JOHN AUSTEN. Infrastructure in Australia- the continuing policy confusion and advisory mess.

Aug 16, 2017

Infrastructure Australia’s ‘reform’ reports and its updated priority list – which assesses particular projects – add to evidence about problems with infrastructure advice.  This article deals with the latest reform report – corridor protection – and the resulting depressing high speed rail humbug.

My comments on an earlier ‘reform’ report – public transport franchising – questioned Infrastructure Australia’s understanding of what the report said.  It was a poor report suffering internal contradictions and confusion about its relationship with (what some claim to be) a lobby group.

I have also commented on high speed rail in Australia.  As with other pipe dreams, local infatuation with Japanese Shinkansen, European TGV/ICE or Chinese Maglev style rail virtually prevents consideration of useful, realistic ideas such as bringing places like Newcastle, Wollongong or Geelong to within a reasonable commute, say one hour, of the big cities.

Melbourne to Brisbane ultra high speed rail, and other never-ever trivia such as universal road pricing, stops discussion about national goals like gauge standardisation and proper truck charging on highways.  Meanwhile your national Government flails around looking for something to do but ends up wasting time and vast sums of your money in confecting curios for transport’s side-show alley.  Vision?  No, it’s bullshit.

It is a real concern when the two combine – when official reports create mirages of a high speed rail el dorado.  Unfortunately, Infrastructure Australia’s report on corridor protection did just that.

The report argued for the protection of a corridor for a high speed rail fantasy.  One commentator noted the follow-through:  The Chairman of Infrastructure Australia, Mark Birrell, told the media (see Act now on high-speed rail or pay heavy price later: Infrastructure Australia): ‘No one is saying we won’t need high-speed rail in 20 years, but to do that you need preserve the corridor now’.”

Some considered this confusing comment and the corridor protection report to be green lights for the ‘official’ – Melbourne to Brisbane – version of high speed rail.  Why protect a corridor unless a project is to go ahead?  Moreover, the report said construction of the first leg, Sydney to Canberra, could start soon.

Corridor protection can be a good thing if it is pretty certain a project will go ahead and if the right corridor is identified.  Here corridor protection fails on both counts – it is irresponsible to argue for the ‘official’ version of a Melbourne-Brisbane high speed rail and the report’s idea of a corridor is plain dumb.

The official version of high speed rail is from a ‘study’ by the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure and Transport.  Aspects of the study were ludicrous: demand from NSW southern highlands to exceed that of Newcastle and the Central Coast combined; the route going into the centres of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane at prohibitive cost, yet bypassing other centres like the Gold Coast and Newcastle on the basis of time/expense; Canberra on a spur line like now with no direct connection with Melbourne; a hopelessly uneconomic cost north of $110 billion; an inability to match the more efficient aviation mode, etc.  It was as if the study tried to prove the stupidity of the idea.

If Australia is to ever have high speed rail, it must not follow the Department’s bizarre views.  It must discard the ‘official’ version of high speed rail.

The best approach is to move gradually towards higher speed rail by incremental, relatively inexpensive, improvements around existing lines – like reducing curves.  Yet Infrastructure Australia’s report recommended spending around $5 billion to protect the Department’s route.  As they say, ‘earth to Canberra: there is a problem’.

There is a further problem: conflict between the corridor protection report and recommended infrastructure priorities.  The report claims high speed rail was in the 2016 priority lists.  However, it was not recommended by those lists or by the 2017 lists.

The reason high speed rail is not recommended?  There has been nothing for Infrastructure Australia to assess.  While high speed rail first appeared in Infrastructure Australia’s February 2016 ‘plan’, it does not reflect the audit on which the plan is supposedly based.   There remains no apparent proponent and there is no business case.

The appearance is of Infrastructure Australia promoting spending on something it doesn’t recommend, like it did in its public transport franchising report re Sydney metro and Cross River Rail.

What is to be made of this?  Do the ‘reform’ reports offer a nod and a wink while the priority list is for posterity?  Earth to Canberra: there are problems.  Others apparently agree; there are suggestions the Productivity Commission should assess some projects.  The Prime Minister’s infrastructure financing unit will need to do some sort of project assessments. 

Australia does not suffer from a lack of infrastructure boosters and lobbying; it would be regrettable for Infrastructure Australia to become associated with ‘that space’.

Australia lacks a sensible national transport plan – the Australian infrastructure plan has demonstrably failed to progress this.  Australia also suffers from the absence of guidance on the proper role for its Federal Government – apart from when the High Court slaps down some Government excesses and bureaucratic arrogance. 

All would be better off if Infrastructure Australia tried to fix these failures rather than seek applause from the business gallery or catch the next gravy train – however fast and well-funded it might be.  It should abandon the ‘reform’ series.

John Austen was an adviser to Infrastructure Australia until 2014.  He is a happily retired Sydney western suburbs dweller.  More details will be forthcoming at his website The Jade Beagle.


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