The Morrison government wants to “Double-Up to Double-Down” on urban rail networks to increase urban rail capacity

This week’s federal budget will overflow with sweeteners, but nothing the politicians concoct promises to be as astonishing as the Nation-Building Network policy the electorally precarious Morrison government will announce tomorrow in the run-up to the 2019 election.

In a bid to redress the damage done to its public standing over the last six years by the extreme right, the government hopes to win back centre voters by focusing on the sort of big infrastructure projects it believes helped the incumbent Victorian and NSW governments win their recent state elections.

Thanks to strategic “leaks” by the Treasurer’s PR machine, it’s clear the government expects the centrepiece of its Nation-Building Network policy, a promise to build a national High-Speed Rail system over the next six years, will dominate the air waves for at least the rest of the week, perhaps all of the month.

The Treasurer claims it will utilise advanced maglev technology to achieve speeds of 500 km/h plus. It will run from Cairns to Perth along the coast, running via the state capitals as well as the most important regional centres i.e. BowenGrafton, Coffs Harbour, Gosford, Batemans Bay and Aireys Inlet. Canberra is not on the main line; it is slated for a spur line at some time in the future.

The government has given a lot of thought to the location of suburban stations in the capital cities and has decided on Strathpine, AshgroveCarindale and Beenleigh in Brisbane; Concord and Hurstville in Sydney; Berwick, Belgrave and Camberwell in Melbourne; Flagstaff Hill in Adelaide; and Gosnells, East Cannington and Mindarie in Perth.

Construction is to start next year, beginning with the section from Rockhampton to Gladstone, using a Sequential-Build-Fund-Design (SBFD) contract. It’s claimed the line will be fully built by 2025.

The government also anticipates a strong positive reaction to its Double-Up Double-Down initiative to increase the capacity of rail networks in capital cities. It will provide the states with funding on a matching 80/20 formula for the construction of a ‘second floor’ of rail tracks over existing lines.

While the main pitch will be on doubling rail capacity, the Treasurer claims that in some locations the ‘double-decking’ will provide space for other possible uses such as elevated motorways.

The budget will also demonstrate to voters that the Morrison government is committed to improving housing standards for the increasing proportion of the population, especially first-home buyers, who will necessarily live in apartments in the future.

The Families, Living, Action Program has been developed in response to demands from the design professions for higher housing standards. The Treasurer will stress that apartment living should not mean young Australians have to forego the benefits of traditional detached suburban housing that past generations enjoyed.

The program will provide buyers with a substantial grant (as high as $100,000!) for the purchase of a new multi-unit dwelling that meets minimum acceptable design standards.

Although the criteria haven’t been nailed down in detail yet, it’s expected that in order to qualify for the grants, apartments must have at least three bedrooms; minimum internal floor area of 150 sq m; minimum balcony area of 50 sq m; parking for two vehicles incorporating a ‘workshop’; and separate family, living and dining areas.

It’s also expected that all habitable rooms, including kitchen and bathrooms, must be oriented north and have opening windows on at least two walls to facilitate natural ventilation. Apartments that have party walls will not be eligible for Families, Living, Action Program grants; to provide acoustic privacy, the exterior walls of apartments must be separated from neighbouring units by a minimum one-metre airspace.

How the Morrison government plans to fund all the promises under its NBN policy if it’s re-elected isn’t clear. It’s also not evident it will be able to win the support of state governments for programs like DUDD and FLAP, which are essentially state responsibilities.

Most of all it’s not clear if these ideas make any economic or functional sense; what unforeseen (or ignored) consequences they’ll have; or if they’ll even work as promised. Then there’re all the other options, especially in taxation policy, that the government is ignoring. It’s even disappointing on it’s own “nation-building” terms; this could’ve been an opportunity to fund promising projects like the Automated Electric Rapid Inter Area Loop.

Of course, like almost every election promise these days, there’s no business plan or feasibility study either. Treating the public as fools is pretty much business as usual, even when it’s not 1 April.