Developing an east coast high speed rail won’t be quick, cheap or easy, the head of the agency responsible for its development has told a rail industry conference.
High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) acting CEO Andrew Hyles acknowledged during a keynote address to the Australasian Railway Association’s AusRAIL PLUS 2023 that there’s scepticism around the project, but said the benefits outweighed any costs.
It comes after revelations in October that there’s been no detailed planning for the project yet, and Mr Hyles’ admission earlier this week that the cost of the project is likely to exceed current estimates of $114 billion.
“I acknowledge that there is scepticism about building high speed rail in Australia and it will not be quick or easy,” Mr Hyles told conference delegates in Sydney on Thursday.
“Constructing high speed rail has a high cost no matter where it’s built around the world, and Australia will be no different.”
He said a “range of key issues” still had to be resolved to make HSR a reality, and it was essential to get the planning right to protect against potential future unexpected cost increases and time delays.
We are alive to the fact that building high speed rail in Australia faces challenges.HSRA CEO Andrew Hyles
“While the opportunities of high speed are evident, we are alive to the fact that building high speed rail in Australia faces challenges. These include funding, land acquisition, managing sensitive environment and heritage issues and the time needed to plan and complete the build,” he said.
“Many issues still need to be tested and resolved, and we need to develop and set in stone the technical and operation standards that will define what sort of high speed system is built.”
He also said a lot had changed since the government released its 2013 High Speed Rail report and a number of assumptions contained in it were no longer current, including the likelihood of a high speed rail terminal at Roma Street in Brisbane.
HSRA planning its plan
Mr Hyles said the HSRA is currently planning its Pathway to Delivery report on the rail line, and a detailed business case for the Sydney to Newcastle section.
The Pathway to Delivery report, due to be completed in 2025, will include information about station locations, patronage forecasts, financial estimates and timeframes for delivery. Work on the report will begin next year.
The Sydney to Newcastle business case is scheduled to be finished in 2026.
Mr Hyles said building high speed rail would bring many benefits including a fast, efficient, low-emissions mass transit option and economic opportunities for regional areas.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.
“Australia is growing by the size of Canberra every 18 months and we’ll need our regional transport infrastructure to match that growth.”
Winning hearts and minds
Meanwhile, in a keynote titled Now is the time for Australia to make High Speed Rail a Reality, Chairman of the International High Speed Rail Authority Masafumi Shukuri said an HSR between Melbourne and Sydney would reduce congestion, cut travel time and emissions and improve quality of life.
“One of the vital aspects of planning HSR is to look at what sort of new cities should be developed around the stations,” Mr Shukuri said through a translator.
“In that context having an encompassing economic plan around new development is very important.”
He also said governments needed to clearly demonstrate the benefits of HSR to get the community on board.
“The benefits of HSR are not always clear to the public,” he said. “To win hearts and minds it is necessary to show benefits to the people.”
The HSRA formally began operations on June 13 tasked with advising on, planning, developing and overseeing the construction of a high-speed east coast rail network that will allow passengers to travel between major cities and regional cities faster than 250 km/h.
The agency has received $500 million from the federal government to plan and do corridor works for the Sydney to Newcastle section of the network.
At a budget estimates hearing on October 23 Mr Hyles admitted that the HSRA hadn’t yet “kicked off detailed planning”.
“Obviously we have an extensive project of planning that we have to undertake to look at the east coast high-speed rail network, he told the hearing. “That planning will kick off later this year or at the start of next year.”
Earlier this week Mr Hyles told an AFR Infrastructure Summit that the cost of the rail line would “realistically be higher” than the $114 billion estimated in 2013.
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