Back in 1984, CSIRO chairman Dr Paul Wild and his colleagues Dr John Brotchie and Dr John Nicholson put forward a radical idea.

To speed up commuting times between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, Wild said, a new high speed line should run between the cities via Cooma, Orbost and the Latrobe Valley which could see trains run at speeds of up to 350 kilometres per hour. Based on French technology, the cost was put at $2.5 billion (approx. $7.46 billion today) whilst the benefits were put at $120 million per year (just under $360 million).

Reportedly, that proposal was found to be uneconomic after cost estimates associated with the scheme were found to be unrealistically low. Nevertheless, it represented the first real proposal put forward about Australia having a form of high speed rail on the east coast (previous proposals had been put forward, but none saw speeds of the 200-plus kilometres per hour that have been generally considered to constitute a ‘high speed’ form of rail).

Whilst numerous reports, investigations and proposals have come and gone since then, however, nothing concrete has thus far has been done. The most concrete and advanced proposal thus far came out of a strategic high speed rail study launched by the Labor government in 2010 and would link Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne via more than 1,600 kilometres of standard-gauge double track at what is considered to be a conservatively estimated cost of around $114 billion. Whilst the coalition has previously said it would consider building this in sections, then Projects Minister (now Minister for Urban Infrastructure) Paul Fletcher said in June that this was ‘not a sensible priority.’

In July, a new proposal emerged which would see the construction of a $200 billion high speed rail line between Melbourne and Sydney and would see the creation of eight new smart cities which would be funded through use of value capture mechanisms.

Inaction on this front comes despite what many suggest are strong benefits associated with the proposal. Between now and 2065, according to the second part of an AECOM led study into high speed rail released in 2013, travel demand along east coast routes between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane will more than triple from 100 million trips per year to 365 million. Without high speed rail, these additional trips will largely take place via existing transport modes such as air and road.

With Sydney Airport expected to reach total capacity at peak periods within a decade, this is obviously a cause for concern. With the population of Melbourne and Brisbane to more than double and that of Sydney to nearly double between 2012 and 2061 (ABS projections) meanwhile, congestion on roads travelling within and between our cities could create gridlock.

By linking up cities with major regional areas, it is argued, high speed rail could precipitate significant growth within the regions and relieve substantial population pressure from major cities. As opposed to poorly served fringe suburbs, more people would live closer to rail stations and within walking distance of shops, public facilities and employment opportunities.

So what’s holding us back?

According to Bob Nanva, the national secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union who sat on a former implementation panel set up in 2013 to look at how Australia could go about implementing high speed rail in an effective manner, the most critical issue has nothing to do with technology, costs or feasibility but rather simply revolves around basic apathy.

“What I have personally found to be the biggest threat to high speed rail is not the cost, the timing or the technology,” Nanva said. “It is consistently inertia and this perception that even though high speed rail is desirable, it is not realistic and is not within the contemplation of this generation or the next. We (the panel on which he sat) were left with zero doubt that there was not an issue with the technology, the timing or the cost. It is pure and simple inertia and the perception that it is unrealistic and unachievable.

“And it’s wrong (the perception). It’s completely and utterly wrong.”

Nanva says these perceptions are driven by two primary factors. Whereas many projects overseas and broken down into sections and presented as a series of smaller projects, Nanva says high speed rail in Australia has largely been framed as something that will take 30 years to build and have a $114 billion price tag on it. This leads many to view it as a form of distant fantasy that will cost too much and take too long. Much better, he said, would be to start with say, Sydney to Canberra and followed by Canberra to Melbourne and then to proceed further north.

Second, he says there is a false perception that the entire cost will come directly out of the hip pocket of the taxpayer. Given significant opportunities to implement value capture mechanisms and to tap into private financing, Nanva says this is not the case.

Other commentators express broadly similar sentiments. Writing in The Australian earlier this year, former Reserve Bank economist Peter Knight said that in addition to caution on the part of the private sector, high speed rail had the potential for significant economic benefits but was being held back by a fear of risk on the part of the government.

To be sure, however, not all are convinced of the project’s merits. Writing in The Courier in April, for example, economist Jason Murphy argued that in order for the $114 billion Melbourne to Brisbane project to cover the effective interest bill each and every year, high speed rail would need to make at least $3 billion in profit. Assuming a generous margin of 25 per cent, Murphy argued, that means the project would need to make $12 billion in revenue and would need to sell 12 million tickets per year at a price of $1,000 or 80 million tickets at a less expensive cost of $150 – neither of which he said represented realistic patronage at the price tags in question.

Moving forward, Nanva says the government must demonstrate commitment in this area by setting up an authority to oversee high speed rail in government and protecting the 1,700-kilometre land corridor by way of legislation. Whilst the private sector was enthusiastic about the concept, Nanva says many complain about mixed messages from the government and are unwilling to make significant investments in absence of firm government leadership and commitment.

He says high speed rail is something Australia must do.

