Recent coverage of the Federal Government’s high speed rail study largely overlooked some crucial realities.
While the total cost would be very large, it would be spread over many years, with total annual project capital expenditure ranging from $2 to $8 billion in the eight years prior to Sydney-Canberra opening, and then $2 billion to $7 billion per year until the full network is operational.
This spread would ensure that other important projects, like the Melbourne metro rail tunnel and Bruce Highway upgrade, would still go ahead.
The project is really about a future Australia, with a substantially higher population, different economic fundamentals and very different transport needs.
The recently-released study demonstrates that Australia has sufficient population for high speed rail.
Our population is growing faster than most developed and many developing countries.
With population growth comes more domestic travel.
In 2009, about 152 million trips were made along Australia’s east coast.
By 2065 — without high speed rail — travel on the east coast is forecast to reach 355 million trips.
Our cities, highways and airports are congested now.
While we cannot know precisely what the future will look like, it is clear that the passenger transport task is going to keep growing strongly, and that without new means of fulfilling that task, our system will become gridlocked.
A $37.4 billion investment is being made into the National Broadband Network.
For $23 billion, high speed rail would link Sydney and Canberra with a travel time of 64 minutes.
Another $26.9 billion would extent the line to Melbourne, linking our two largest cities and four key regional centres, with a Melbourne-Sydney travel time of 2.44 hours.
This is not just a rail issue.
The way we approach the high speed rail question now will have a major impact on how Australians live in the future.
It is central to the future functionality of our major cities and the economic viability of many regions.
Every major infrastructure network investment in our history — electricity grid, road network, interstate rail network, telecommunications system, gas network, and now NBN — has involved substantial up-front investment and long-term uncertainties.
By the time a high speed rail 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.
High speed rail is already an established part of the landscape throughout most of the developed world.
The recent study challenges us to think longer term for Australia’s future, and make the serious investment decisions that will help to shape the economy and society of tomorrow.