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Opinion: Commitment needed on high-speed rail

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> Despite the release of the report of the Federal Government’s high-speed rail study in April, I was surprised to find that I had not commented in this column to date, so I thought given today’s gathering of eminent individuals in Canberra to discuss matters HSR, now was as good a time as any. </span> <p>By Mark Carter</p><p>Originally announced by Federal minister for infrastructure and transport Anthony Albanese in August 2010, the study was conducted in two phases. Phase 1 was published in August 2011 and identified a shortlist of corridors and preliminary cost and demand estimates. Phase 2 considered broader and deeper scope and objectives, determining an optimum route and refining many of the initial estimates.</p><p>The study estimates the cost of building a 1748km high-speed link between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne would be $114bn at today’s prices, with an expectation that government would be required to fund the majority of the upfront capital costs.&nbsp</p><p>It would require construction of a completely new railway with a maximum operating speed of 350 km/h and would provide passengers with a travel time of 64 minutes for the 280km journey between Canberra and Sydney, and 2hrs 44 mins for the 844km between Melbourne and Sydney. <br /><br />Much of the high cost is attributed to the 144kms of tunneling required, 67kms of which would be on the Sydney approaches, which accounts for 8% of the total route length and 29% of total construction costs.<br /><br />The timeframe for construction would see work on the first stage between Sydney and Canberra commence in 2027, with the first HSR train between the two cities running in by 2035. An extension to Melbourne would open in 2040, though a full east coast HSR route linking Brisbane and Melbourne, via Newcastle, Sydney and Canberra would not be operational until 2058.<br /><br />While Australia may have to wait some time before it enters the HSR club – at least 15 years according to the study -&nbsp Phase 2 at least provides a blueprint to allow the nation to plan its HSR future. <br /><br />The question though remains – is the nation ready to pick up the plan and run with it?<br /><br />HSR is the classic, ‘everyone wants to have it, no-one wants to pay for it’ scenario and unfortunately since everyone saw the price tag, things have gone rather quiet. <br /><br />Hopefully today’s gathering in Canberra can get HSR back on the agenda in the lead up to the September federal election, though I’m far from convinced it will.<br />While no funding commitment has yet been made, Albanese has indicated he will be initiating a comprehensive program of public consultation and further debate on the role HSR could play in Australia’s transport future.<br /><br />The Coalition has made some re-assuring noises, but to my mind has not appeared overly supportive of the concept.<br /><br />Given that the nation’s kitty is looking a bit empty at the moment and neither of the major parties seems to want to exacerbate our, in reality, modest debt position it’s hard to imagine them making lavish promises to proceed with the project. <br /><br />To be fair, this has not stopped other countries elsewhere embarking on ambitious HSR programmes despite their much more precarious economic situations – the UK and Spain spring immediately to mind.<br /><br />The $144bn price tag for an east coast HSR network is the killer and has made the project an easy target for the naysayers. Personally I would have left Newcastle to Brisbane out of the equation at the very least, shaving around $45m off of the cost.<br /><br />The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) which is hosting today’s HSR forum in Canberra has been a key supporter of the need for Australia to have its own HSR network and following the release of the Phase 2 study, ARA chairman Lindsay Tanner made some excellent points to put the hefty price tag into perspective. <br /><br />Tanner says that while the total cost would be very large, it would be spread over many years, with total annual capital expenditure ranging from $2bn to $8bn in the eight years prior to Sydney-Canberra opening, and between $2bn and $7bn per year until the full network is operational. <br /><br />“The project is really about a future Australia, with a substantially higher population, different economic fundamentals, and very different transport needs,” Tanner says.<br /><br />“By the time a HSR network is operational, Australia will have a substantially larger population, transport technologies will have changed, fuel costs for different transport modes will be different, and the patterns of economic and social activity across Australia will have changed.”<br /><br />Major infrastructure planning in Australia has always Iagged badly behind much of the rest of the world and unless a commitment to HSR is made in the lead up to September then it is easy to see history repeating itself.<br /><br />Now it’s not the time for faint hearts. No-one is calling for the entire investment required to be made in the next electoral term, but at the very least what we need to be seeing is an immediate commitment to a start on detailed planning and corridor protection, with initial construction to commence&nbsp within the time frame set out in the phase 2 study, though preferably much sooner.&nbsp <br />&nbsp</p>