By Julian Bajkowski
Federal Labor might be a train wreck, but that hasn’t stopped Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Local Government and Regional Development Anthony Albanese from trying to keep industry and states and councils on track with bold plans to build a $144 billion high speed rail line between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
The grand, if slow moving, vision to finally build an East Coast passenger and freight rail corridor fast enough to compete with planes and trucks received another boost on Wednesday when Mr Albanese said that states and councils need to begin planning now to ensure that corridors were not “lost to other development.”
Mr Albanese told the Australasian Railway Association’s High Speed Rail Forum in Canberra on Wednesday that it was a now simple fact that “with or without high speed rail, moving people up and down our east coast is going to become ever more of a challenge.”
He said that by 2065 – a prospective date for a High Speed Rail line to be completed, travel on the east coast will have double to 388 million trips a year.
But the immediate concern is that for the fast rail project to ever happen, there must first be coordinated quarantining of land from residential and industrial development for the construction of the track, a critical planning issue for all tiers of government.
The rub is that to secure the land needed for the project, cash-strapped councils and revenue hungry state governments would have to forfeit potential short term revenue gains from land sales to prevent the kind of overbuilding that has stymied long-term projects like the proposed second airport for Sydney.
Any short term hit would be more than compensated for by making regional areas far more accessible for commuters away from major metropolitan areas, proponents argue, with travel between Sydney and Newcastle taking as little as 39 minutes.
An important element in the latest push to keep high-speed rail rolling was the release for public comment of the second and final phase (Phase 2) of an official study into how such a massive project would be implemented.
Mr Albanese said that for the first time, “all the issues are on the table” because of the study because there was a “solid basis for an informed public debate about how high speed rail could help meet our transport challenges.”
“The study identifies, in detail, a route between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, with spur lines to Canberra and the Gold Coast,” Mr Albanese said.
“It would be a dual, electrified track with trains running at up to 350 kilometres per hour. Intercity and regional services would run 18 hours a day with high-frequency peak services and at least hourly off-peak services,” he said.
The study suggests that 21 one stations would form the route from Brisbane’s Roma Street station run through Central station in Sydney and then on to Southern Cross station in Melbourne.
However the network would have to be built in stages to minimise up-front costs.
Mr Albanese repeated his observation that High Speed Rail was not a new technology, but a well-established one already running in Europe and China.
He emphasised that even the US was now moving on upgrading its rail to high speed.
“In 2009, President Obama got right behind the concept when he gave his nation a 25 year deadline to connect 80 per cent of Americans. To date, Congress has invested $10 billion in planning and development,” Mr Albanese said.
“Here at home, we have been bandying the concept around since 1981 when the Institute of Engineers proposed the Bicentennial High Speed Rail Project.
“It is not the stuff of The Jetsons, or flying cars that seem to fascinate some of the simpler-minded members of the media when we released the report.
Mr Albanese said that there was now a need to “move beyond the study.”
“I can’t say often enough that we must not let the decisions we make today undermine the potential of tomorrow. Planning is not a high-cost exercise — but lack of planning will cost us dearly,” he said.
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