It is telling that Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Anthony Albanese chose Melbourne as the place to launch yesterday the umpteenth study into a high-speed rail corridor between Sydney and Newcastle. It avoids the risk of a Sydney media lynching.
No one in Melbourne gives a damn about Sydney-Newcastle high-speed rail other than that it may swallow federal funds that could have been better spent entirely within Victoria. But it is also evidence that one of the most astute political figures in federal Labor was no match for the juvenile follies of the ALP’s campaign directors.
If he was he would have killed it, or changed it to something even faintly credible, such as funding 10km of new double track metro lines in each of the capitals of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane over the next 10 years. Something modest, but of instant voter appeal in all three states.
The first nonsense about the Sydney-Newcastle study is that is supposed to be part of a Melbourne-Brisbane high-speed rail link. The logical, cheaper and far shorter and faster route between Melbourne and Brisbane is through Albury-Wodonga and then inland NSW, a route that is dead flat for more than 90% of the way, with Dubbo the mid-point.
This was first recognised by the Whitlam government, and given token acknowledgement in multiple federal and state studies and private proposals since then.
The emphasis wasn’t in most cases on high-speed rail, but “faster” rail, since a modern 160km/h double-track permanent way costs in general less than one tenth per kilometre of rail infrastructure capable of taking 350-kmh passenger trains.
(High-speed rail is like supersonic flight in the context that as velocities rise above 180 kmh, serious constraints on bogeys, track strength, turning moments, braking systems and related engineering requirements kick in. There are proven solutions, but they are very expensive.)
Those earlier, conveniently forgotten plans also put freight first, while no doubt encouraging inland expansion of existing or new towns further down the tracks.
Routing a high-speed line between Melbourne and Brisbane through the monstrous obstacles of a Sydney-Newcastle link is a prescription for failure. And as efforts to modernise the US railroads amply demonstrate, high-speed passenger trains sand goods trains do not mix, and have never been mixed on the successful fast-train routes of Japan, China, Taiwan, France or Germany.
Those obstacles between Sydney and Newcastle are geological and political. The existing Sydney-Newcastle line contours its way through and around the obstacles of a jumbled landscape of worn-down canyons and mesas. The existing motorway straightens this route only to the extent that deep cuttings and bridges could be afforded, and at gradients that are too steep for current high-speed surface technology, which require permanent ways as straight and flat as possible.
To really deliver trip-time improvements between both nearby cities requires tunnelling and elevated track works of heroic proportion and cost, easily comparable to the Snow Mountains Scheme. Ventilating and fire-proofing these works to European or China standards requires exhaust stacks, and if Sydney road and rail tunnels of minuscule scale such as the Chatswood-Epping underground or the M5 East are any guide, political uproar of generational magnitude lies in ambush.
Sydney is a transport planning disaster, presided over at the moment by a lightweight Labor Premier who has wasted $500 million or more on failing to construct a short metro in Sydney, and who repeatedly contradicted herself as to the projects status, and in her most recent grand vision, killed off every metropolitan road and rain project contemplated and repeatedly planned, and hyped, for the past 30 years.
The magnitude of the transport infrastructure disaster in Sydney, including airports, maritime facilities, roads, metros and heavy rail is such that it is beyond federal or private sector rescue. Step one in having a credible plan for a Melbourne-Brisbane link is to make it faster rail rather than high-speed rail. Step two would be to bypass Sydney completely, and let it choke.