Is the Very Fast Train back on the Federal agenda?



Few nation building projects can both inspire and frustrate the public and potential investors as much Australia’s half-century long flirtation with building a high-speed East Coast railroad – aka a Very Fast Train – that is still yet to lay a single sleeper.

But there are strong signs emerging that even right-leaning free market conservatives, who are normally sceptical about backing big government-driven infrastructure projects, could be about come on track and back the idea of a Very Fast Train (VFT) as a means to drive investment.

Credible reports in Fairfax Media have reveal former trade Minister – and soon to be businessman – Andrew Robb has started passionately championing the building of a Very Fast Train to Australia’s corporate and transport sectors as a vital piece of infrastructure.

According to the report, which is based on a recording of a speech by Mr Robb to a freight symposium just two days after he announced he was departing Cabinet, the combination of low interest rates across the globe and a strong international investment appetite for major projects in stable countries like Australia is now an opportunity to valuable to miss.

“We should do it now whilst the world is awash with cheap money – in six or seven years it may not be – but it is at the moment,” Mr Robb is reported to have told industry at the symposium.

The revelation of Mr Robb’s comments is fortuitous.

It comes just a day before Federal Parliament’s Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities takes evidence from the Central Japan Railway Company and Japanese diplomats on the operation of its network of high speed rail lines for the last 60 years.

The Standing Committee is running an inquiry into the role of transport connectivity on stimulating development and economic activity, a topic that is also close to the heart of the Coalition partner, the Nationals and will also hear from Torkel Patterson, the vice chairman of the International High Speed Rail Association.

The promotion of building a Very Fast Train from a member of the right faction of the Coalition Turnbull government is highly significant because it opens the possibility that high speed rail along the East Coast could finally garner bipartisan support.

The previous Abbott government largely directed government transport infrastructure focus towards motorway and toll road builds, such as Sydney’s controversial WestConnex, in an effort to relieve metropolitan congestion by completing ring roads and linking transport corridors so that trucks and cars had a faster path than existing suburban roads.

While those road projects remain, what has changed significantly following the 2015 leadership change within the Coalition is that both rail and public transport are again strongly in the mix for federal funding as the Turnbull government tries to work with state governments on urban challenges through the creation of the “Cities and Built Environment” ministry.

A notable element of Mr Robb’s latest backing of the Very Fast Train project is that private investors could be enticed to back the project by harnessing the so-called ‘Value Capture’ mechanism, where outlay is recouped by builders and the government taking a cut of the increase in property values and new building and economic development a fast transport corridor would bring.

In New South Wales, the Baird government is heavily backing the Value Capture model, which is commonly used in Asia, to financially underpin its new Sydney Metro rapid transit rail line that will use driverless trains run at high frequency so that passengers won’t need a timetable.

The Baird government is also piggy-backing a major renewal of presently run-down inner city public housing estates, revealing it will rebuild large sections of Waterloo into a mix of private and public that will be serviced by routing the Metro project literally underneath the redevelopment.

Property developers are predictably cheering on the Sydney Metro development because it opens the door to more densely populated developments that are far less reliant on cars and buses thanks to their immediate proximity to rapid mass transit.

The potential application of Value Capture to regional centres where a Very Fast Train would run through is also likely to be applauded by urban developers because it would likely produce higher yields on new dwellings than present regional and outer-suburban projects that usually sell at a discount to properties closer to cities.

According to the Australasian Rail Association “the rollout of High Speed Rail (HSR) along Australia’s East Coast are long term solutions that will take cars off our roads, reduce road congestion and accidents, decrease travel time for all involved, reduce Australia’s carbon footprint and above all, improve Australia’s productivity and competitiveness.”

The industry group is pushing for an East Coast Very Fast Train route of almost 1800 km that will run at 350km/h and has called on Federal and States governments to ensure a corridor is preserved to secure the run.

The ARA advocated HSR route would be divided into two stages.

Stage One would connect Sydney, Southern Highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, Albury Wodonga, Shepparton and Melbourne.

Stage Two would connect Sydney, Central Coast, Newcastle, Taree, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, Grafton, Casino, Gold Coast, Brisbane.

According to travel times estimated by the ARA, a HSR would easily be competitive with air travel, especially after travel to the airport and check in times are factored in.

Inter-city and regional travel times as estimated by the ARA are:

  • Brisbane – Gold Coast: 15 minutes
  • Canberra – Sydney: 1 hour
  • Sydney – Melbourne: 3 hours
  • Gold Coast – Sydney: 3 hours
  • Sydney – Newcastle: 40 minutes.

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