Despite piles of reports, oodles of analysis and a substantial application of common sense, the federal government is proceeding at a glacial pace with plans for fast rail at scale.
This week, another inquiry was launched, this one by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities.
It is an inquiry into options for financing fast rail. The terms of reference are succinct: inquire into options for financing faster rail.
It is being chaired by former tennis professional and Liberal member for Bennelong, John Alexander. In a media statement, he said “fast rail connections between our capital cities and regional centres will strengthen economic and social ties and connect people to housing, jobs, and services”.
So far, the government has only firmly committed to one project, a Geelong-to-Melbourne link, but has shortlisted several other corridors in the Faster Rail Plan produced earlier this year:
- Brisbane to Sunshine Coast;
- Brisbane to Gold Coast;
- Brisbane to Toowoomba;
- Sydney to Newcastle;
- Sydney to Wollongong;
- Sydney to Canberra;
- Sydney to Parkes (via Bathurst and Orange);
- Melbourne to Greater Shepparton;
- Melbourne to Albury-Wodonga;
- Melbourne to Traralgon; and
- Melbourne to Ballarat.
It’s worth noting these corridors still leave Canberra woefully unconnected to the south – currently the national capital’s only southward link is a slow bus west to Yass to connect with the main Sydney to Melbourne line. Can’t help but wonder – is Canberra the world’s worst-connected national capital?
The corridors also leave large parts of New South Wales, including its largest inland city, Wagga Wagga, out of the picture.
The government has spruiked the benefits of the corridors for enabling people to benefit from regional community lifestyles and housing affordability.
It established a unit specifically dedicated to fast rail, the National Faster Rail Agency, in July this year, as an executive agency within the Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development portfolio.
The whole premise that the current vision will deliver benefits for regional communities has been strongly critiqued by RMIT PhD candidate Todd Denham and RMIT Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, Jago Dodson.
In an article published on The Conversation, they noted the “argument seems built on a pitch to city workers priced out of metropolitan housing markets”.
“It treats regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres,” they said.
Potential downsides they observed included rises in regional house prices, a decline in regional services and businesses because people spend their money in capital cities instead of locally, and less impetus for the creation of high-value jobs in regional areas.
Another consideration is whether some of those communities have the infrastructure to cope with more people living there.
Parkes, for example, is under pressure already with its water supplies. It is remote from natural water supplies and therefore dependent on rainfall and bore water to meet all the existing population’s needs. Rain has been scarce of late, and council is in the process of installing water recycling to maintain watering for open space, including parks and sportsgrounds.
In any case, the federal government doesn’t seem committed to funding fast rail, as the current inquiry says it is seeking “innovative financing options” – possibly a reference to private sector involvement.
The inquiry is taking submissions until Friday 6 December 2019. See details of how to make a submission here.