JOHN AUSTEN. Fast rail – apologies please from perpetrators.

recent post said politicians should not ‘bite the bullet’ on high speed rail – but  apologise for money wasted; unrealistic expectations fanned; incompetence.  It suggested a start with Newcastle – a city dudded by bureaucrats. Better still would be policy that doesn’t just provide fodder for TV satires; instead infrastructure proposals should be examined in public inquiries prior to decisions.

The latest high-speed rail episode started with the Hon. Anthony Albanese MP on Newcastle radio lamenting the time taken to travel by rail to Sydney, referring to a study done when he was Minister.  He had been conned by bureaucrats.  The study dudded Newcastle: recommending a station 25km from the city; saying it had fewer potential passengers than Mittagong.  Wollongong (area population 385,000) was dudded too, by moving the Sydney-Canberra route away from it.

Shortly after Mr Albanese’s comments, ABC radio hosted a high-speed rail panel.  Points included: every proposal needs a sound purpose; faster rail might be considered for corridors where capacity – land and air – is exhausted; a decentralisation purpose only needs suitable travel times, not 350kmh trains.

The panel criticised the aviation-centric ‘vision’ of Mr Albanese et al as lacking purpose.   Unlike e.g. Europe, Australia has no dire inter-capital capacity issue – and Badgerys Creek airport is yet to come on line!   Risks are high where available air capacity gives airlines fast, low-cost opportunities to respond to high-speed rail.  Subsidies – perhaps $100billion or more – might not be enough to take sufficient passengers from airlines.  There is another problem: subsidisation of a business that intends to damage others may be unlawful , hence the final bill – including penalties, compensation to the airlines and costs of supporting regional air services – might be higher than proponents imagine.

The panel noted a cavalcade of Australian high-speed-rail visionaries, designers, potential builders and suppliers wanting to use public (your) money.  Yet – despite decades of ‘vision’ – none want to risk their own cash except for tacked-on property speculation.  This inter-capital high-speed rail fantasy should have been interred long ago, not least for the awful possibility some politician might try it to ‘solve a (non-existent) problem’ of Sydney-Melbourne air travel.  Repetition doesn’t make such populist claptrap true – it makes people unhappy.

The ‘vision’ distracts from, and acts against, more plausible prospects: connections between capitals and second-tier cities e.g. Sydney-Wollongong /Newcastle; Melbourne-Geelong.  Aviation is irrelevant to all.  Monumental motorway expansions are contemplated to each supposedly because of congestion which new roads will worsen!

Significantly, these second-tier cities are major freight hubs which could play a bigger role – mitigating congestion in Sydney and Melbourne – were passenger loads reduced on key corridors (provided, of course, bad policies like restrictions on Newcastle port are reversed!).

The critical matters for such railways are seated journey time and station locations.  Cost and budget constraints will be the determining factors.  A rule of thumb for relevant journeys is on-board vehicle time of around one hour.  Such a figure is used in people’s ‘search’ for where to reside and where to work – before they do the detailed home buying etc. calculus. Wollongong and Newcastle meet this criterion with less than high-speed rail.  If there is to ever be an economic national fast passenger rail network both these major cities must be properly served by it.  Ditto Geelong.

To serve a city, stations need to maximise ‘catchment’ – by being in established demographic centres. For a Wollongong line, Sutherland in outer Sydney, Wollongong and perhaps Shellharbour are candidates. For a new Newcastle line, the city and Wyong (Central Coast) are candidates, as is Glendale, near the centre of Lake Macquarie’s population – site of a long planned major transport interchange – the top infrastructure priority for many Newcastle locals and the subject of NSW Government and Opposition State election promises.

Capital city stations should be within high-paying job areas.  They need not be in the CBD if public transport has short, good connections.  For Sydney the relevant area is the ‘global arc’ Kingsford Smith airport – Chatswood – North Ryde.  Parramatta might also be considered.

Wollongong and Newcastle are being reviewed by Professor McNaughton on request from the NSW Government.  He will need to consider fall-out from Ms Berejiklian’s debacles such as ripping-up the rail line into Newcastle city and Metro preventing sensible options into central Sydney.  He may conclude the line in Mr Albanese’s study was misplaced 10 km near Lake Macquarie and 25 km away from Newcastle!

Last week the Prime Minister released a slim Commonwealth twenty-year ‘Faster Rail Plan’, supposedly related to the Newcastle etc. cases.  Unfortunately, it showcases the wretched performance of the bureaucracy again. While there are far too many problems with the plan to list here, this is a taste:

‘As a first step towards this plan, the Government invested $20 million in faster rail business cases for Sydney to Newcastle, Melbourne to Greater Shepparton and Brisbane to the regions of Moreton Bay and the Sunshine Coast. These business cases are due to be completed in mid-2019…….

 ‘Building on this first step, the Government is now committing $2 billion to help deliver faster rail between Melbourne and Geelong.’

That is, commit at least $4billion of your money (a matching commitment from the State is required) to the only project without a study.  Quite some next step!

