The only thing worse than being blind is having sight, but no vision.
This quotation from blind American educator Helen Keller is an excellent starting point for anyone thinking about building a high-speed railway (HSR) line down Australia‘s east coast.
At the superficial level, the project seems a challenge too large to consider undertaking. It is estimated the 1,748km line linking Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra would cost about $114bn in 2012 terms. However, studies have shown that for every dollar spent on HSR on the first section between Sydney and Melbourne, the project would return $2.15 in economic benefit to our nation.
High-speed rail would revolutionise interstate travel, and would also be an economic game-changer for dozens of regional communities along its path. That’s why the politicians need to exercise vision and think way beyond the current political cycle.
In next month’s first Abbott budget, Australians will see for themselves whether the government has the capacity for forward thinking, or whether high-speed rail and its economic and social opportunities are put in the too-hard basket.
So far, the signs are not good. During last year’s federal election campaign, former prime minister Kevin Rudd promised to allocate $52m to establish a statutory authority to help guide the development of the high-speed rail project over coming decades. Crucially, that investment was to be the first instalment used to begin securing the corridor for the project. Unless action is taken now to begin preserving the land corridor needed for the line, urban sprawl could make it unviable.
But in one of its first announcements after taking office, the government abolished the High-Speed Rail Advisory Group, which included experts like former deputy prime minister and railway expert Tim Fischer and Business Council of Australian chief executive Jennifer Westacott. Against the background of that decision, advocates of high-speed rail will be watching next month’s budget closely.
Will the government move forward? Or will it cut the $52m already in the budget for use on other commitments such as, for example, paying wealthy women $75,000 to have babies?
Based on the government’s rhetoric, the budget will attack government spending, even if that involves breaking election promises about not cutting pensions, health funding and the ABC.
It is the case that deputy prime minister and infrastructure minister Warren Truss promoted high-speed rail in a speech to the Australasian Railway Association last November, shortly after taking office. Truss repeated the high-speed rail study finding that that by 2065, individual trips down Australia’s east coast would double from current levels to 355m a year. “Can we imagine our skies and airports (with) double the number of flights there are now?” Truss said. “Or our roads with double the traffic?”
The passage of time is likely to make high-speed rail more and more desirable, making it critical that politicians of today think ahead to tomorrow. For example, the effects of climate change will create growing pressure for measures consistent with a carbon-constrained economy. Even now, a three-hour train trip from Sydney to Melbourne is competitive with flying on what is the fourth-busiest route in the world when one takes into account travelling to and from the airports and waiting times. Then there are the regional development opportunities for communities along the railway line like the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga, and Shepparton.
High speed rail is an important competent of Australia’s infrastructure future. As with other areas of infrastructure, planning is the essential first step. All it requires is some vision.
- This article was published by The Guardian Australia