In 2010 the Labor Government commissioned a report on High Speed Rail (HSR) in Australia, mainly at the instigation of the Green Party. The final report was made in 2013. In the 7 years to 2017, the Australian population increased by some two million people. A poll by The Age newspaper in 2016 found that 73% of the more than 4000 respondents were for HSR in Australia.
The Report was finely judged to suit the interests of the main players, the airlines, trucking companies and unions, but not the Australian people as the project was shelved by the Government.
The Labor Government’s 2013 corridor for the railway tracks has lived on in the present Government and is still supported by Labor as a need to set aside land in case HSR is ever built.
But it is the wrong corridor.
The Report assumed that HSR was a government interstate transport project designed down to a price, not to customers’ interests and best service as a private project would be. It was still too expensive for Labor to go ahead, which suited the airlines. It was designed to be constructed in stages and completed in 35 years. This suited the airlines, trucking companies and unions.
The long construction time was based on the idea that there were insufficient resources and manpower available during the then mining investment boom to construct HSR in a shorter time-period. For the unions, it was jobs for life. It protected the airline industry in the long term. General freight was not considered in the Report, however, in effect it also protected the interstate trucking industry.
Today, the mining investment boom is over, the automotive industry is ceasing production in Australia, Hazelwood power station is closing, private investment is diminishing and underemployment has increased. There are plenty of resources and workers now to build HSR rapidly along the east coast from Melbourne to Sydney and Brisbane, and later to Adelaide and Wollongong.
There is no reason to delay. In fact, rapidly building HSR is a priority because the populations of Melbourne. Sydney and Brisbane are growing very fast. There needs to be the option to live in new cities on the HSR line in regional areas before major cities grow much more and lose their liveability through exponential congestion increase. This was not considered in the Report. The Australian population and that of the major cities is projected to double in the next 4-5 decades, largely before the HSR would have been finished per the Report.
The corridor in the Report bypassed major east coast airports on the fifth busiest air route between Sydney and Melbourne and busy between Sydney and Brisbane. This would mean that growing numbers of regional residents would have to travel into major cities by ordinary rail to board planes or add to congestion by road, not direct by HSR. It under-wrote the assumption that HSR would only gain a 50% share of the interstate travel market which was projected to nearly double in size.
The Report proposed vast tunnelling to enter and exit major cities which added to the cost that caused the project to be shelved. By its nature, tunnelling offers little opportunity to capture value. This was not seriously considered in the Report. Value capture is the key to HSR in Australia.
The alternative VFT2 concept envisages value capture by a private enterprise consortium would pay for the whole HSR project before it is completed in 10 years through sale of 400,000 new dwellings built above inner-city tracks in trenches in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. It would not be paid for later by fares essentially over 30-40 years after completion in 35 years as in the Report.
The 2013 route was inland from Canberra. It was expected that regional towns would expand somewhat with HSR, but not relieve the major cities of meaningful numbers to make a difference to their population increase. Nowhere in Australia do 1m people live inland. Most people, 80%, live within 100km of the sea. The northern route from Albury/Wodonga would not relieve Melbourne of significant population increase. Nor would it provide a large enough water supply to a city of 1m, even if people were attracted away 300km from the sea. The alternative eastern route via Gippsland would have water. Gippsland already has a population of 400,000 as a base to build a new city of 1m. The Gippsland route is crucial to paying for the project by providing large value capture on housing above the tracks between Melbourne and Dandenong that would be unavailable to the northern route. This value capture would amount to a third of the cost of the whole project.
The Report’s route has two spurs, one to the Canberra CBD and the other to the Gold Coast. Spurs are unheard of on HSR elsewhere. They add to the cost of construction and do not serve customers as well as more stopping trains on the express route. The Canberra spur would not accommodate high rise offices or large parking facilities for commuters in the CBD. The VFT2 concept coastal route from Cann River via Canberra airport would accommodate both as the population of Canberra doubled with access to HSR. There would be high rise offices and parking for daily commuters to Sydney, and offices and taxis for those from Sydney for work.
The Gold Coast to the south would take upwards of a million more people on the coastal HSR route and the Sunshine Coast would take another million or so to the north via Brisbane airport to relieve Brisbane of population increase. Cost saved on the spurs would pay for the Cann River coastal route.
The VFT2 concept envisages 10m or more people living in the regions in new smart, compact cities on the HSR route. This would ease the potential congestion of major cities and would protect their precious liveability. There would be value capture in the new cities to pay for their construction.
The concept foresees revenue from daily commuting around Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane would in time equal or exceed interstate HSR revenue. The airlines could become members of the consortium and provide passenger management for double the interstate patronage.
The VFT2 consortium would build a dual, dedicated Fast Freight Rail (FFR) separately alongside HSR at the same time to save costs. It would serve all the new regional cities on the east coast route. It would halve the cost and delivery time of general freight between the major cities. It would cut the cost of living. It would give a huge increase in productivity directly and indirectly to industry. This was not included in the Report. A sub-optimum inland freight rail is planned by the Government that would connect remote inland towns, but bypass Sydney. Water is the limiting factor for the growth of these towns. Inland rail would still play a meaningful part in connecting eastern inland regions.
It is possible to modify the HSR concept and build a valuable asset for Australia that would maintain liveability and prosperity by avoiding exponential city congestion growth. It would be paid for before it is complete. It would not cost the Government anything or increase government debt. It would stimulate economic growth and create many jobs to absorb the increasing number of underemployed, lower cost of living, protect the AAA credit rating and would aid budget repair.
Success of HSR in Australia depends on the right corridor as proposed in the VFT2 concept that would better suit customers. It must facilitate large scale regional population settlement where it is close enough, 2-300km, to major cities for commuters, where there is sufficient water for new cities of a million people and where there is direct access to major airports for large numbers of regional residents.