Let's speed up the Very Fast Train

  • Bullet train at station
Gordon Gregory

In a previous article for Partyline I offered views about how an emphasis on regional development could help Australia's recovery from the economic damage of the pandemic, while also helping people from rural and remote areas access health services.

In some respects Australia's capital cities are already dysfunctional. Many resources do not scale as a city grows and therefore become more costly. The resulting challenges include traffic congestion, environmental and noise pollution, long commuting times, and a low level of housing affordability.

As Federal and State Governments build the economy back to a 'new normal' they should use every opportunity to provide relative stimulus for centres of population other than the four major capital cities.

This will require them to resist accusations that they are 'picking winners', with the negative connotations associated with that. What they will be picking is a strategic approach to the nation's settlement policy - one designed to make sure there is better balance between the four largest cities and other centres.

This will increase the number of places large enough to reap the positive effects that occur when population is concentrated. These benefits include the creation of a critical mass of skills and capital, knowledge spillovers, input sharing, labour market pooling and access to dense networks of knowledge rich resources that are important for economic activity.

Australia has 15 regional cities near to major metropolitan areas with populations between 100,000 and a million that would be excellent candidates for additional growth without the risk of them developing diseconomies. Additionally, there are about 40 regional centres with populations between 20,000 and 100,000 which also have growth potential.

As they move to re-build the economy, governments will have opportunities to discriminate in favour of more balanced growth in every conceivable policy domain, including tax reform; infrastructure development; schooling, vocational and tertiary education; family policy; science and industry support; migration; health services; and in tourism, the arts and entertainment.

As well as favouring non-metropolitan places as they manage the required economic redevelopment, Federal and State governments should invest in one or more nation building project. The most famous one of the twentieth century, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, set the standard and demonstrated the benefits. As well as its direct contribution to job creation, it had great symbolic significance, attesting to confidence in the future and technical innovation.

The Snowy Scheme wasn’t just the biggest engineering project in the world, it was a showcase for innovative engineering works, and generated local expertise in them. It was emblematic of Australia's modernity and an icon of engineering works. The workforce recruited to the Snowy Scheme reflected Australia's openness to migrants from all over the world. Of the 100,000 people who worked on the Scheme between 1949 and 1974, more than 65 per cent were migrants from over 30 countries.

The best prospect for a new nation building project of a similar scale is a high-speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne.

Various high-speed rail proposals have been considered by governments since the 1980s. The Very Fast Train (VFT) proposal took its name from a private-sector joint venture established in 1987. Several studies in the 1980s and early 1990s showed the proposal to be both technically and financially feasible.

Four factors are critical to the success of high-speed rail. They are a densely populated corridor, a high market share in competition with other modes of transport, first class facilities at terminals, and opportunities along the route for land and property development. (That joint venture folded in 1991 following the failure to secure a favourable taxation agreement with the Federal Government and the Victorian Government insisting on a lengthy inquiry process.)

A contemporary proposal has been promoted by Consolidated Land and Rail Australia Pty Ltd (CLARA), a property development consortium. The company began operations in 2015, and in 2018 was one of three proposals invited to develop a detailed business case with federal government funding. The consortium says the project is not dependent on government investment but would need governments' cooperation and approval. It would be funded by the private sector through the development of new smart cities along the route between Sydney and Melbourne.

As a result of COVID-19 Federal and State Governments now face radically different economic circumstances. For this reason it is reasonable to re-visit and recalibrate any commitments made in relation to fast train projects and other major projects.

Notwithstanding that caveat, it is clear that there is substantial support for a major national project to facilitate rapid transport between east coast cities. The 2017 federal budget set aside $20 million for business cases for high speed rail. And Labor committed $1 billion to buy up land for high speed rail in its election policy last year.

Since the pandemic struck, the Opposition has voiced its support for government investment in high-speed rail, with Shadow transport spokeswoman Catherine King saying it would be an 'economic game-changer' for regional centres along the route between Melbourne and Brisbane. Nev Power, the head of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, has said the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for acceleration of large-scale infrastructure works.

Before COVID-19 Sydney-Melbourne had the second highest number of connecting flights in the world, giving that route one of the necessary conditions for a commercially viable high-speed rail network. A high-speed train could run from Sydney to Melbourne in just under two hours. Estimates of the volume of traffic it would win need to accommodate changes resulting from COVID-19. The demand for travel between Sydney and Melbourne is likely to be moderated by the recent increase in the preference for working from home and by greater incidence of flexible working conditions.  

Where transformation of rural people's access to metropolitan areas is concerned, there is an unavoidable trade-off between the time taken for the journey and the number of centres at which the train stops. The more regions 'regenerated', the slower the train.

Despite this limiting factor, a high-speed rail service down the eastern coast or the spine of Australia would make many regional communities more attractive and viable to live in. It would also enable people from regional towns to work in the city, turning them into dormitory towns.

A second-best option for a nation-building project would be for the three eastern State governments to take the lead in building their own fast rail service, with the Commonwealth being responsible for 'joining the dots'. All three of them have been considering higher-speed rail projects - not the 300 kilometres per hour of Japan's bullet train but 130 and 200 kilometres per hour.

These sub-national proposals would link Sydney with Canberra, Wollongong, Bathurst and Newcastle; Melbourne with Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong; and Brisbane with the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and Toowoomba. Most of these regional areas are too close to be serviced by air, so that high-speed rail will not have to compete with aviation.

Investing across the board in non-metropolitan places should be a priority for governments as they work on various fronts to rebuild Australia's economy. This will not only result in direct economic opportunities but will reduce the diseconomies of size of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, and result in easier access for people in several rural areas to the full range of health and other services.

And the unique opportunity provided to governments as a result of the economic challenges presented by the pandemic to invest in a new nation-building project should be seen, not as the icing on the cake, but as an inspiring example of national enterprise and leadership.

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