Apr 12, 2013

On Track To Innovation – Opinion – The Australian

Imagine hopping onto a train at Newcastle’s Hunter Street and emerging two hours later at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station. Or, perhaps you hope to raise your kids amidst the paddocks of the Southern Highlands and still manage to work in Sydney’s CBD. With 29 minutes of travel you can do just that. Maybe you run a small export business in Wodonga that requires regular visits to Melbourne. In just over an hour you can leave home and step off the platform at Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station. There are no lengthy check-ins and airport security queues. Nor do you face the bumper to bumper traffic trying to reach the airport before your flight closes.

These possibilities have been flagged in the most extensive report into high speed rail in Australia’s history. This is not just a feasibility study. This work 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 Australians everywhere to get involved and have their say.

Because one thing is very clear. High Speed Rail represents a massive nation building exercise. As the number of east coast trips more than doubles from more than 155 million today to 355 million by 2065, our transport infrastructure options must be expanded.

The report suggests that most of the upfront capital cost would need to be borne by Governments. That said if the projections are met, a high speed rail link could meet future operating and capital costs without an ongoing public subsidy. And the report concludes that ultimately, the link would bring significant economic benefits to Australia, a return of at least $2.30 for every dollar invested.

Of course, the benefits of high speed rail extend far beyond its capital cost. A project such as this could transform the lifestyles and employment opportunities of urban and regional communities of south eastern Australia. 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.

The implications for people living in proximity to a station are enormous. They will be able to travel with speed, ease and comfort between big cities and regional centres, in doing so, narrowing the gap of opportunity between city-dwellers and regional Australians. Towns such as Port Macquarie and Shepparton would become more attractive residential destinations for people who could now viably continue to work in a major city. This would flow on to more economic activity in the towns themselves, unlocking local jobs and boosting productivity. The study concludes that once fully operational, at least 84 million passengers would use the service each year.

Environmentally, high speed rail is a winner. On a per passenger basis, it produces less carbon than either cars or planes.  The alignment has been selected to avoid major environmental impacts. Part of the reason for the significant projected cost is that there are 144 kilometres of tunnels, nearly half of which will be under Sydney and its surrounds.

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.