JOHN AUSTEN. High speed rail – Please don’t bite the bullet.

Mar 11, 2019

The Federal Opposition recently got media attention for high speed rail by exhorting Australia to ‘bite the bullet’.   Australians should indeed ‘bite the bullet’ on high speed rail – by demanding public apologies for failures: large amounts of public money wasted; false expectations fanned; bureaucratic misbehaviour rewarded and aversion to a reasonable approach urged by a Prime Minister!  The Opposition might lead off, apologising first to Newcastle.

Opposition infrastructure spokesman and former Minister, the Hon. Anthony Albanese MP, recently stirred the high-speed rail pot in a radio interview. 

Lamenting the time taken to travel by rail between Newcastle and Sydney, he referred to a $20m high-speed rail study conducted when he was Minister in 2013  and said it’s time to ‘bite the bullet’ and proceed.   Radio 2HD Newcastle listeners heard that Melbourne to Newcastle is the priority; a nation building ‘vision’. A one-page Labor policy offers some support.  It says high speed rail ‘stacks up’.

Even against the spectacle of NSW Government leaders regularly embarrassing themselves over infrastructure – recently treating locals to a surly ‘Trump-like’ performance about Newcastle’s unbelievably short and costly light rail line (a ‘dividend’ of them secretly selling out the region) – Mr Albanese’s Newcastle radio comments on high-speed rail were cringeworthy. Newcastle was dudded by his study.

The mistreatment, identified in Pearls and Irritations, included a preposterous proposition: that Newcastle would have far fewer passengers to Sydney than the NSW Southern Highlands, even though it has nearly ten times the population. A table demonstrates that issue.

Region Current population (000) Distance to Sydney (km) High speed rail trips (000) in year 2065 Trips per head of current population
Southern Highlands 48 120 2690 56.0
Newcastle 463 145 1760 3.8

There is a fair possibility this is a bureaucracy-inspired ‘result’ – demand for a fast Canberra train inflated by ‘passengers’ from the Southern Highlands – which distracts from more realistic ideas.   According to the study, the Southern Highlands would generate more than half the number of Sydney trips as Canberra!

The ‘result’ seems to rest on an assumption that Wollongong is in the Southern Highlands.  Once serious analysts (in, say, Treasury) ponder whether faster rail projects presuppose things like Wollongong people driving for over an hour in the wrong direction (to Mittagong) just to catch a train to Sydney, the well may be poisoned for a long, long time.

Other, better prospects – say moderately fast rail to Newcastle – would be tarred with the same brush.  A big win for road enamoured bureaucrats!

Worse, however, for Newcastle is the location of its station proposed by the study, and the Commonwealth!  The ‘vision’ has high-speed rail lines ploughing through suburban sprawls to reach downtown Sydney (Central), Melbourne (Spencer Street), Brisbane (Roma Street) and Canberra (Civic) at humongous cost.  Not so for Newcastle.  Its station is to be 25 km or more from Newcastle – alongside the M1 motorway – around a 40-minute drive out of the city.  It is equivalent to Sydney’s station being well west of Parramatta, Melbourne’s north of Craigieburn and the Canberra station half way to Yass. So much for concern about travel times between Sydney and Newcastle!

That politicians are now talking about corridor acquisition – to cement in such madness – should send a shiver down every Australian spine.  The public might despair at some of the study’s other route eccentricities – such as avoiding the big, growing urban areas in northern NSW and Canberra being on a dead-end – or it realised Infrastructure Australia regards protection of the identified corridor as a ‘high priority initiative’  for the near term.

Given his comments on Newcastle radio, it is hard not to conclude that Mr Albanese, who is widely respected and undoubtedly sincere, and others, have been duped by the bureaucracy.

A previous post in Pearls suggested former Prime Minister Turnbull realised the 2013 study had problems.  In 2017 he offered funds for new studies into more likely candidates for higher speed rail, especially candidates which might assist decentralisation. True to form, NSW responded with a proposal to look at something that can be done already, a two hour transit Sydney to Hamilton (a Newcastle suburb) – at odds with the Prime Minister’s obvious intention.  Hamilton was chosen because NSW had just ripped up the line between there and Newcastle! And true to form, the Commonwealth Minister agreed with this cynical proposition.

And true to form again, a month or so after that announcement the NSW Government said it would ‘go it alone’ with a different study for a one-hour rail trip to Newcastle, a transit time Mr Turnbull probably had in mind.  However, this is to be sandbagged by looking at fast trains to unlikely places which will again distract from and damage realistic prospects.

As a footnote, given the above it is no surprise to see the current Commonwealth Minister shun responsibility by falsely claiming his government cannot acquire corridor for rail.  Again, Canberra road funding bureaucrats rejoice that ‘their’ pork barrel will be untouched by contributions to possibly better rail projects!

All Australians – not merely people in Newcastle – should be profoundly disappointed by this pathetic saga.  And they should be greatly concerned.

The experience since 2012 shows that no transport scheme is too outlandish for a government to adopt.  It also shows that once politicians stumble into stupid schemes, they can be prepared to inflict substantial damage to budgets, travellers and communities lest their gullibility be exposed and egos checked.  Supposed ‘gatekeepers’ such as Infrastructure Australia apparently do little if anything to mitigate this threat – indeed at times they seem to egg it on.

Politicians seeking to invoke transport ‘visions’ like high-speed rail or mega motorways as election stunts deserve to be put to the most searching examination.   It would be far better for them to offer the community hope for dealing with pressing issues documented in Pearls and Irritations such as out of control road spending, the unfolding Sydney transport disaster or the anti-competitive restriction on Newcastle’s port.

That, and actually pursuing real purposes such as rail standardisation, should be plenty to keep the Commonwealth busy after the coming election. If a Minister still feels a need to do something about a high-speed rail ‘vision’ she/he should start from scratch – after apologising to the Newcastle community.

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



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