High Speed Rail for Australia - a fast track to the future or just the same old pipe dream?

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Computer generated red modern high speed train passing snowy mountain railroad station

High Speed Rail for Australia - a fast track to the future or just the same old pipe dream?

Posted 28/01/2014 by Moira Coombs

High Speed Rail (HSR) has been talked about for many years in Australia but has never progressed beyond the study and report stage. However, on 9 December 2013, the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, introduced a private member’s bill — the High Speed Rail Planning Authority Bill 2013. The Bill proposes setting up a High Speed Rail Planning Authority which, as the second reading speech notes, is designed to provide critical ‘long-term Commonwealth leadership to progress the project’ and to ‘maintain the momentum generated by the recent strategic studies’. The other objective of the Bill is to secure the rail corridor, which will run through a variety of landscapes including city, suburban and rural, in order to prevent future encroachment on these areas.

The proposed Authority will consist of eleven members. Five members will be appointed by the Minister; one member each from New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland nominated by their respective governors; one member from the ACT, nominated by the Chief Minister; one member nominated by the Australian Local Government Association; and one member nominated by the Australasian Railway Association.

The Authority’s major functions will involve land use planning for the HSR corridor and directing the HSR’s development and construction. The Authority will also consider specific measures related to environmental impacts; ensure that the HSR system provides a safe, regular, efficient and cost-effective rail transport system; and consult with interested bodies and the public on matters related to the HSR system generally.

High Speed Rail Study Phases 1 and 2

In October 2010 the Gillard Government released the terms of reference for a strategic study to be conducted on the implementation of high speed rail on the east coast of Australia. The study had two phases. The Phase 1 report was released on 4 August 2011 and focussed on identifying corridors, station locations and potential patronage. It also provided an indicative estimate of the cost to build a HSR network. Phase 2 of the study commenced late in 2011 and the High Speed Rail Study Phase 2 report was released on 11 April 2013. It refined many of the Phase 1 estimates, particularly the demand and cost estimates.

The Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Warren Truss stated in November 2013, in a speech in given to the AusRAIL 2013 Conference: Driving the Costs out of Rail, that the Government:

is considering what role high speed rail could play as part of Australia’s long term transport planning, which we will do as part of a broader approach that looks at the preferred options across all transport modes and in consultation with eastern state governments…This is not just innocent drawing lines on a map. It will be a major multi-billion dollar commitment. You cannot designate a corridor through our cities, suburbs, towns and rural landscapes without being willing to purchase the affected lands and that will be expensive and without an immediate return.

The Government will consult with the affected states and the Australian Capital Territory ‘to ascertain their support for the proposal and their willingness to begin the next step —reserving the corridor for a future high speed rail line’.

The system proposed in the High Speed Rail Study Phase 2 report would comprise approximately 1,748 kilometres of dedicated route with four city centre stations (including Canberra), four city-peripheral stations (one in Brisbane, two in Sydney and one in Melbourne) and 12 regional stations. The estimated cost is $114 billion in 2012 terms. The proposed route includes 144 kilometres of tunnels. The Phase 2 report proposes that the Sydney-Canberra link would commence construction in 2027. Estimates of travel time between city centres are:

  • Sydney—Canberra: 64 minutes
  • Sydney—Melbourne: 2 hours 44 minutes
  • Newcastle—Sydney: 39 minutes
  • Sydney—Brisbane: 2 hours 37 minutes

After the release of the Phase 2 report, a High Speed Rail Advisory Group was established to advise the Government on key industry and community issues arising from the report. (The Group was abolishedin November 2013.) The Group’s August 2013 Report found that HSR had the potential to be an integral part of Australia’s future. The Group’s consultations revealed that generally people were supportive, with most wanting HSR delivered cheaper and much sooner than proposed. The Group further noted:

The evidence is clear. It would build capacity and resilience into the major east coast transport networks, alleviate pressure on the busiest intercity air services, and thereby allow growth of international and new domestic aviation operations, and help diversify infrastructure investment into more energy efficient technology. More fundamentally, high speed rail would contribute to national productivity and open up greater opportunities for regional development, help shape transport planning for cities, and improve service provision, connectivity and accessibility.

A recent study, co-authored by the clean energy group Beyond Zero Emissions, considers that the cost of HSR will be less than indicated in the Phase 2 report. Another recent report, High Speed Rail: Benefits that add up, commissioned by the Australian Greens, focuses on, and attempts to quantify, the benefits of HSR.

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