Aug 22, 2018

Opinion Piece – Rail Investment Needed to Boost Decentralisation – Track and Signal Magazine – Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Anyone who lives in one of Australia’s state capitals would be very familiar with the way in which strong population growth is transforming our cities and our lifestyles.

The national population is growing by about 1.4 per cent a year.

This growth rate makes it essential that governments invest in better infrastructure – particularly urban public transport.

However, while investment will necessarily focus on the capital cities, we must not underestimate the growth potential of regional centres, particularly those close to capital cities, to absorb some of the pressure of urban growth.

Australia needs a serious vision for decentralisation.

It needs to focus not only on greater ease of movement within big cities, but also on transport links between those cities and other population centres.

The current Federal Government’s decentralisation strategy goes no further than moving a small public service office to Armidale and talking about decentralisation in rhetorical terms.

Many Australians are moving to regional centres to take advantage of low housing prices and a less stressful lifestyle.

Others, like contractors or part-time workers, don’t need to go to the city every day and are attracted to the idea of living in a smaller community and commuting for a couple of days a week.

This trend is certain to continue. And governments need to respond.

It’s not solely about people living in regional areas and commuting to the capital cities. Our ultimate aim should be for better transport links to spark economic development in regional centres, encouraging businesses to set up premises in regions, again taking advantage of lower land costs.

Fortunately, there is a blueprint for the type of investment that is needed – Victoria’s Regional Rail Link.

Completed in 2015, this project untangled the regional rail network from the Melbourne suburban network.

It included construction of a new regional train route between West Werribee and Deer Park, new stations at Tarneit and Wyndham Vale, as well as upgrades to Footscray, West Footscray and Sunshine stations.

Separating regional and suburban rail lines has significantly improved rail services to centres such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, allowing trains to travel to and from Melbourne more frequently and quickly.

There is great potential to improve services even further as part of the proposed rail link between Melbourne and the Tullamarine Airport.

According to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, if we choose the proposed route that travels through Sunshine, the project will “unlock Western and Northern Victoria’’ by separating more suburban and regional rail lines and could ultimately lead to commuters travelling from Geelong to Melbourne in less than 40 minutes.

Brisbane also needs better links to its surrounding regions – particularly the Sunshine and Gold coasts.

This is why the Queensland Labor Government is proceeding with the Cross River Rail Link, which will provide a second crossing of the Brisbane River in the city’s CBD.

Once complete, Cross River Rail will dramatically increase the capacity of the network.

Cross River Rail was approved by the independent Infrastructure Australia in 2012 and rated as the State’s number one infrastructure priority.

However, the Federal Coalition Government refuses to back the project.

That is a mistake. It should be working with the Queensland Government to expedite Cross River Rail as a critical enabler of further system upgrades to the north and south.

We also need the Federal Government to finally commit to a High Speed Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.

This visionary project would revolutionise interstate travel, allowing for three-hour train trips between capitals.

Just as importantly, it would also turbo-charge the economic development of the regional centres along its route, including the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, the Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.

High Speed Rail would be an economic game changer for regional Australia.

That’s why the former Labor Government completed the business case which said the project stacked up and then appointed an expert panel which recommended we begin to secure the corridor before it is built out by urban sprawl.

This was an example of a government anticipating a better future and putting in place the necessary steps to begin to create that future.

But for the past five years, the Federal Coalition Government has failed to take High Speed Rail forward.

That’s a lost opportunity for genuine nation building.

This piece was first published in the August-October 2018 edition of Track and Signal Magazine.