High speed rail has been on the infrastructure wishlist for over a decade, and while some describe it as a “pie in the sky” and fodder for satires such as ABC’s Utopia, the Australasian Railway Association, Beyond Zero Emissions, Labor MP Anthony Albanese and regional councils including Lismore think it can become a reality.

Among the benefits are a reduction in pressure on major capital cities regarding housing and property prices, a boost for regional development, a reduction in carbon emissions due to less car and air travel, and also a reduction in major highway congestion from both passenger vehicles and freight.

Advocates say the reason it is still on the drawing board is not so much a matter of the $84 billion Beyond Zero’s study showed would be required to build it, nor a lack of demand. It’s actually a matter of political will, according to the ARA, which believes the first step is bipartisan commitment and then establishing an authority to oversee the implementation of the project.

Labor MP and shadow minister for transport Anthony Albanese told The Fifth Estate he has lodged a private member’s bill to formally reinstate the High Speed Rail Planning Authority. The $52 million to fund the body was allocated under Labor’s last budget.

The former government also spent $20 million on detailed feasibility studies, initial route masterplanning and proposed station designs. The incoming Abbott government scrapped the funding allocation and the HSR Planning Authority, and Mr Albanese has since been attempting with the member’s bill to get it back.

The bill is awaiting debate, however Mr Albanese said the government is strictly limiting the time allocated for the debate of private members’ bills so he is currently lobbying for an extension of time to debate the bill, which was first read in December 2013 and has been on the waiting list since the second reading in June this year.

The ARA is attempting to facilitate government engagement also, and is holding a high speed rail forum in Canberra in October where Mr Albanese will be presenting, and the deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss has been invited to speak. Some of the mayors of regional cities along the proposed route, including Wagga Wagga and Goulburn, will also be attending.

“High speed rail is a long term project that needs formalised bipartisan support federally and agreements from the Queensland, New South Wales, ACT and Victorian State Governments,” Emma Woods, urban policy manager for the ARA told The Fifth Estate.

“The October forum will focus on regional Australia and what high speed rail can do for our regions. High speed rail is not simply about connecting our cities; it is about the future of Australia. We either have Melbourne and Sydney bursting at the seams with more than eight million people living in each city or we invest in high speed rail. It will allow people to relocate to our regions and commute to the city to work.”

Dr Stephen Bygrave, chief executive of Beyond Zero, is of a similar opinion. He told The Fifth Estate there were four key benefits of HSR in terms of the social benefits.

“Number one, it opens up areas for regional development and creates jobs. Secondly, people can live in regional communities with better connectivity between the cities and regional areas. Thirdly, it will be reducing urban congestion because it enables people to live outside the cities and commute in. Fourthly, this will alleviate price pressure on houses in urban areas – the current average house price in Sydney for the suburbs is around $800,000, and that is out of reach of most people.”

By contrast, research by The Fifth Estate shows the average price for a standard three bedroom family home with a backyard in Albury-Wodonga, under an hour from the centre of Melbourne by HSR, is around $350-$450,000, with some older homes as low as around $200,000.

Beyond Zero has been researching the community benefits of zero-emissions technologies across all sectors, including transport and building. Dr Bygrave said HSR is among the technologies that offer clear benefits for community engagement.

“There are qualitative benefits beyond the economic and environmental benefits; this technology can enhance community and wellbeing.”

One of the things the Beyond Zero analysis showed is that claims there simply won’t be the demand for HSR are probably false.

“Our research shows Australia’s air routes are among the busiest in the world – Sydney to Melbourne is the world’s fifth busiest air route, Sydney to Brisbane is the 13th busiest,” Dr Bygrave said.

Because HSR is time-competitive with air, with the Sydney-Melbourne route expected to take two hours from pillar to post, it becomes attractive compared to getting to an airport, going through security and all the added time it takes to actually travel by air aside from flight time.

“Yes there is a demand, and because the population is predominantly based along the east coast, it is very viable to have a linear system,” Dr Bygrave said.

Dr Bygrave said the political will may be emerging, with PM Tony Abbott and others in the Coalition government beginning to “make the right noises” about the proposal.

“Politicians think in electoral cycles, and think about where they can build a road in a marginal electorate. [HSR] does require political will, and the will is building.”

At a grassroots level the will is building also, with Lismore City Council last week voting to “write to the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development the Hon. Warren Truss and the Minister for Trade and Investment the Hon. Andrew Robb AO, MP to recommend acceptance and implementation of the Zero Carbon Australia High Speed Rail Report”.

Beyond Zero is currently drumming up support for a HSR roadshow to visit all the proposed cities and towns along the route.

Dr Bygrave said the project is one that will require a public private partnership, and is confident there are firms in Australia who have the capability to put together a workable financial structure and stakeholder team.

The ARA is also confident the money is out there for HSR.

“There is significant overseas interest from Asia and Europe to fund high speed rail. Once we have the political commitment that this project will go ahead, extending invites to our overseas colleagues and opening the project up to the market will see the project gain momentum very quickly,” Ms Woods said.

“Building, maintaining and operating a high speed rail network along Australia’s East Coast will provide significant employment opportunities. Many Australians would be unaware that local companies already build locomotives, track and other rail components here in Australia. Australian companies and employees would have the opportunity to expand their product offering and skillset with high speed rail, locally but also globally.