Geelong is a stand-out candidate for faster rail.  But it is only a candidate. Commitment to fast rail to anywhere – even Geelong – should not be contemplated until after an open public inquiry.  Studies can be useful but are far from enough. The same can be said for ‘expert panels’ – one of which ‘reviewed’ Mr Albanese’s study yet failed to identify travesties such as that noted above. After a public inquiry, governments must consider a wider context which will include many non–transport issues and budget circumstances.  There is a very long way to go before any faster rail project should get up.

The Commonwealth must deal with vital matters, but is unable to do so while it arrogantly ignores Constitutional guidance and randomly bases policy on what someone believes should be ‘the role’ today: roads, cities, regions, helping States – whatever pads out the going Canberra fad.  The latest includes funding a ‘congestion busting’ upgrade to the Woy Woy station carpark.

The Commonwealth’s fundamental role is ensuring a cohesive nation.  The Federation purpose of dealing with railway gauge-breaks should be front of mind.  The distant possibility of faster rail routes becoming the skeleton of a system means the Commonwealth has an important role to play now – insisting on standardisation – a matter about which ‘visionaries’ and advisers are seemingly unaware and an appalling national oversight disadvantaging local consumers and manufacturers.  The negligence of not demanding that Sydney Metro be interoperable with national railways must not be repeated in Victoria!

 John Austen is a happily retired former NSW and Commonwealth official living in Western Sydney. 



John Austen is a happily retired former senior official of Infrastructure Australia living in Western Sydney. Details are at

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5 Responses to JOHN AUSTEN. Fast rail – apologies please from perpetrators.

  1. Avatar j austen says:

    Mr Haughton and others: thank you for those comments.

    On the matter of freight, you might like refer to the Chainsaw posts: there is no a priori case to subsidise freight.
    There are two issues facing rail: subsidisation of trucks that compete with railways; legacy infrastructure.
    The subsidisation issue would be addressed if there was a sensible approach to road reform in which mass distance and location charges would be levied on trucks first, foremost and perhaps only on those roads that compete with railways, rather than every road in the country. That officials refuse to consider this limited ‘reform’ preferring the transport equivalent of splitting the atom – charges for every vehicle on every road every time – is evidence of bad faith. This failure implies a second best may be some subsidisation of certain rail routes – but that is a very complicated matter.
    Legacy infrastructure does reduce the attractiveness of rail. The key issue continues to be a break of gauge – the lack of standardisation. The Howard Government’s ARTC initiative was the last significant step forward on this. Now our national transpor shame is being locked in by mischief/smart-arse policies of State Governments re location of terminals (and truck access to them). These policies minimise the potential of a national rail system and ‘coincidentally’ pander to the local merchants and rail operator. That is why there are way too many trucks in say Brisbane. And the Commonwealth – when not asleep at the wheel, is in a state of denial about this.
    There are numerous studies on freight. Those for Governments ‘confirm’ rail cannot do much more to mitigate truck movements. This suits as it allows more for the pork barrel. Some ‘results’ seem rigged – Maldon-Dombarton in NSW for example, which is the only case of a project being advised against by Infrastructure Australia.
    Those for business indicate Governments are largely the cause of the problems. These are far more credible.

  2. Avatar Peter Best says:

    I note that nobody seems to be considering the carbon consequences of air travel. I suppose it’s not surprising. We head cheerfully into oblivion, arguing about the colour of the Emperor’s tie.

  3. Avatar James Haughton says:

    I have heard it said at various times that the best use of rail funds in Australia would be to beef up freight rail, particularly connections to ports, enabling heavy trucks to be taken off the road. This sounds plausible, but I don’t know if there are any actual analyses behind it. Can you offer an opinion/sources?

  4. Avatar Ken Dyer says:

    I laughed at the ludicrous plan to install a very fast train to the Sunshine Coast, not because it is unfeasible, but because the Queensland Government has been unable to get the Federal LNP Government to cough up a lousy $136 million to duplicate the narrow gauge railway line from Beerburrum to Nambour for years, a necessary prerequisite to run a branch line to Maroochydore. Such hubris! And speed? This single track line is the only rail link to North Queensland, and has continuous freight and passenger, both suburban and country Trains using the line.

    The other ludicrous project on the Sunshine Coast is the Light Rail project that has been moribund for the last 4 years. Since then, of course, light rail has failed in Newcastle, and on the Gold Coast, every ride is subsidised by the Queensland Government to the tune of about $7-8, i.e running at a large loss.

    Recently, trackless trams came to my attention. Here is an article about the technology:

    The LNP spends billions on roads, and millions on rail. Nothing will change this equation. The LNP does not do rail.

    They have form on this. VFL Park at Waverley in Victoria was opened in 1970, with grand promises from the Government of the day that a railway line would be built to the ground. Despite that promise being renewed by every Liberal government since, it never happened, and now VFL park is no more and was closed in 2001.

  5. Avatar Conrad Drake says:

    I am reminded of an article comparing high speed to mid (200kph) speed rail in Europe and particularly the resultant heavy impact on intercity fares (3x) for small time improvements. It also noted the loss of many route options; the near-extinction of the overnight train and the replacement of rail travel by budget airlines for low-cost travellers.

    It certainly lends weight to the idea that we should be seriously considering mid (or more clearly, variable up-to-200kph) speed rail as an option to end-to-end 300kph+ rail.

    The article was “High Speed Trains are Killing the European Railway Network” Kris De Decker 2013

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