High Speed Rail - a button for political desperates, cynical greenwashers and snout dippers to press?

On the face of it, High Speed Rail (HSR) is a politician’s dream. It appears to be visionary; it seems to be extraordinarily green; and it gives the impression it will deliver huge, “nation shaping” economic benefits.

And if you’re getting increasingly desperate like the Prime Minister, you can even pledge to build it in budgetary Never Never Land – which is exactly what Kevin Rudd did on Monday. Of course he was simply copying the promise made by The Greens earlier this month. (1)

The Prime Minister built his pledge around the report of the Advisory Group on High Speed Rail. The Group was set up in April at the time the $20 million HSR Study done by the AECOM-led consortium under the auspices of the Department of Infrastructure and Transport was released publicly.

Mr Rudd made much of the Advisory Group’s strong endorsement of HSR, but it’s important to appreciate how limited the scope of its deliberations were.

The Advisory Group hasn’t provided any new technical information or undertaken any technical analysis. Nothing it says contradicts the findings of the HSR Study; indeed the Group strongly endorses the HSR Study.

The terms of reference for the Group only required it to look at the views of stakeholders and provide the Government with “practical advice on the implementation of high speed rail in Australia”. Its purview is implementation; it has nothing substantive to add that improves (or weakens) the case made in the HSR Study.

That’s hardly surprising as the technical capacity of the Group is limited. It comprises a bureaucrat (chair), a regional Mayor, two industry lobbyists, a unionist, a professor of planning, a professor of sustainability, and a former politician (rail enthusiast, Tim Fischer).

Most of the report is simply a summary of the views of stakeholders, virtually all of whom would benefit in some way from HSR. Its main focus is on ways of marketing HSR better (“transformative” is mentioned 13 times!). Its key idea is that HSR should be presented as a series of smaller projects whose cost and timing are less intimidating than the overall $114 billion estimate provided in the HSR study.

The report reads like any early-stage pitch; it’s long on promising possibilities but short on substantiation. It repeats and implicitly endorses a number of untested assertions made by stakeholders with a strong interest in HSR proceeding.

For example, it says “international stakeholders with practical design and construction experience” have indicated the capital cost could be reduced by 15-20% if it were opened to “competitive global tender”. It says this brilliant innovation, which presumably it imagines didn’t occur to those who did the HSR Study, “should be tested”.

It’s the sort of over-the-top optimism that, given enough political excitement, leads eventually to an objective technical study designed to sort the facts from the fiction. Trouble is, we’ve already had the study to end all studies – it cost $20 million,  took two years, and was completed before the Advisory Group was set up!

Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm, it’s worth remembering that HSR is a crazy idea for Australia (see Is HSR a no-brainer or a boondoggle?). We know from the HSR Study that the best evidence shows :

  • HSR would cost tax payers a truly staggering $100 billion, none of which would be repaid (unlike the NBN). That’s more than five times what the Rudd Government outlaid to avoid the GFC!
  • The total value of negative externalities, including emissions, pollution, noise and traffic congestion, that would be avoided by HSR amount to just $2 billion over the life of the project.
  • The overwhelming quantum of economic benefits (90%) would come in the form of faster door-to-door trips for inter-capital business travellers and for regional leisure travellers journeying to the capital cities.
  • It would replace one form of public transport (airplanes) with another form of public transport (trains).
  • It wouldn’t replace the need for a second airport in Sydney.
  • Any regional development it facilitated would be sprawl by another name and would constitute a redistribution of activity, not a net economic benefit for the nation.

The key idea is that there are many other ways that public funds on this scale could be applied for a bigger social, economic and environmental pay-off and a fairer outcome than HSR would provide. For example, just looking at infrastructure, public subsidies could be directed at improving public transport in the nation’s cities or shifting electricity generation to renewable sources.

Nearly 30 years have elapsed since the CSIRO proposed the idea of a very fast train between Sydney and Melbourne in 1984. Now it seems HSR is just another button for political desperates, cynical greenwashers and trough-draughters to press.

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(1) Anthony Albanese’s claim that ‘Labor HSR’ would create 10,000 jobs is distinctly lacklustre compared to Adam Bandt’s claim that ‘Greens HSR’ would create 200,000 jobs.