“Australia is a world leader in heavy haul freight. We move the highest axle loads in the world up in the Pilbara. We certainly do have the rail engineering expertise to deliver high speed rail but we will also benefit from working with overseas colleagues who have the experience in high speed rail.”

ARA examined the previous government’s business case for HSR, and believes that the demand is probably even higher than the study forecast.

“The previous Government’s study forecast that by 2065, without high speed rail, travel on our East Coast would more than double from 152 million trips in 2009 to 355 million trips. The study also forecast almost 84 million annual trips on high speed rail in 2056 but the ARA is of the view that this is conservative,” Ms Woods said.

“Overseas experience shows that city-to-city travel time must be under three hours to see people shift from plane to train and at 350 kilometres an hour, Melbourne to Sydney and Sydney to Brisbane are both under this time.

“You also need to remember that high speed rail is CBD to CBD and you don’t have to arrive 30 minutes before check-in closes. You arrive at the station five minutes before your train, keep your luggage with you, are not confined to your chair for the entire trip and can talk on the phone or use electronics on your entire journey.”

HSR could also be used to shift light freight, which currently is a major contribution to carbon emissions via road freight or inter-city air freight.

“High speed rail could be used for lightweight, time sensitive freight. In fact, this is starting to occur in Europe with trials being run between Lyon in the south of France and London’s St Pancras Station. The first trial train moved 120 tonnes of parcels, the equivalent of seven semi-trailers or seven Boeing 737 cargo planes,” Ms Woods said.

While there are new forms of HSR such as China’s Maglev train, the ARA pointed out that the proven technology of Japan’s Shinakansen is celebrating its 50th anniversary next month, making this a technology with a very long fit-for-purpose track record.

“The ARA is of the view that Australia should stick with the proven technology of a dedicated track for high speed rail. Maglev technology would provide faster speeds and travel times but the cost increase would be too significant,” Ms Woods said.

“The ARA has been a long-standing advocate for high speed rail and we will continue to promote high speed rail and what it can do for Australia until it becomes a reality.”

Mr Albanese said HSR is “a question of political will and vision”.

“The money will follow that, and there is no doubt it requires a government contribution,” he told The Fifth Estate. “The first stage of our two-stage report showed there is no magic solution of waiting for a private operator to come along and make it happen.”

The business analysis his government undertook showed investment in the project could generate a return of $2.15 for every dollar invested, just on the Melbourne to Sydney part of the route.

He said the HSR Authority is required to coordinate action across all the states, and to send a signal to the market that purchase of the route corridor would begin.

However, he is confident the in-depth study the previous government did complete will stand the test of time as the wait continues for clear bipartisan will to emerge.

“The stations proposed, including the Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga and Shepparton, will take pressure off the major growth areas of Sydney and Melbourne,” Mr Albanese said.

“It opens up regional centres for investment and growth, and by connecting the regional cities to the major capitals by high speed rail for physical travelling and high speed broadband for virtual travelling, it makes them competitive for investment because of the lifestyle the regional cities offer.

“A lot of people currently drive between one and one-and-a-half hours to and from work, getting to be within an hour of the CBD while living in regional centres will encourage businesses to establish there in regional centres, it becomes a generator of wealth.”

He also noted that the establishment costs for businesses are lower in regional areas.

Mr Albanese pointed out the example of Bologna in Italy, which had undergone major growth since HSR connected it to other centres.

Other advantages HSR offeres included reduced risk and costs around motor vehicle accidents along major transport routes and accessibility benefits for people, including the aged, who are not able to drive.

“What has been found is that [HSR] has to be competitive with air travel. If the commute is anything over three hours people don’t choose rail.”

However, he said, HSR connections such as that between Paris and London meant that very few people choose air travel to cross the English Channel.

“It is important there be long-term vision. We spent $20 million on the studies, and there is a high level of detail; you can look at the line and at the design of stations.

“The work’s been done; it’s there. It stands the test of time, and it is a substantive piece of work that will remain relevant. What it now requires is stage one, to preserve the corridor.”

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  1. Interesting that this article focuses so much on the land uses and housing supply as a benefit of investment in HSR. Be prepared for loads of “the number’s just don’t stack up” arguments against as standard Cost-Benefits Analysis and Traffic Impact Assessments weigh in on this matter. Weigh in to the negative, controlling the discussion, unless the argument is framed as HSR promulgating a string of regional (big urban and rural area, an ‘urban system’) development ‘pods’ to focus, concentrate and improve a host of metrics including productivity, health, wealth, water and air quality, carbon use, quality denser housing, ecosystem services maintained or enhanced and so on as on as a co-benefit of HSR over Business as Usual car-dominated sprawl and highway building.

    And be wary of utopic visions, rather these pods will be entirely familiar to any Australian. The difference will be a train offering far better mobility (than a highway) to jobs, parks, shops, housing, schools in a broader area with, ideally, LRT or BRT or good old bus running feeder services to negate the needs for cars. Cars will still be around, but as one useful tool along with e-bikes, bicycles and walking shoes. The Utopia might be denser housing with more gum trees per km, better located offices and retail offering more opportunity, better quality commuting and more time with family.

    So, good for the east coast, but what about a plan for the west?