Rudd steers High Speed Rail pledge at Coalition

By Paul Hemsley

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made an ambitious bid to get Labor’s trailing electoral fortunes back on track on the East Coast by pitching the big-picture infrastructure vision of High Speed Rail against Tony Abbott’s smaller target Paid Parental Leave scheme as a better use of taxpayers money.

Mr Rudd yesterday committed Labor to finally building a fast train network by promising to create a new High Speed Rail Authority that would oversee the creation and acquisition of a 1,748km corridor along Australia’s eastern states.

The securing of a viable land corridor is the first essential step in the building of any High Speed Rail Scheme because it legally quarantines the property over which the lines will run.

Regional local governments of all political creeds are avid supporters of High Speed Rail because it offers them the golden opportunity to attract new residents able to take a fast commute and arrest the population drift towards the city that has crippled the economies of many towns.

A key part of Labor’s pitch is that the big ticket price tag of $114 billion will over time be less than what would be spent on the Paid Parental Leave scheme being spruiked by the Coalition.

The pledge to move ahead with a vast piece of infrastructure is also being pushed as a significant and necessary transport alternative to air and road for interstate travellers as Australia’s population grows over the next 50 years.

Mr Rudd’s announcement was preceded by a study from the federal government in August 2010. Phase 2 of that study was released April 2013and estimated the total cost of the project to be around $114 billion (unadjusted).

A clear advantage of the big picture rail vision is that it carries the potential to wedge regional voters who traditionally lean towards The Nationals against their more metropolitan based Liberal Coalition partners, a tactic that has successfully created friction before over federal issues like telecommunications.

While there is so far no equivalent policy on High Speed Rail from the Coalition, Opposition spokesman for Infrastructure and Transport and key lower house National Warren Truss bluntly warned in August 2011 of Labor’s “notorious failure to deliver anything on time or on budget.”

Those warnings have not deterred Mr Rudd and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese spruiking new a report from the High Speed Rail Advisory Group called On Track: Implementing High Speed Rail in Australia to promote their government’s agenda and commitment to fast trains by adopting all of its recommendations.

The report’s recommendations include settling arrangements with state and territory governments, protecting the corridor, referring High Speed Rail to Infrastructure Australia for initial assessment and establishing a High Speed Rail Authority.

The government will allocate an initial $52 million to the High Speed Rail Authority to finalise track alignment and station locations by consulting the Victorian, New South Wales, Queensland and Australian Capital Territory governments, work with Infrastructure Australia to develop a detailed business case, and conduct market testing to refine capital cost estimates, construction time tables and identify business opportunities with the private sector.

It will take a long time to develop and implement as main construction will begin in 2022 and will be built in stages.

The first section will link Sydney to Melbourne via the Southern Highlands, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Wodonga and Shepparton and will be completed by 2035.

The next stage will connect Sydney to Brisbane via the Central Coast and Newcastle, but those hoping for a complete High Speed Rail system to be in working order within their lifetime might be in for a lengthy disappointment.

The On Track report echoes the phase 2 report estimates that the final component of the network from Newcastle to the Gold Coast will commence construction in 2046 to be completed by 2058.

One of the key authors of the On Track report on the High Speed Rail Advisory Group, Australian Railway Association (ARA) chief executive officer Brian Nye, said that that the pressure on existing transport systems will continue to expand as cities continue to expand.

Mr Nye’s warning is especially relevant to travellers between Sydney and Melbourne because these cities contain one third of the Australia’s city-based population.

“As a result we have one of the busiest air corridors in the world, with Melbourne to Sydney ranked as third busiest air corridor globally in March this year,” Mr Nye said.

He said that increasing travel demand along the east coast is estimated to reach 355 million trips by 2065 with an increasing economic cost of congestion at over $20 billion by the end of the decade.

“Our cities cannot take this pressure, our airways and our roads cannot take this pressure, our economic productivity cannot take this pressure and most importantly nor can the Australian people,” said Mr Nye.

But Mr Nye promoted High Speed Rail as a solution that will ease congestion and travel times and encourage growth and economic development in Australia’s regional centres, “allowing people to live in the country and work in the city”.

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