Mar 6, 2019

Opinion Piece – Give us a Ticket to Ride – Wednesday, 6 March, 2019

A Shinkansen train pulls into Tokyo Station. Photo: iStock

Australians are great travellers. Whether going from London to Paris, Rome to Milan, Beijing to Shanghai or Tokyo to Kyoto, hundreds of thousands of Australians have experienced the convenience of high-speed rail and returned asking themselves: Why don’t we build it here?

The reason is too many governments are incapable of thinking beyond the next election.

On this page yesterday Judith Sloan rejected the idea of high-speed rail in Australia. She wrote that, with only a few exceptions such as Japan, China and “one trunk line” in France, high-speed rail projects overseas lose money and fail to attract patrons.

In truth, high-speed rail is booming. Successful services operate in 20 countries and are being built in a dozen others.

High-speed rail is successful in China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and even Uzbekistan, where you can travel the 344km from Tashkent to Samarkand at 250km/h.

In France, travellers can ride high-speed rail from Paris to Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseilles and connect to Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Spain. The British government is investing £56 billion ($104bn) in expanding high-speed rail to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield.

London’s The Independent yesterday reported Eurostar, which operates high-speed rail from London via the Channel Tunnel to Paris and beyond, recorded a 12 per cent increase in patronage last summer.

High-speed rail works overseas. It could also work down the populated east coast of Australia.

An independent study commissioned by the former Labor government and completed in 2013 proved the viability of a line from Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra. Trains would travel at speeds of up to 350km/h, allowing people to move between capital cities in three hours. The study found the project stacked up economically, returning $2 in public benefit for every $1 invested.

On the basis of that research we appointed an independent panel including former Nationals leader Tim Fischer, Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott and the Australasian Railway Association chief, the late Bryan Nye, to advise on the way forward. They recommended creating a high-speed rail authority to work with states and territories on planning and to begin securing the corridor for the project.

Although this federal government has not pursued that recommendation, it formed the basis of Labor Party policy in the 2013 and 2016 elections and is also reflected in a private member’s bill I have had before parliament since 2014.

The case for this project has strengthened. With Australia’s population topping 25 million, there is bipartisan support for decentralisation to take the pressure off our capitals.

High-speed rail would revolutionise interstate travel and be a game-changer for communities along its path, including the Gold Coast, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, the central coast, southern highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga and Shepparton.

It would bring these communities closer to capital cities, allowing increased commuting and strengthening the case for regional business investment.

Australia’s strong growth will drive a renaissance in rail. More urban public transport, more freight on rail and, inevitably, an exciting role for high-speed rail in our national future.

Incidentally, it’s important to correct Sloan’s assertion yesterday that Victoria’s Regional Rail Link, which has increased rail capacity to the west of Melbourne, was the subject of a cost blowout.

The project was to have cost $4bn but came in considerably under budget, with savings transferred to Victoria’s level crossing elimination program.

Anthony Albanese is opposition spokesman on infrastructure, transport, regional development and cities.

This piece was first published by The Australian on Wednesday, 6 March, 2019