JOHN AUSTEN. High speed rail – here we go again.

Jul 22, 2016

Another proposal involving high speed rail Sydney-Melbourne recently surfaced; from CLARA (Consolidated Land and Rail Australia).

Extensive media reports noted an advisory board including former Trade Minister the Hon. Andrew Robb, ex Premiers the Hon. Barry O’Farrell and the Hon. Steve Bracks , and former US Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. A figure of $200billion was mentioned, with a claim it will not rely on government funding.

So far the outline is sketchy.There are four website pages and a sub three minute video. The idea seems to be to create a series of new cities in inland NSW and Victoria linked to the state capitals by high speed rail. It is a decentralisation plan of which high speed rail is one aspect. Decades would pass before such a plan came to fruition, if ever.

High speed rail is to be funded by ‘value capture’. One media claim is that rural land worth $1.2billion would become residential lots worth $180.0billion, providing a source of infrastructure funds. Subdivision and high speed rail works would be concurrent.

Stage 1 would be Melbourne to the Shepparton region with a high speed rail cost of $13.0billion. This could commence within 5 years, with a rail connection and a first stage of two cities completed within 10 years.

CLARA has a ‘political mandate’ as an early step. I presume this is the essence of the proposal.

The decentralisation motive has a subtext of rejuvenating rural Victoria. While this may be a worthy aim, and with all due respect to those involved questions need to be publicly answered before the proposal is taken seriously. Some starter issues are:

  • The nature and ownership of the CLARA organisation;
  • The location (and size) of new cities;
  • The proposed route;
  • Why Canberra, Wagga and Albury are on spur lines;
  • Financial risks eg. of rail spending undertaken concurrently with land subdivision;
  • Whether tax concessions are sought eg. for capital gains;
  • Above all, the content of the ‘political mandate’.

Already some fear the proposal is ‘a potential trainwreck’.

It would be a national tragedy to delay or rule out higher speed rail proposals with reasonable chances of success because of national attention or ‘mandates’ for grand speculative ideas, like CLARA.

This is especially the case if practical higher speed rail prospects such as Sydney to Newcastle are put on hold because of political decisions to restrict consideration (yet again) to high speed rail as an adjunct to attempts to populate Australia’s interior.

In the foreseeable future, large coastal cities like Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong, Gold Coast offer an approach to higher speed rail and decentralisation easier and more consistent with historical trends. They have better prospects of helping to address capital city issues that exist today.

In any event, consideration of a ‘political mandate’ for CLARA or any privately generated proposal should be the subject of Parliamentary debate informed by expert advice and extensive public consultation. No ‘mandate’ should preclude other ideas.

Hopefully CLARA will soon reveal much more so a sensible debate can supplement media stories.

John Austen is a happily retired former official. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 to his retirement in 2014. Further background is at:


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