labor allocated $50 million to establish a formal planning authority to progress the project and begin to acquire the corridor before it is built out by urban sprawl.

However, in 2013, incoming prime minister Tony Abbott cut the funding. He also sacked the advisory group, which included former deputy PM Tim Fischer, Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott and Australasian Railway Association chief executive Bryan Nye.

While Mr Abbott’s decision was short-sighted, Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to national leadership provides a chance for a fresh look at the issue.

This week I reintroduced to Parliament a private member’s Bill to establish a High-Speed Rail Planning Authority in exactly the same terms as was recommended by the expert committee.

Mr Turnbull uses public transport and says he is prepared to fund railways.

He is yet to back his words with concrete action, but it is clear he understands the link between economic productivity and a properly integrated transport system featuring roads and rail.

In that spirit, Mr Turnbull should facilitate a debate of my private member’s Bill. We need a mature debate that puts aside politics and focuses on the facts.

The good news is that the facts about high-speed rail have already been established by the 2013 feasibility study.

It found that the Sydney-to-Melbourne section, which would be the first section constructed, would return to the community $2.15 in economic benefit for every dollar invested.

Millions of passengers would be attracted by its convenience and efficiency, as demonstrated wherever high-speed rail has operated around the world.

It would face challenges, including the need for Commonwealth leadership to bring together multiple governments in multiple jurisdictions along the route.

Engineering would also be difficult, with the project requiring at least 80km of tunnels, including 67km in Sydney alone.

But, despite these challenges, the experts backed high-speed rail. To understand why, we need to consider where our nation is headed over coming decades.

While the breakneck pace of change makes it difficult to imagine Australia in 10 years, let alone 40, we do know that our population is expected to double by the middle of the century.

We know also that we can expect the world will have moved to reduce carbon emissions, making rail a more attractive travel option.

Our airports and skies will be more crowded, with travel on the east coast of Australia forecast to increase by 60 per cent by 2035.

Our cities will be very crowded, piling on pressure for regional cities to take on some of the pressure off population growth.

This will be much easier with high-speed rail, which would stop at the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.

Imagine the economic bonanza to be triggered by linking these regional centres to capital cities by high-speed rail.

People could live in regional Australia and commute to work in the city. Companies could establish themselves in the regions, taking advantage of lower costs but comfortable in the knowledge the city was a short train ride away.

When you put all these factors together, the case for high-speed rail is compelling.

It doesn’t have to be built tomorrow. But we do need to get serious about planning and acquire the land needed for the line. If we don’t plan for the future now, we will limit its possibilities.

This piece appeared in today‘s edition of The Herald Sun: http://bit.ly/1OwzqtB