OPINION: For decades, Australians have dreamt about high speed rail along our east coast. It would be nation-building at its best: big, bold and transformative.
The Greens want to turn dreams for a fast train into reality by funding high speed rail in full, kept in public hands, and built in the public interest, not for the profit of private developers.
We’ve had promises of high speed rail for decades, with successive Labor and Liberal governments announcing it as an election sweetener before putting it on the very slow train to nowhere when they form government.
Last week, Labor again indicated they’ll commit to building high speed rail if they win the election, saying “there is strong interest from the private sector with experience in high-speed-rail technology.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has downplayed building it, saying it would be “very ambitious.” However, at the same time his government has given a private developer $8 million to develop a business case for the first leg of a Melbourne to Sydney route.
New megacities that will bypass existing regional centres
We know that the private developer’s plans include building new mega cities that will be separate from and compete with existing regional cities like Wagga Wagga and Albury-Wodonga. Their proposal is build these new cities on low value agricultural land, and to then use the increase in property values to fund the whole project.
In other words one giant high-risk property speculation scam.
The problem with both major party proposals is that handing high speed rail over to the private sector is great for Labor and Liberal corporate donors and mates, but not so great for the public who need and expect high speed rail to be built in their best interest.
Construction of high speed rail stations up and down the east coast and in the heart of our central business districts will immensely increase the value of surrounding land.
Developers and owners selling at a profit can contribute more taxes
Private developers who see their property values rise should not simply get a windfall gain. The government can use a variety of taxes and charges so they contribute to the overall cost of building the project, but the route of high speed rail should not be dictated by where the increase in property values is the highest.
We need high speed rail that will actually deliver on its potential: breathing new life into local economies, unlocking our big cities to country folk to commute quickly and affordably for jobs and study, reducing strain on our growing capitals, helping alleviate housing affordability pressures, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and reducing carbon pollution by giving people a real choice to travel on a train instead of a plane, or chewing up those miles on the highway.
The problem with privatised services is that too often public interest objectives like these play second fiddle to corporate profits.
Labor and Liberal both have long histories of privatising our essential services, which are then run to maximise profit for corporate investors, not to serve the people.
Like Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating privatising the Commonwealth Bank.
Like Liberal Prime Minister John Howard privatising Telstra and our airports.
Like various state Labor and Liberal governments privatising the electricity market which has resulted in skyrocketing power prices. The list goes on.
In all these cases, the public has lost the benefits of a vital public service, while private corporations are lining their pockets.
High speed rail will be a game changer, but it has to be done right. The Greens’ plan will fund high speed rail in full, negotiating agreements with the states around routes and returning land value capture revenue to the Commonwealth.
We will create the Australian High Speed Rail Authority, as recommended by the High Speed Rail Study commissioned by Greens and Labor in 2010, and make an initial equity investment of $1.6 billion for the first stages of planning and corridor reservation.
Future investment would be made as the project meets key milestones.
Equity investments have funded big infrastructure projects, such as the NBN, Inland Rail and Snowy Hydro 2.0.
It currently takes four hours to get to Melbourne from Albury-Wodonga on the train, three hours from Shepparton, two and a half hours from Sydney to Newcastle. That’s if the trains run on time.
With high speed rail the journey from Albury-Wodonga to Melbourne would be slashed to just over an hour. It would only take 40 minutes from Newcastle to Sydney and under an hour from Shepparton to Melbourne.
It’s staggering to think that Australia is the only continent without high speed rail except for Antarctica. It’s even more staggering when you consider that Japan first got high speed rail over 50 years ago.
Today, 20 countries have high speed rail lines and are rapidly expanding their network, including China, France, Spain and Turkey.
Even more countries are in the development stage, such as Morocco, India, Russia, Bangladesh, Argentina and Brazil.
The Australian government can build high speed rail. We have the capability and resources to build it in the public interest and owned by the public. We just need politicians to get on board.
Senator Janet Rice is Australian Greens transport and infrastructure spokesperson.