Passenger Rail

Australia’s faster rail future

Faster rail forms part of the federal government’s strategy to deal with population growth and congestion. The National Faster Rail Agency’s acting CEO Malcolm Southwell discusses his agency’s work at AusRAIL Plus 2019.

Australia’s major cities are a key driver of the nation’s economic success and support the majority of the population in employment and economic growth. They are also growing, exponentially.

“Our population is expected to reach 33 million people by 2040, and most of those 6.6 new Australians will settle in our major capital cities,” acting CEO of the National Faster Rail Agency (NFRA), Malcolm Southwell, said at the AusRAIL Plus 2019 event held in Sydney.

“Around 64 per cent of us live in cities and we’re one of the most urbanised nations in the world. As such, we have issues with congestion, housing supply and affordability.”

Congestion costs are also expected to rise. According to Infrastructure Australia’s estimates, road and public transport congestion in the major cities will cost almost $40 billion by 2031, more than doubling from around $19bn in 2016.

Over 80 per cent of the estimated $21bn increase will occur in Greater Sydney, Greater Melbourne and south east Queensland.

A faster rail solution will go some way to alleviating population pressure in the cities. In comparison to other countries around the world, Australia has a relatively large land mass but low population density. While Australia has 3.2 persons per square kilometre, the US has 36. The UK has 275 persons per square kilometre, and Japan has 347.

“We’re not just about building fast rail in the hopes that it works, we’re taking an evidence-based approach,” Southwell said.

“Professor Andrew McNaughton of the UK, who is working with the NSW government on their faster rail plans, has publicly noted that reducing transit times to one hour or less is a particular sweet spot for improved access to higher paying jobs in capital city CBDs and increased economic development in regional centres.”

The Faster Rail Plan, which the NFRA is tasked with delivering, intends to better align future population growth by linking major cities and growing regional cities in order to take pressure off the cities and strengthen economic ties with regional areas.

With the December 2019 appointment of Barry Broe as inaugural chief executive officer of the NFRA, the agency is expected to ramp up its operations this year.

Southwell was acting CEO from the agency’s creation in July 2019 until January 2020. He spoke at AusRAIL to update the rail industry on the NFRA’s work to date and what to expect in the future.

So far, eight faster rail corridors have been identified, including: Sydney to Newcastle, Sydney to Wollongong, Sydney to Parkes (via Bathurst and Orange), Melbourne to Greater Shepparton, Melbourne to Albury-Wodonga, Melbourne to Taralgon, Brisbane to the Gold Coast, and Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast.

The NFRA will work in partnership with state and territory governments and private industry to develop the rail infrastructure necessary to accommodate a faster rail solution between major cities and key regional centres. It will develop proposals, examine routes and begin the process of corridor planning, acquisition and protection.

“We’ve started a conversation with states on the east coast about interoperability and standards of faster rail projects to avoid a repeat of issues around passenger services between jurisdictions,” Southwell said.

An expert panel will provide advice to government on faster rail related matters including existing business cases, new potential faster rail corridors, future developments across networks and infrastructure requirements and priorities. The panel will advise on staging and delivery options.

The NSW government has appointed Professor Andrew McNaughton to lead the panel. He has more than 45 years’ experience working on rail infrastructure projects, including the UK’s High Speed project.

The first three of the overall eight faster rail business cases have now been completed, the agency confirmed in January. The business cases for Sydney to Newcastle, Melbourne to Greater Shepparton and Brisbane to the regions of Moreton Bay and the Sunshine Coast are now being reviewed by the agency. NFRA will provide advice to government on the findings and its recommendations for next steps in the coming months.

These corridors and the remaining five, which are “progressing well” according to the agency, were identified based on the intention to support growing population movements.

For example, the agency’s first priority, to deliver faster rail between Geelong and Melbourne, will have major benefits for those living along the corridor, including quicker access to work and services in both locations, as well as greater choice around housing and less congestion.

“Geelong is one of the fastest growing regions, growing at a rate of around 2.7 per annum,” Southwell said.

“Transport connectivity between Melbourne and Geelong is constrained by existing infrastructure and rail investment has not kept up with population growth. These constraints have a range of flow on effects, including hampering regional development and increasing road congestion.

The agency acknowledges, however, that better connectivity could, in some circumstances, result in regional towns becoming dormitory suburbs for larger cities.

“We’re very much aware of these concerns and as part of our work we’ll look for the opportunities where faster rail can actually work for the economy and job markets in these regional towns. We’re actively talking to regional centres about the challenges and opportunities faster rail will bring to their economy.”

Southwell is adamant that faster rail will resolve population pressures if regional centres are made attractive.

“For example, lowering operating costs for enterprises in regional towns will attract businesses to the area. Faster rail will provide these businesses will labour markets in the capital cities and provide opportunities for economic development in regional towns.

“That effect is evidenced here in Australia. In Geelong, rail was instrumental in maintaining the attractiveness of the city following the large and sudden downturn in the manufacturing sector. Research and modelling work have shown that the emergence of strong employment centres has been able to attract service jobs, and that was greatly facilitated by an increase in efficient rail services.”

Faster rail services are capable of reducing travel time in the corridor even further, from an hour to closer to half an hour, and thus enable more commuters to travel along the rail corridor.

Another challenge the agency will need to soon resolve is cost.

“Studies conducted between 2010 and 2013 on a high-speed rail between Melbourne and Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane found that it would have an estimated construction cost of around $114bn in 2012-dollar terms.

“Noting current construction market pressures and inflation impacts, this figure will increase significantly in today’s terms and could be as high as $150 to $200bn.

“Whatever the amount, this is a significant cost, and obviously needs to be considered against all the other projects making up a core share of taxpayer’s funds.”

The Australasian Rail Association says that it supports the utilisation of innovative financing and funding mechanisms such as “value capture” development opportunities along rail corridors to help fund faster rail infrastructure.

“It will be critical that the Agency, under Mr Broe’s leadership, recognises the need to invest in existing and new lines to stretch government dollars and provide a faster rail service offering that meets the needs of the Australian population,” ARA chair Danny Broad said.

“In addition to supporting the establishment of new fast rail lines as a means to decentralise Australia’s population and support regional development, the
ARA highlights that optimising our existing networks cannot be overlooked,” the ARA’s Annual Report 2019 said.

“Faster rail can be achieved through upgrades and modifications to existing rail infrastructure, such as passing loops, new signalling systems and level crossing removals.”

Meanwhile, the NSW government says it will examine a range of funding options and smart staging, as part of the Fast Rail Network Strategy, to ensure the fast rail network provides value for money.

Each funding option considered as part of the strategy will be assessed based on the estimated cost of the project in light of economic and other benefits to the community, and complementary revenue- generating opportunities.

The state government says that international experience shows that fast rail networks can be delivered in stages, with each stage delivering immediate benefits.

NSW’s short- to medium-term focus will be on upgrades and the optimisation of existing rail routes, with dedicated track improvements such as junction rearrangements, curve easing, deviations, passing loops and level crossing removals on existing routes.

Its longer-term focus will be on a dedicated and purpose-built rail line, with new lines and routes, as well as new rolling stock.

According to Southwell, the national agency is cognisant that its work will affect the future of how people live.

“This is no simple task and requires debate and dialogue from all sides of the equation. We’re still very new but through ongoing conversations with our key stakeholders, including those in regional communities, we acknowledge that consideration needs to extend well beyond just building a new rail line and a train station,” Southwell said.

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