The government’s Faster Rail Prospectus

Back in May, Hot Rails was cautiously optimistic about the Turnbull government’s announcement of a suite of funding measures for rail projects in Australia, including a call for for independent feasibility studies into fast(er) rail links between regional areas and major cities. Today, the government issued their call for proposals, entitled Faster Rail Prospectus, and it looks pretty good – very much aimed along the lines Hot Rails has been advocating. Three features in particular bode well for some actual progress:

Firstly, the prospectus is not aimed primarily at headline-grabbing ultra-high speeds. There is an explicit recognition that modest improvements to average speeds, even well within the realm of conventional rail speeds (say, 100-160km/h) would result in a dramatic improvement to travel times. To take an example that Hot Rails has analysed in-depth, if the existing Sydney-Canberra line’s speed could be upgraded to 160km/h along most of its length, the travel time would be reduced from an embarrasingly uncompetitive 4 hours and 6 minutes, to about 2 hours or slightly less (even using the existing rollingstock). That would make the train a serious competitor to air travel, and put the Southern Highlands as well as Goulburn within Sydney’s commuter belt. It really doesn’t take 400km/h fantasy trains to make a revolutionary difference to Australia’s transport mix.

Secondly, the government’s not mucking around. The deadline for submissions is October 13 for project outlines, and November 17 for detailed proposals – just 3 and 8 weeks away, respectively! And only serious proposals from teams with a realistic capability of actually building it will be eligible; some of the requirements for the project outline include listing the lead organisation’s skills and experience in heavy construction and budget forecasting, details of other projects the team has designed or delivered, and high-level estimates for construction cost and program. Only those with skin in the game need apply.

Thirdly, the prospectus anticipates some level of government contribution or assistance (including but not necessarily purely financial). This is a good sign; some previous proposals (notably the VFT) were scuttled in part due to the then-government’s refusal to consider favourable taxation regimes or other forms of state assistance. The prospectus explicitly considers the possibility of legistlative change, planning or zoning amendments, fast-tracking or streamlining of approvals, direct funding or concessional loans, taxation concessions, or access to departmental support. This is a sign that the government is taking the process seriously, is willing to at least partially fund successful proposals, and not merely leaving it to the private sector alone.

In short, it sounds like the objective is to elicit practical, buildable plans that have a reasonable chance of near-term completion, rather than the media focussed, Utopia-style “launch it and leave it” approach that Australians have cynically become accustomed to. I’m very pleased to see that the current government is broadly on-board with the Hot Rails philosophy, and I will be genuinely interested to see the plans that are submitted.

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