On the wrong track

When this commentator criticised Kevin Rudd's $42 billion stimulus package in Business Spectator (Lifeboat to nowhere, February 3) one reader, Andrew Ramsay, asked in The Conversation for an opinion on what the government should have done and why it would work better (you can see his posting in the Second Stimulus Package thread, February 3).

So how about an alternative that will create jobs, save lives, significantly cut greenhouse gases, lower the cost of doing business and lift productivity? One suggestion that appears to do all these things is a substantial government investment in rail infrastructure on the eastern seaboard.

A $40 billion to $50 billion investment in rail infrastructure on the east coast would deserve to be called nation building. It could draw on the country's internationally recognised engineering skills. It would provide a boost to the steel and construction industries. And it would transform the economics of the region where 75 per cent of the population live and work.

Construction of the rolling stock could be a partnership between manufacturers in Australia and Japan. It would be a way of building closer economic relations with one of our largest trading partners. Japan has been building and running fast trains for almost 50 years so there would be considerable opportunity for technology transfer to companies such as Downer EDI and United Group.

Investment in rail infrastructure requires visionary thinking, the leadership skills to co-ordinate many federal and state government agencies, the negotiating power to get state politicians on board and the determination to overcome entrenched vested interests in the trucking and aviation industries.

Truckers would be threatened by the prospect of losing their 93 per cent market share of freight carried in thousands of trucks moving between Sydney and Melbourne.

Qantas would fight tooth and nail to stop the construction of a high speed rail line between Sydney and Melbourne because it would threaten lucrative revenues on one of the busiest air routes in the world.

But businessmen, tourists and domestic travellers would jump at the opportunity to avoid the crowded and time wasting airports and catch a train that could travel at 320 km/h.

Those who have travelled on Japan's Shinkansen or France's TGV know how much more relaxing modern train travel is compared to flying. A high speed train offers the opportunity to sit at a desk using a laptop.

Ideally, Rudd would push through the construction of a high speed rail link to carry passengers and freight up and down the east coast. It could be built in stages with the Melbourne to Sydney via Canberra first, and then Sydney to Brisbane.

High speed rail technology is tried and tested. Many developed countries and China have high speed rail services. Japan launched its first Shinkansen in 1964 while France launched the first TGV rail service in 1981.

A high speed passenger rail service linking Sydney and Melbourne via Canberra would be able to compete with aircraft services in terms of cost and, at peak hour, would take about the same time when measured from the centre of one city to another.

A high speed freight service would shift millions of tonnes of freight from the roads to rail. Freight could be moved more efficiently and there would be a dramatic cut in the consumption of diesel fuel.

When asked on radio yesterday about a high speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney, Rudd said the government was methodically going through a range of infrastructure proposals.

Rod Eddington's Infrastructure Australia, which is in the process of assessing the country's infrastructure priorities, said in December that high speed rail is on its list of possible projects based on the suggestion of the ACT business council.

Plenty of work has already been done on feasibility studies and practical plans for constructing high speed rail links in Australia.

The first Australian high speed rail proposal was from Sydney to Canberra and Melbourne to Canberra. It was put forward in 1981 by the Institution of Engineers, according to research by the Parliamentary Library in Canberra.

Next was a proposed high speed link between Melbourne and Sydney via Canberra put forward in 1984 by the chairman of the CSIRO, Paul Wild. It was found to be uneconomic.

A private sector proposal to link Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney put forward by BHP, Elders IXL, Kumagi Gumi and TNT in 1986 was called the Very Fast Train project or VFT. It was abandoned in 1991 after failing to secure tax concessions.

Another proposal called Speedrail emerged in the late 1990s. It initially won the support of Prime Minister John Howard. He talked it up in August 1998 but it was abandoned about 18 months later.

Colin Butcher, who has 45 years of experience with railway vehicle design and gave support to the originators of the VFT proposal and then spent a couple of years as a consultant to the VFT consortium, says it would take two years to complete the preliminary work before a twenty-first century fast train project could begin.

He estimates it would take five years to build the link between Sydney and Melbourne via Canberra. Sydney to Brisbane could be built as the second stage.

Butcher says a passenger-only service might be profitable but could not match the returns from a twenty-first century railway able to cater for both high speed passenger services and high speed freight.

Associate professor Philip Laird from the University of Wollongong, a rail expert who has written widely on the subject, agrees that a high speed passenger-only service would not be economically viable.

Instead, he advocates making high speed freight the priority and then running passenger tilt trains on the same lines. This involves strengthening and straightening existing tracks. Although tilt trains travel at less than half the speed of a Shinkansen or TGV, they have improved the quality of transport services in rural Queensland.

Laird says the federal government should learn from the experience of Queensland Rail, which strengthened and straightened 650 kilometres of line between Brisbane and Rockhampton to handle faster freight trains and passenger tilt trains.

Laird says governments get much more bang for their buck from rail investment compared to road building. He says Queensland Rail was spending about $1.5 million per kilometre, compared to $25 million/km for recent large road projects such as the Albury bypass.

Laird has a list of top 10 rail infrastructure projects, starting with the $1.5 billion replacement of 200 km of steam age tracks between Sydney and Melbourne. His total top 10 rail projects would only cost $15 billion, a little more than the latest cash handouts.

Laird's proposals for upgrading the rail system are not as ambitious as the very fast train proposal advocated by Colin Butcher. Rudd could combine the two and simultaneously upgrade rail services in rural areas.

It is fortunate that the board of Infrastructure Australia includes Professor Peter Newman, founder of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute.

Newman has long argued that Australia should invest in its ancient rail infrastructure and bring it into the twenty-first century. He has written many books on the importance of public transport in ensuring we have livable, sustainable and resilient cities.

But at the current rate of spending on cash handouts – $22 billion since November – the budget deficit will have blown out so much that Rudd will not be able to contemplate large scale investment in rail infrastructure.

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