Ages 6 - 12. Say no more
Ages 6 – 12 years. Say no more

The Financial Review reported last week that Federal Major Projects Minister Paul Fletcher says High Speed Rail (HSR) is not a sensible priority for Australia and the Turnbull government has no plans to build the touted East Coast HSR network.

The $114 billion price for a high-speed railway by the previous Labor government is considered by many to be “an optimistically low assessment,” Mr Fletcher told The Australian Financial Review’s National Infrastructure Summit.

“If you look at a country like Spain, it’s taken 30 years to get to point as having as many kilometres of track as will be proposed between Brisbane and Melbourne,” he said.

“So, newsflash: There is no commitment by the Turnbull government to that kind of funding. It’s just not a sensible priority.”…

This of course is a dramatic about-turn on the part of the Government; just a few months ago Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was all over HSR (Malcolm Turnback? Turnabout?). Back in March and April, Government backbencher John Alexander, who chairs the Parliament’s Infrastructure, Transport and Cities Committee, was vigorously promoting the vision of East Coast HSR funded by the magic of “value capture” (e.g. see here and here).

Mr Turnbull might be prone to passing fancies, but it’s a welcome U-turn. Let’s pause for a moment to consider briefly the cringe-making stupidity of spending $114 – 129 Billion of public funds to build East Coast HSR. It would:

  • Consume a generation’s worth of infrastructure spending. (1)
  • Replace a competitive public transport industry with a monopoly provider.
  • Bestow most benefits on business travellers (time savings).
  • Deliver very modest environmental benefits at an extremely high cost.
  • Produce regional sprawl, not regional development.

The Government’s sudden return to its senses on this issue is a hopeful sign that some element of rationality and honesty might still be possible in our political system. Both Labor and the Greens remain keen supporters of HSR, but from what I can see neither party has reacted publicly so far to the Government’s change of heart.

We now have the weird situation where the only parties who actively support HSR are the two with pretensions to progressivism. The party that’s turning down the hordes of rent-seeking financiers and suppliers is actually the one favoured by business!

There’s no chance Bill Shorten and Richard Di Natale will follow Malcolm Turnbull’s lead and change tack on HSR this close to the election, but they should at least let the Government’s moment of sanity go by without adverse remark.

If Labor and the Greens come out on top on 2 July, they should lead their supporters down a new path i.e. ” We’re sorry, but HSR doesn’t work in Australia; there’s no indication it will in the foreseeable future; and anyway it’s the sort of project progressives should oppose. Sorry we so cycnically misled you“.

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  1. It’s possible construction costs might be lower now than they were in 2013 when AECOM completed the $20 million feasibility study for HSR boosters Anthony Albanese and the Australian Greens, but two things need to be borne in mind. First, East Coast HSR would take decades to build so a long-term view of costs should be taken. Second, early cost estimates like those prepared by AECOM are invariably way too low because they necessarily lack detailed technical knowledge.