“There is this view that if we don’t deliver on high speed rail that it won’t have an impact at all,” he said.

“When you are talking about 100 million trips turning into 350 million each year, you are talking about gridlock on our road and gridlock at our airports. There is melting pot of population growth, demography, travel demand and urban and regional development that means that high speed rail is no longer optional.

“Right now, there is a real problem. We’ve got to get governments to wrest themselves out of this bog of complacency. We have to strip away all of the things that they are currently hiding behind.”

  • Any high speed rail must continue to Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, and plan to go to all capital cities and Cairns. When one understands the congested airways, the cost of upgrading airport facilities, and the fact most plane trips arrive 30 mins to 60 mins from the city they service, then fast rail is cost effective. One also must consider the cost of parking, the reduction in carbon footprint, and how an electric grid and infrastructure for a fast rail could be integrated to improve other infrastructure. While our steel works at Whyalla and in other areas such as Coal and iron ore are depressed, the Australian government should order the rail track and material required to build the high speed network. Queenslanders would take a very dim view as would other states to any proposal that requires them to subsidize fast rail in NSW and Victoria though leaves other states without a service. So support for fast rail that builds from Brisbane Sydney and Melbourne simultaneously, none for a Melbourne Sydney link which does not benefit other regions.

  • The biggest block to high speed rail is political. Basically our political masters who must lead on this sort of national scale project are protecting their masters and the flow of tax payer capital to whoever is getting it now. They are not in a position to redirect public funds to new projects like high speed rail so are stalling on any moves in that direction – that's the inertia that stops this idea from being anything more than a desirable concept that needs urgently to be implemented.

  • The biggest impediment to high speed rail in Australia are powerful private interests in my view. I chaired the Transrapid bid when Ansett airlines were on their knees and governments were looking to max the value of airports, and they had non-rail interests in their ear. I have always questioned this, as these were lazy monopolistic assets that had far from realised their public value. Just look at the hyper-development that has occurred around Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Brisbane airports since. And just look how governments like Singapore leverage the economic value out of Changi airport. In retrospect I believe that the French technology is the most viable for Australia and would connect most easily to the Queensland system. The owners of the major privatised airport and the major carriers who see the routes from Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane as their rivers of gold have some pretty powerful interests who would not see a fast rail service in their interest. Public infrastructure will always require a level of initial public subscription. NSW is showing how intelligent procurement and value capture can work along the Norwest rail corridor. The reality is that we need new options to the cost and concentration of major city living and work. An efficient high speed rail corridor would help. And my recollection was that a high speed rail corridor starting at Newcastle, via Parramatta, Campbeltown an on would have created more economic value and put the need for a second Sydney Airport off indefinitely. Of course the government has sold the first rights to Badgery's Creek to non-rail interests. If the PM thinks innovation and public interest are important its time to assert the national interest

  • Two words to conceder ‘ROAD LOBBY’

  • Given the time taken to construct a traditional high speed rail system, new & faster & more cost effective technologies like hyperloop will already be functioning internationally & Australia will still be languishing in the past just as we are with pathetic broadband speeds!

  • We definately need high speed rail, but still difficult to achieve with only 24 million. The numbers of patrons required to achieve desired revenue wouldn't currently be possible with our small population. Melbourne to Sydney would be the only possible option, as Brisbane's population is too small. Perhaps this would come 10-15 years later on.

  • High speed rail is bound to become economically viable as the population density of the eastern coast increases and technological costs decline. The delay in implementation isn't necessarily a bad thing from the perspective of future users- we'll be getting cutting-edge technology once the project is finally implemented.

    • "…we'll be getting cutting-edge technology" — when has an Australian government ever delivered cutting-edge technology in any public works project ? It's certainly possible with private sector funding to do that, but between the unions and the fools in Canberra fighting amongst themselves they ensure projects will be 'derailed', with reinvented/modified overseas products which then leads to cost blowouts and delays. Other, far poorer countries can deliver high speed rail, as have countries with far smaller populations, why can't we ? Airports and toll road operators have huge political sway, as does the now dying automotive industry here — this last could make the possibility a reality after decades of waiting! What we ultimately get however, will invariably be second-hand, second-rate technology, at an exorbitant price.

  • Powerful private interests may have kept this from happening for decades. The arguments against the VFT have largely focused on population size being inadequate to support such transport services but this has seemed to me to be quite flawed thinking. In the first place, our population has doubled since the first proposals. Secondly, Australians are highly mobile in comparison to citizens of many other countries effectively increasing the journey numbers available. Thirdly,, over the decades the numbers of tourists and short term contract or FIFO workers has greatly increased the number of travellers. Fourthly, environmental costs of transportation were not a big issue back in the 1970s but now the significant CO2 savings offered by VFT move it well up the priority list in infrastructure planning.
    However the real issue, always unmentioned, is the possibility of carrying light freight on thes trains. This would make the train really viable. It also probably explains why we don't have the train: road freight services with no imagination about how their business could be tweaked to fit very fast rail and feeling very threatened by it.