Briefing | opinion

The NSW government just revived one of the great Australian political cliches -- high-speed rail -- months out from an election

Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty ImagesWhat about a very nice rail instead?
  • The NSW state government today pledged to build a fast rail network to “transform NSW unlike any other project” if it’s reelected.
  • Australian politicians have been dangling the lure of a fast trains to cut travelling times, especially between Sydney and Melbourne, for more than 40 years.
  • Premier Gladys Berejiklian says four routes spanning up to 300km north, west and south and southwest have already been identified.

High-speed rail is the Lasseter’s Reef* of Australian politics, somewhere off in the shimmering distance, with the promising allure of untold riches.

And today, with an election less than four months away on March 23, and the two-term NSW Coalition government lagging what should be an unelectable Labor opposition in polls, Premier Gladys Berejiklian decided to pick a political perennial of high-speed rail and offer it to voters saying it “will start work on a fast rail network in the next term of government, linking regional centres to each other and Sydney, significantly slashing travel times”.

Fans of the ABC TV political satire Utopia must have squealed with glee (here’s the promo for the 2014 episode on the idea).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the NSW government launching tenders for what became the XPT regional trains, one of the nation’s rare attempts to bring its dabbling in the idea to fruition.

Originally based on Britain’s high-speed rail, which travels at up to 200km/h, the NSW specs knocked 20% off that ambition to 160km/h. Most users will tell you the diesels rarely hit full throttle. The problem is the rail line is rubbish, basically, for high-speed trains. Four decades on, the Berijiklian government is currently working on replacing the XPT fleet.

As for other plans, the concept goes as far back as the ’70s. For diehard trainspotters, 1998’s “Australian Very Fast Trains – A Chronology” is a most excellent background paper by the federal Parliamentary Library.

Former Labor PM Bob Hawke even put a CSIRO plan linking Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney using a version of France’s TGV on the table in 1984. It had a $2.5 billion price tag – except economic modelling found the cost was underestimated by around 60%, so the minister responsible axed it.

Countless private consortia have put forward concepts since then, but they’ve been predicated on taxpayer largesse successive governments have been willing to hand over. Yet that hasn’t stopped every successive government since announcing a feasibility study into the concept.

A decade ago, Kevin Rudd’s government had a $25 billion, Sydney–Melbourne Very Fast Train (VFT) as its top infrastructure priority. The total cost of building it all the way to Brisbane was up to $108 billion. Nothing got built.

What excites politicians most is something called “value capture” – the idea that infrastructure such as a rail line will deliver big increases in property prices along the rail corridor, and thus increased treasury revenue from more land tax.

The 2017 federal budget by now PM Scott Morrison tossed another $20 million in matched funding into building business cases for high-speed rail links between the state capitals.

And former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was reportedly preparing a $1.5 billion splurge on pre-construction for a high-speed rail link connecting Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne as an election sweetener before he was deposed.

A few private consortia have also been sniffing around the NSW government in recent years. A decade ago, Transrapid, the magnetic levitation (maglev) developed by Germany company ThyssenKrupp, was floating the idea of a $4 billion Sydney-Wollongong line.

The Spanish group Thalgo reckons it can get a 200km/h train on the line to Canberra for very little additional investment in and improvements to existing infrastructure and was offering free trails last year.

It’s nearly 20 years since the first and only time a train cracked the 200km/h barrier in Australia – a Queensland Rail electric tilt train during a trial in May 1999.

Which brings us to today’s announcement by Gladys Berejiklian.

The Premier said four potential routes have already been identified and an expert’s been brought in to sort out the most appropriate routes, speeds and station locations.

“We know a fast rail network will transform NSW unlike any other project and we will make it a reality,” Berejiklian said.

“We need to make it easier for people to consider moving to regional NSW and there is no better way to do that than building a fast rail network.”

