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.”