Alice Thompson CEO

Newcastle Herald, 23 July 2021

It's time to get faster rail out of the slow lane

Projects that hit the front pages, usually around elections, that elicit a collective eye roll because we’ve heard these announcements before and nothing gets built.

Badgerys Creek, now referred to as Western Sydney Airport, is one of these projects. After 50 years I was proud to be part of the team that finally turned the concept into reality.

The project completely reset the planning landscape and is now the centrepiece of Sydney’s newest and third city.

High speed rail is the other project known for decades of hype but failure to launch.

As advisor to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose interest in rail and cities policy were signature of his administration, I knew it would be a matter of time for high speed rail to re-enter public discourse.

We would need a credible position, noting the $114 billion price tag in the 2013 High Speed Rail Study had proved an insurmountable barrier to previous governments.

The 2017 budget responded with $20 million to work with states on business cases for faster rail between capital cities and their corresponding regional centres.

The program was accompanied by investigations into innovative ways to fund and finance fast rail, including the role of value capture.

There were criticisms that this approach poured cold water on high speed rail.

But after decades of inaction the decision was deliberately pragmatic – get on with making practical upgrades to speed up services for regional commuters today, while setting the foundations for a future high speed network and the private sector partnerships that will get us there sooner.

The Sydney-Newcastle line was selected as a priority under the fast rail program. And in 2018 NSW announced the corridor as part of a new high speed rail network for the state along with further planning funding.

After almost five years of investigations under our nation’s most recent flirtation with high speed rail, along with the impacts of COVID on mobility, calls are once again growing for substantive commitments in the upcoming federal and NSW elections.

Our friends at the Committee for Sydney have called for action on fast rail to link the Sandstone Megaregion – Wollongong, Sydney, Newcastle.

Their priorities are the completion of the final business case for fast rail between Sydney and Newcastle, and commitment to build the first section to the Central Coast.

The Committee for the Hunter’s 2021 budget submission also asked NSW to accelerate planning for faster rail between Sydney and Newcastle.

We urged government to bring forward practical, smaller upgrades that improve services now while building options for a future high speed rail network.

After years of planning, we were expecting more substance in the budget.

It is a shame that a project with such potential to reshape settlement and the economy has been reduced to the ignominious title of Australia’s perennial boondoggle.

Sometimes I think that packaging up an entire national high speed rail network as a mega project with a sexy title and a multi-billion dollar budget to match has prevented us from moving forward.

Especially when there are so many competing priorities for services and infrastructure.

I wonder if we talked about high speed rail in a different way it could break through the inertia.

A narrative not about a project – but about a program of improvements to bring our regional rail services up to the standards expected of the modern and large economy we consider ourselves to be.

About the responsibility to make life better now for the thousands of people currently commuting between cities and regions like the Hunter. That incremental upgrades to speed up rail should be budgeted and delivered each year as business as usual, like we do for roads and other assets.

COVID has provided a catalyst to rethink high speed rail. The Hunter has much higher capacity for growth than indicated in population projections and rail can be a significant driver of this development.

More concerning is that our region is tracking to higher levels of growth than projected. We need the integrated planning, infrastructure and services to ensure we harness the benefits from this growth or it will decrease our living standards and the things that make us an attractive place.

We can continue to debate the merits of high speed rail versus fast rail or a project versus a program.

Whatever we call it, what’s most important is that action starts with doing something And the obvious place to begin is the Sydney-Newcastle corridor.