A very fast train for whom, to do what, and to go where?

Bert Kelly, about whom I wrote some months ago, was a funny man, and he had a little phrase that always amused me: ‘There must be an election soon — I feel a dam coming on!’ He was talking about the 1950s and 1960s, when the Ord Dam and other water works were much in the public eye. Today’s equivalent is the railway line, either one to go from this point of Sydney to that point, or to go from Sydney to Canberra, or from Brisbane to Melbourne. And, like Bert, I feel that there must be an election soon, because that is when these great word pictures are produced.

The Very Fast Train project has been about for a long time, and anyone my age responds to it because in our youth the railway was the way to go. Flying was a rare privilege, paid for by someone else. The roads weren’t good, and not everyone had a car. But the railways were there, and trains were relatively cheap. When I was a student I spent many less than comfortable nights on trains like the Glen Innes Mail, eating a pie at midnight at Werris Creek railway station, and trying to stay warm.

Those in favour of the Very Fast Train (VFT) project point to all sorts of good outcomes that would come from its completion: no need to build a second Sydney airport, reduced congestion in and around airports, much better infrastructure at least in eastern Australia, and even reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Those against it include environmentalists worried about endangered species, pristine valleys, noise, and so on — though the present proposal does have the support of the Greens. It is the cost that is the killer. Getting into and out of Sydney will need stupendous tunnels, and the same will be true of getting out of Canberra to the south. The faster the train, the gentler the curve and the flatter the permanent way. With respect to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane there are  no parcels of land left that could be used by the system, which would need its own line.

Minister Albanese was both enthusiastic and downbeat about the most recent proposal, which is out for discussion until June 30th. Sooner or later we will do it, he said. It’s worth doing, but it will be costly. The history of it is a good story in itself.

The first real VFT proposal came almost thirty years ago, from CSIRO, and its then Chairman, Dr Paul Wild. He later formed a VFT Joint Venture with Sir Peter Abeles of TNT and others, which got some interest from the Federal and State Governments, needed major tax breaks to make it economic, fought off the environmentalists, and was finally dropped by the Hawke Government in 1991 on the grounds that it was simply not economic.

The next train off the platform was Speed Rail, set up in 1993, which went through much the same processes before being vetoed by the Howard Government in 2000 on the grounds that it was simply too expensive. But that Government agreed to support the East Coast Very High Speed Train Scooping Study Stage 1, which was terminated in 2002.Why? Too expensive.

In 2008 the Rudd Government called the VFT its highest priority infrastructure project. Both Ted Baillieu, former Premier of Victoria, and Barry O’Farrell, still Premier of New South Wales, talked about the VFT in their election speeches before taking office. The Federal Government set up yet another study, which had two stages. The first was presented in 2011, and the second was released to us last week, though there are unworthy people who suggest that the Minister has had it on his tables for months. The current proposal is said to cost $114 billion, and would not be fully operational until 2065. At current rates of progress that might see it up and running before the NBN.

The VFT project is full of uncertainty and assumptions. One of the latter is that in 2051 something like 11 million journeys would be made between Sydney and Canberra. Trains would leave each city every 45 minutes, and arrive at the other end in 57 minutes. Sounds great. But that means 30,000 journeys a day between the two capitals. Who would these people be? What would they be doing? Another assumption is that virtually no one would be travelling by air. But unless there’s to be a station under the airport that does seem unlikely.

And yet I still like the project. It satisfies my test of a genuinely big infrastructure project, because in financial terms it is comparable to the Snowy Scheme when proposed in 1947. I have travelled on very fast trains in Japan and Europe, and like them. Tunnelling machines are getting bigger and better, so the kind of permanent way that will be needed is do-able. One long section of the bullet-train line in Japan runs longitudinally through the central mountain range, in order to preserve rice fields. The proliferation of cars in Australia is killing the cities, even if it is not yet  making the Hume Highway an impossibility. So, to return to the beginning, I think the railway is the way to go, once again.

But if I was Premier O’Farrell, I would be putting all my railway energies into quickly building an underground system for Sydney, and letting the Feds worry about the VFT.


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