A 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.