Big price tag may keep revived high-speed rail proposal on hold

By Greg Ansley

Advocates of a high-speed rail network say the cost will be spread over decades construction beginning in 2022 and the final stages not completed until 2050. Photo / Thinkstock
Advocates of a high-speed rail network say the cost will be spread over decades construction beginning in 2022 and the final stages not completed until 2050. Photo / Thinkstock

Almost 30 years since the first proposal was put to Bob Hawke's Labor Government, a 350km/h train running from Brisbane to Melbourne is back on Australia's agenda.

The federal Government is establishing a ministerial committee "to advance this issue further", after the release of a final version of a A$20 million ($24 million) study.

But while the report concludes the high-speed network would be viable and eventually provide a net economic benefit of A$2.30 for every dollar invested, it would come with a massive price tag.

The A$114 billion figure is already daunting the Opposition and even Prime Minister Julia Gillard concedes it is probably more than the nation can afford at present. "I think it's some time away that you would see population density at a point that would make it viable," she said.

Shadow Transport Minister Warren Truss says the cost-benefit analysis needs to be examined: "It's certainly a great dream ...

but the cost ... is obviously a huge barrier."

While the Greens support the proposal and want an environmental impact assessment treated as a matter of urgency, previous proposals have foundered on both cost and conservationists' opposition. Qantas is also opposing the plan, which the report estimates would divert 40 per cent of inter-city air travellers and 60 per cent of regional passenger numbers to rail. Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says the answer to the nation's pressing transport needs instead lies with a second Sydney airport, another proposal that still remains bogged in controversy after decades of debate.

But advocates of a high-speed rail network say the cost will be spread over decades, with a 15-year planning and approval process, construction beginning in 2022 and the final stages not completed until 2050.

It would require about 1750km of track and 144km of tunnelling, including a 67km tunnel around Sydney. The track would be built in two stages, the first from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra, and the second from Sydney to Brisbane. Inter-city travel between Sydney and each of the two other capitals would be less than three hours.

When completed, the track would follow the coast from Brisbane to Sydney, moving inland for the link to Canberra and Melbourne. Advocates claim the network would also allow commuting to city centres from distant regional centres, changing the way Australians think about living and potentially relieving heavy growth burdens on state capitals.

The report estimates by the time it is completed the network will be carrying 84 million passengers a year.

High-speed rail

Estimated cost A$114 billion.

Dedicated 1750km route: Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne.

Stations also at Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, Wagga Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.

Express journey times of less than three hours between Melbourne-Sydney and Sydney-Brisbane.

Once fully operational from 2065, 84 million passengers annually.

Optimal staging: Sydney-Melbourne line first, starting in 2027 with Sydney-Canberra sector; then Canberra-Melbourne, Newcastle-Sydney, Brisbane-Gold Coast and Gold Coast-Newcastle.

- AAP

- NZ Herald

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