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The very fast engine that could

Catherine Carter

From the Netherlands to Norway, and from the UK to Uzbekistan, countries around the globe have high speed railway networks.

Meanwhile, Australia’s very fast train project remains well-and-truly off track. This past week, an international expert in high speed rail, Torkel Patterson, told a parliamentary committee that the “stars are aligning” and that it was time for Australia to start building a bullet train able to connect Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Patterson’s comments captured the media’s attention, and a swag of stories have shared politicians’ backing and investors’ enthusiasm for the ambitious project that would see commuters travel from Sydney to Melbourne in less than three hours.

The question has always been about cost. The Gillard Government estimated the price tag at $114 billion in 2013, although subsequent assessments have placed the final figure at around $84 billion.

The Labor Party, which championed the idea of a very fast train while in government but made very little progress, has said construction could start by 2027, with the Sydney to Melbourne line complete by 2040. While that seems a long way off, we’ve already been talking about this project for three decades.

Meanwhile, Infrastructure Australia predicts the population of our four biggest cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – will double over the next 15 years, and the annual cost of congestion will grow to $53 billion within that time unless we make significant investments in new transport options. In this context, it’s easy to see why the bullet train is gaining momentum.

High speed rail delivers a range of direct benefits – such as time and cost savings – as well as indirect benefits, such as fewer accidents, less pollution and congestion, and economic uplift throughout entire regions.

For Canberra, the development of high speed rail infrastructure would provide a huge amount of economic stimulus by creating construction jobs in the short-term and significant community assets for future generations.

It would also help us build industries and businesses outside the public sector. The Canberra Airport Corporation has estimated that 12 million passengers would be using a high speed rail service between our airport and the Sydney CBD by 2036. That’s just one business that would benefit from a fast train.

Other businesses would reap the rewards of “agglomeration” – the clustering effect that supports knowledge-intensive industries. Economists tell us that the productivity of knowledge workers accelerates the closer they move to others in their field. Ideas and innovations spread like wildfire when people are able to spark off each other. This is how the three million tech-heads in Silicon Valley have been able to create an economy larger than the entire 90-million strong population of Vietnam.

Imagine what this could mean for our scientists and academics at CSIRO, the John Curtin Medical School and the Australian National University. Or picture the potential for other entrepreneurial start-ups in the arts, our flourishing regional winemaking industry or growing video gaming sector?

The Prime Minister has said there is “no place for ideology” in finding the best transport solutions for Australia. This should give us some optimism that we may finally make headway on the number one nation-building project for jobs, economic growth and our collective futures.

As with any idea for a major nation building project, there will be big questions to be asked and answered, including the biggest question of all, which is: how will we pay for it? And this is where real consideration by the Federal, State and local governments as to the importance they place on infrastructure investment that will provide real economic and social benefits to our country should be, as well as the best infrastructure financing model to provide the best bang for our buck.

Such a project would be a game changer for our city, so let’s get on board the very fast train.

Image of ‘high-speed commuter train…‘ via Shutterstock

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Catherine is intensely interested in how Canberrans can work together to create an amazing city, and how our built environment can provide the places our community needs to flourish. The mother of twins, Catherine is committed to diversity, and supporting and promoting the careers of women. She was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women's ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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