High-speed rail will destroy the bush, but we might need it anyway
The issue of high-speed rail is not clear cut. Yes, we need it. But it will also destroy parts of rural Australia.
It’s a novelty that political commentators might struggle with, but there were some brief common-sense statements made about the future of high-speed rail (HSR) in Australia by both sides of politics this week. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull raised, in more-than-passing detail, the need to finance such ventures with "value capture" from the wealth and economic activity that high-speed rail links actually create. Which will be fine if the capturing process doesn’t totally ruin the incentive for get-rich proponents of HSR to build one in the first place. Labor infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese spoke of the purpose of HSR as being new CBDs, in, say, Wagga Wagga, rather than Penrith or Parramatta. Albanese brought about that wonderful feasibility study in 2013, in which the public were baffled by route maps that put south at the top of the page, making them inaccessible to those who wanted to see something that resembled a street directory with west on the left and east on the right. Among the early press on HSR, the sharpest analysis is this fiercely honed piece by Michael Koziol in The Sydney Morning Herald, who will be tracked down via his Opal card and "re-educated" by a detachment of knuckle-draggers. But the challenges of HSR in Australia include some very difficult attitude adjustments for politicians and community groups. HSR would destroy areas like the southern highlands of NSW, because it would inevitably mean its villages would become part of a new city of 1 million or more people within 20-30 years, keeping in mind that on current predictions, greater Sydney, up to Macarthur or rapidly disappearing rural Menangle, will exceed 8 million people shortly after the middle of this century. If road kill of the highlands parrot species isn’t bad enough now, 350 km/h trains will finish off some species by obliterating too many of the breeders, and the noise level of the HSR corridor will shatter the area’s current tranquility. The Greens would be conflicted by their somewhat poorly researched passion project when they see HSR ditches and viaducts carved through a largely pristine environment. Nevertheless, such rail services are a much-admired and essential part of the transport infrastructure of main intercity routes in Europe, with much more to come in the foreseeable future. Nothing beats getting from St Pancras in London to Gare du Nord in the thick of it in Paris in 135 minutes, or Brussels in 115 minutes, and all the dimwitted security circus that takes at least several hours at their major airports can be left to those unfortunate enough to have use them for longer flights. Do we want sylvan groves and flights of brightly coloured parrots, or do we want neon nights and high-tech residential and industrial and medical estates spreading out across the vast flat plains around Marulan, so close to Goulburn and Canberra? It’s a bit like choosing between coal or the Great Barrier Reef/Liverpool Plains. You just know that we’ll embrace the right answer, and our grandchildren will curse our mean-spirited stupidity for as long as they live, while the coastal cities lose the battle with the rising seas. Because the PM for trams and suburban trains knows that without a very substantial investment in mass public transport immediately, those who might need the HSR links might take hours to actually get to or from the main stations built for them in say Sydney or Melbourne -- a very large chicken-or-egg quandary. Australia is unfortunate in that its major cities haven’t yet built efficient city rail systems. In Europe, those networks were largely completed before anyone thought about modern-era fast trains. Sydney and Melbourne are cities where HSR and metropolitan networks like short-haul metros and longer-haul Paris-style RERs (express trains) somehow need to be done at the same time. That task isn’t made easier or more affordable by their WestConnex and east-west road projects respectively, both of which are ways that the establishment mindset of today can say "get stuffed" to their children and grandchildren. There has never been a more exciting time for voters to ask their politicians to engage with the real issues in more detail than will fit in a 20-second soundbite.