Construction of railway lines has long been a catalyst for economic development.
From the opening of the trans-continental railway a century ago to the construction of mass-transit railway systems in our capital cities, railway lines have been critical to our economic development.
They still are.
That is why it is disappointing that in recent years rail investment has fallen when we should have been boosting our economic capacity in response to the decline in mining investment.
With productivity in Australian cities under assault from traffic congestion we need to invest in public transport. And as we seek to lift the job-creating capacity of industries outside of mining, we must invest in the freight rail required to goods to market.
This is why businesspeople and economists, including Reserve Bank Chairman Philip Lowe and his predecessor Glenn Stevens, have been calling for more infrastructure investment.
However, in the Coalition’s first two years in office, total public sector infrastructure investment fell by 20 per cent.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released in January show the value of work conducted for the public sector has been lower in each of the 12 quarters presided over by the Coalition Government than in any of the 21 quarters under the Labor Government after our first Budget in 2008.
We must do better at a time of low interest rates and economic transition.
Investing in the right infrastructure projects now will create jobs and economic activity in the short term while yielding long-term productivity gains that will drive future prosperity.
We should start in our cities by attacking traffic congestion, which is a hand brake on productivity growth.
Infrastructure Australia’s advice is clear – without action now, traffic congestion will cost the nation $53 billion a year by 2031.
We need to act.
When the Federal Government took office, it cancelled billions of dollars’ worth of investment and transferred the funding to questionable toll road projects like Melbourne’s collapsed East-West Link and the Perth Freight Link.
Having failed to commence a single new public transport project, it is time the Coalition changed direction.
It should release funding now for the Melbourne Metro and Brisbane’s Cross River Rail project, both of which were approved by Infrastructure Australia before it even took office.
After years of Commonwealth stalling, the Andrews Labor Government has been forced to go it alone on the Melbourne Metro, leaving Victorians to confront the fact that they receive less than 8 per cent of the Commonwealth infrastructure budget despite accounting for a quarter of the national population.
In Queensland, the Government is refusing to fund the Cross River Rail project, which would provide a second rail crossing of the Brisbane River in the city’s CBD.
With the existing Merivale Bridge approaching full capacity, failure to act now will hold back economic growth in the nation’s third biggest city.
The Government should also get behind the proposed Perth METRONET and the expansion of the Adelaide light rail network through AdeLINK.
It must also begin serious planning to connect Sydney’s Badgerys Creek Airport to the Sydney’s passenger rail network from the day it opens.
Its current plan of a passenger rail link some time many years from now will limit the job-creating potential of the new airport and reduce the funds that might be raised toward its cost through value capture.
In the freight sphere, it’s time to get cracking on the Inland Rail Project between Brisbane and Melbourne.
Travelling through the agricultural heartland of the Australia’s east, Inland Rail would lift the export capacity of tens of thousands of businesses.
That’s why the former Labor Government invested $600 million on improving parts of the existing rail network that would form a part of Inland Rail and also allocated a further $300 million for ongoing work.
Since then, not a further sleeper has been laid, despite promises for action in both the 2013 and 2016 election campaigns.
To further boost export capacity, the Government should adopt Labor’s proposal to complete the duplication the Port Botany Freight Line and expedite the Maldon-Dombarton line to link the Illawarra region with south-western Sydney.
It should also get serious about advancing High Speed Rail between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
In 2013 the former Labor Government allocated more than $50 million to establish a High Speed Rail authority to advance planning and begin to secure the corridor.
The incoming Coalition Government scrapped that funding and, nearly four years later, has yet to outline an alternative approach.
This is despite strong support private sector for High Speed Rail and the recently tabled parliamentary committee report endorsing the need to establish an authority to secure the corridor.
High Speed Rail would be an economic game changer for all communities along its path, including the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Wagga Wagga, the Southern Highlands, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.
Infrastructure development in Australia has been allowed to lag behind demand because of a lack of vision.
If we really want to set up long-term national prosperity and create jobs for future generations, it’s time to start building.
This piece was published in the April-June 2017 edition of Track and Signal Magazine.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.