The four routes on the government’s hit list are within 300km of Sydney:

SuppliedThe proposed 4 high-speed rail lines.
  • Northern, including the Central Coast, Newcastle and up to Port Macquarie.
  • Southern inland, to Goulburn and Canberra.
  • West to Lithgow, Bathurst and Orange/Parkes.
  • South along the coast to Wollongong and Nowra.

Deputy Premier John Barilaro flagged $4.6 million allocated from the Snowy Hydro Fund (the federal government paid $4.154 billion for the state’s stake earlier this year) as proof of his government’s bona fides to get the job done.

NSW Transport and Infrastructure minister Andrew Constance says the short-term vision is upgrades along existing rail alignments, so rail services can travel at at least 200km/h to cut travel times by a third. Work on the upgrades is expected to start in 2023 – about the time of the following election.

“Ultimately, in the long term, high speed rail would see the development of new alignments and lines, providing speeds of over 250km/h, with examples overseas travelling up to 350km/h and higher – giving the potential to cut travel times by up to 75%,” Constance said today.

That means getting the Sydney to Canberra trip, currently a tedious 4:07 hours, down to three hours — roughly the same time it takes to drive there. His dream is just 60 minutes in a 250km/h-plus bullet train like Japan’s famed Shinkansen (which has a top speed of 320km/h).

That’s a lot of football stadiums

Incidentally, Japan is currently building a maglev line for trains to do the 300km run between Tokyo and the industrial center of Nagoya at up to 480km/h – cutting the current travel time from 100 minutes to just 40. It’s due to open in 2027.

The cost? $US50 billion ($AU68bn), roughly 93 Sydney Football Stadium rebuilds.

And while that seems like a lot of money, it’s worth remembering that the NSW and federal governments signed a deal earlier this year, reportedly worth $7 billion, to build a north-south rail link connecting the new Badgerys Creek airport in western Sydney to the city’s rail network at St Marys, connecting with the existing T1 Western Line. Both sides pledged $50 million each to produce a business case.

A rail link for the project has been on the drawing board for nearly 25 years.

The total cost to connect via heavy rail with Campbelltown and Leppington to the south as well – we’re not talking high speed – as part of the airport project, is expected to be between $15 billion and $30 billion. But with the airport due to open in 2026, many transports experts don’t believe a train connection will be ready in time and the federal minister responsible, Paul Fletcher, has questioned its economic viability during the airport’s early years.

A trip from Badgery’s Creek to Sydney’s CBD is still expected to take just under an hour at a minimum.

And that’s the problem with Berejiklian’s announcement today.

She denied it was a stunt when the obvious question was put to her, but this is a government with so many balls already in the air, bringing the raft of infrastructure proposals it already has to fruition is ambitious enough.

Today’s announcement was a government suggesting a quarter-trillion-dollar project for a state that was producing an annual budget surplus of $4 billion back when property prices were soaring rather than sinking.

The NSW Coalition government under Baird and Berejiklian deserves enormous credit for investing in the $20 billion-plus Sydney Metro rail project – including the $8.3 billion Sydney Metro Northwest line – after years of inaction by Labor while in power, but as anyone who lives or works in Sydney’s CBD knows, they also gave us the 12km South East Light Rail project, which now due for completion in 2020 – five years after work began with a promise that Sydneysiders would get George Street back in April 2018. The final bill is expected to be nearly double the original $1.6 billion price tag.

The area around Wynyard Station could currently be sold as a tourist attraction recreating the devastation of the London Blitz.

A large chunk of Martin Place is currently lost to work on the Sydney Metro station and redevelopment of the surrounding building sites.

So perhaps in that context, the promise of a high-speed train makes sense. The faster voters can get away from all this chaos, the better.

* Lasseter’s Reef is massive gold deposit supposedly found by Harold Bell Lasseter in central Australia in 1929. Despite nine decades of searching, it has never been located.

PS. If you’re wondering how today’s announcement came together, it may have looked something like this:

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