Budget Review 2017

Not a bad budget for rail transport in Australia! The headline project is the funding of Inland Rail, an $8.4 billion freight link from Melbourne to Brisbane via the Riverina and New England. A further $10 billion will be allocated to a “National Rail Program”, focusing on implementing the Urban Rail Plans for the five biggest capital cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide), as well as some regional rail upgrades. There’s also $500 million for regional rail in Victoria, including links to Geelong, the Murray Basin and Tullamarine Airport.

This is all great – it’s possibly the best budget for rail in recent decades. But perhaps the most interesting item, at least from this author’s perspective, is the funding of multiple regional fast rail business case studies.

The government has pledged up to $20 million in support of business plans for fast rail projects, with the funding to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the study’s proponents (be they state government, NGO, business or other). The government has indicated it may support up to 3 such projects.

So that’s perhaps $40 million in total funding for 3 business case studies – that makes over $13 million per study! To put in perspective, the AECOM Melbourne-Brisbane HSR study, one of the largest such studies in Australian history, cost only 50% more than that (and many criticised that study for being far too expensive in any case). If they’re going to spend $20 million on this, I believe the government would be much better off seeking a greater number of submissions for a larger number of potential projects. Considering the probable scale of most plausible short- or medium-haul commuter routes (100-300km) and comparing with the AECOM study (1700+km), a reasonable expectation might be that each study would cost $1-$3 million.

For that sort of money, we could be talking dozens of potential studies within the government’s $20 million budget – several for each major city, and perhaps a few serving smaller regional cities as well. This could be an opportunity to generate some genuinely new and interesting ideas for regional fast rail in Australia, ones which haven’t been studied in detail before.

By refocusing on capital-regional rail routes, rather than long-haul intercapital trunk lines, this approach is far more likely to yield concepts that are achievable in the short term, with much more reasonable financing requirements and potential profitability. Once successfully operating, passenger demand would naturally encourage extension of the service to additional destinations, eventually linking all the east-coast capitals together, as well as a myriad of smaller regional centres on branch and feeder lines.

At the very least, I hope we’re not going to just see more proposals for Sydney/Melbourne, Sydney/Brisbane or Sydney/Canberra yet again, despite my interest and support for each of those routes. Incrementalism is the key, rather than continuing to push for a transformational nationwide megaproject (with all the political, technical and financial difficulties that entails). If done right, this government initiative could be an exciting step in that direction.

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