The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the need for fast rail connections between capital cities and the regions writes Caroline Wilkie, chief executive officer, Australasian Railway Association.
When funding for stage one of the Geelong Fast Rail project was confirmed last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it would allow people to spend less time commuting and more time with loved ones. While that in itself presents strong appeal for the project’s progress, the ARA’s recently released Faster Rail Report confirms the benefits of faster rail are a great deal more far reaching.
As one of the few forms of transport infrastructure to bring significant economic development and urban renewal opportunities with it, rail is uniquely positioned to support the growth of Australia’s biggest cities and the regional centres that surround them. And the impact of COVID-19 to our working lives hastens the need to invest in faster regional rail networks.
Consumer research commissioned by the ARA found about three quarters of people surveyed expect their work patterns will remain permanently changed – either wholly or in part – by the pandemic.
A third of city residents said they would be more likely to consider moving to a regional area as a result of COVID-19. But travel times and distance remain a key barrier for many, as roads become more congested with rising populations.
Our research confirmed faster rail connections would make city residents more likely to consider a move to the regions. Regional residents supported faster rail too, telling us they would be more likely to leave the car at home and catch the train if better connections were available.
The reality is that those connections are badly needed.
Chronic underinvestment in rail when compared with roads means our network is now much slower than many of our international counterparts. As rail travel times have fallen behind the time it takes to drive, more of us are choosing to jump in the car rather than catch the train.
That is why the ARA has called for the creation of a national rail action plan to map the future of faster rail across the country.
Importantly, that plan must be more than just about speed.
The Faster Rail Report recommended immediate investment in existing networks to improve the speed, reliability and frequency of services to give passengers more choice and convenience.
It is a proven model, with the Regional Rail Link project in Victoria delivering tangible improvements across the network and leading to an 80 per cent bump in passenger numbers over 10 years.
Victoria’s investment also supported a stronger commuter network, with the state recording higher proportions of commuters on their regional rail services when compared with New South Wales or Queensland.
For every state, improving their existing regional rail network is an important first step towards faster rail.
While that approach will have a significant impact on the network, fast rail lines will need to be developed over the next 10 years.
Victoria is once again ahead of the curve with the Geelong Fast Rail project set to start construction in 2023. The project will shave 15 minutes off current travel times between Melbourne and Geelong, making catching the train a genuine alternative to driving.
Geelong residents taking part in our survey see the benefits, with the vast majority acknowledging fast rail would make the region more appealing to move to.
Faster rail in NSW would make rail travel times from Newcastle or Wollongong to Sydney comparable with driving. With highways in and out of Sydney already reaching capacity, and the city expected to house an additional 3.7 million people in the next 40 years, getting more people off the roads will be vital if it is to remain the vibrant city it is today.
In Queensland, faster rail connections are a core component of the ambition to make South East Queensland a 45-minute region. Residents we surveyed on the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast recognised that faster rail would boost the appeal of their regions – and with an Olympic bid in the works, better connections across the region would be extremely valuable.
While the benefits of faster rail are clear, a coordinated, national plan will be needed to maximise the benefits of these defining projects. The overseas experience shows us that considered planning brings new housing, business and other opportunities to regions that put their fast rail connections to good use.
Just look at Lille in France as an example. After planning for new development to support the arrival of a Eurostar station many years ago, the region has successfully created a thriving business hub and community.
It is now the third largest business centre in the country and houses the second largest number of university students – and rail is at the hub of that bustling community.
It is a good illustration of the benefits that could be realised in regional centres across the country right here in Australia.
But the work needs to start now to make it happen.