It’s been a hell of a long wait at the platform and still there’s no sign of a fast train leaving the station. If we could only roll the clock back 20 years…
In the late 1980s the Hawke cabinet considered a private sector proposal for a project linking Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
Cabinet papers for 1988-1989, released by the National Archives of Australia, reveal then-prime minister Bob Hawke was keen the $4.5 billion project remain a private initiative.
Construction was expected to start in 1990, and be completed within five years. In today’s money it looks like a bargain. A 2014 feasibility study estimated the cost of linking Brisbane and Melbourne with high-speed rail at $114 billion.
And it would take 50 years to build.
The 1989 joint venture had the backing of some corporate big-hitters: Elders IXL, TNT, Kumagai Gumi and BHP. They estimated the very fast train would snare close to 50 per cent of the air traffic market between Sydney and Melbourne.
With an average speed of 290kph, up to a maximum of 350kph, the trip between Sydney and Canberra would take one hour with another two hours to Melbourne. At the time, there were concerns about the project’s economic, social and environmental impact.
There were also fears government involvement would imply taxpayer underwriting of the project that could give rise to possible future claims for more substantial support.
The cabinet documents said there should be no obligation on governments to complete the project or to support its operations if it subsequently failed.
It also cited the impact of falls in bus fares and the prospect of a more competitive domestic air travel market following deregulation.
The joint venture argued the train project might delay the need for a second Sydney airport.