Article Competition

Congratulations to Thomas Beckerton (@talkingplanning) for his winning article in Plans in Motion’s article competition!

We asked for passion and we certainly got it. Thank you also to everyone else who submitted articles, they were a great read! Thomas’ analysis and discussion of the East Coast HSR was a stand out, have a read for yourself below.

Stop flogging the $150B East Coast HSR proposal ‘dead horse’. By thinking local, you can do so much more.  

11th September 2020            
Author: Thomas Beckerton.

Urban Planning Graduate; Former Research Analyst in the Aviation sector, Autonomous Vehicle Chaperone and Local Government Transport Planner.

Millions of dollars in countless studies, decades of back-and-forth debate and still not one metre of track laid. This is Australia’s story of High-Speed Rail. HSR critics often claim, ‘Australia is not dense enough’ or ‘no one would use it’. Quite frankly, I think there are more fundamental and less hypothetical reasons to criticise the project. Whether in favour, or against HSR, there is one obvious hurdle: cost. Preliminary construction cost estimates regularly exceed $100bn and are often over $150bn. This begs the question; Could there be better transport investments for the same money? Let us set the record straight; I believe that spending $150bn on intercity, public, and active transport in Australia is a great idea but spending every cent of it on High Speed Rail is not appropriate.

My hypothesis is that there are many better transport outcomes for $150bn than East Coast HSR. The first problem is the limitations of ‘East Coast’. Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory are not mythical, far-flung lands. They are States, that also (rightfully) want a slice of the transport pie. As a Queenslander, I know our Premier always jumps up and down asking ‘where is our money’ when a federally funded project gets approved in NSW/VIC. I would expect that SA and WA would respond in a similar manner to HSR funding proposals.

The next concern I have with spending $150bn on East Coast HSR is dedicating such large resources to one project reduces funds available for local infrastructure needs. If such a large project is approved, it is hard to imagine any further Federal funding being made available for other projects. Here are a few things to keep in mind, which $150bn spent on East Coast HSR will likely not change:  

  • Australia’s second busiest airport (Melbourne Tullamarine) is still not connected by rail
  • Serious timetable or network gaps in every Australian city
  • Many regional centres have no public transport, poor services, or rapidly ageing infrastructure
  • Existing public transport vehicles in poor condition or covered in graffiti

Imagine what $150bn could do spread across each State say $30bn each for VIC and NSW, $20bn each for QLD and WA, $15 bn for SA, and $35bn for the ACT, TAS, and the NT. Of course, these amounts would need to be tweaked, but the key point is that instead of funding one large project in one region, you could provide many smaller projects, that improve people’s everyday journeys.

For a start, $150bn could provide secure funding for initiatives that are continually placed on the backburner. Think about Brisbane’s Busway network extensions, Sunshine Coast rail connections, Sydney Metro stages 3 and 3A and electrification of the V Line network. These projects make a difference to commuters every day, not just for the occasions where you choose to travel interstate. Personally, I would be happier with faster, more frequent, and more comfortable commuting options every day, as I only travel interstate a few times a year. Unless you are a business traveller, I am convinced that a better daily commute is more valuable than better long-distance interstate travel.

Keeping that in mind, if improving interstate connections is an important goal, what will existing transport providers have to say? Will existing rail providers, like NSW TrainLink who operate the XPT between Melbourne and Brisbane to Sydney, be supportive of HSR? And of course, let us not forget the Airlines. I spent just over a year working as an Airport Planner and if there is one thing I learnt, airlines are not afraid to share their opinions. Executives in Australia’s largest airlines will likely put their two cents in. Whilst this may sound like HSR is out of the running, surprisingly, it leaves us with one sensible option!  

What if there was one key route in Australia where airlines do not really want to operate (as it is a short flight, where larger planes are inefficient). It is also a route where flights are cancelled frequently (if airlines cannot fill the plane) and a route where customers are searching for new options. Other than driving, you can fly between these two destinations (approx. $150 each way), take a coach ($50-60 each way) or take a train ($75 each way). Crazily, the train ends up taking longer than the coach service. Further, the situation is so impractical that the Airport itself offered airlines $100 000 if they operated for a month without cancelling flights!

Have you guessed the route yet? I will give you a hint; it is DEFINITELY NOT Melbourne to Sydney or Sydney to Brisbane.

A route with this predicament sounds like an ideal candidate for a High-Speed Rail connection. There is already strong demand for travel between this city and another major State capital. There is an unwillingness to provide a suitable service within existing frameworks and the distance between them is approximately 300 km. This is inefficient for air travel, as larger aircraft cannot reach cruising altitudes over this distance. Coach travel is not promoted and is often shunned by the public and the current train service is a scenic route rather than a city connection service.

If Australia is genuinely interested in HSR, connecting these two cities should be our top infrastructure priority before committing to a major East Coast project. East Coast HSR is likely to be costly, met with opposition by existing industries and could prevent the development of local projects. Further, connecting these two cities first provides a ‘proof of concept’ that could indicate whether an East Coast HSR could be viable. These two cities are intrinsically linked for business, trade and importantly, politics.

I will leave you to work out what city-pair I am referring to.

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