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High-speed rail should be about city building, not creating distant dormitory suburbs

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Little by little, detail is beginning to paint a larger picture of the Federal Government's direction on cities. We've heard snippets about value capture, 30 year bonds and talk of high-speed rail has surfaced once again.

Despite the intellectually-bankrupt, marginal seat election-positioning announcement on Friday - that Melbourne Metro will have strings attached to federal funding yet various road projects around the city will be the beneficiary of a not-so-many-strings-attached Federal Government ATM - by joining some of the dots and if we weren't on the precipice of election season in Canberra, perhaps the national city building discussion would be a little more mature.

The mainstream media appear more interested in click-baiting the Simpsons generation with headlines invoking quotes from that famous episode than dissecting the commentary that's been put in the public domain.

NSW backbencher John Alexander appeared on 7:30 last night and said that value capture could be the way to fund a high-speed rail system.

The opportunity to release incredible amounts of land that have got very low cost - that could be 20-30 minutes from the cbd - gives that opportunity of enormous value uplift and therefore the opportunity of value capture to fund that infrastructure.

John Alexander MP, 7:30, 11/04/2016

And here's the rub, if a high-speed rail system began its life by progressively rolling out in phases from Melbourne to Shepparton, from Sydney to Goulburn and then eventually linked somewhere in the middle near Wagga Wagga (the half-way point between Melbourne and Sydney on the existing rail line), a culture of daily long-distance commuting is likely to dominate the system from day one.

This is bad, very bad - it's effectively extending the major issues of suburban sprawl over even greater distances and the argument could be made that rather than dumping suburban sprawl on regional cities like Shepparton and Goulburn then why isn't the same funding spent within existing growth boundaries of Melbourne & Sydney?

Imagine Shepparton with a population of over 100,000 and a few thousand of its highest income residents waltz on down to the station and hop onto a train to Melbourne every morning and come back in the early evening - what kind of city would it be during the weekday?

If there were no significant employers locating to or growing in the regional cities, it would mean these larger regional cities are robbed of a significant daytime economy that creates urban vibrancy. The regional cities would become dormitory suburbs of the state capitals linked by a single transport service that should be it be taken out of action for any great period of time, would have profound economic impacts through delays it would cause to the people who rely on it.

Australia's affordable housing issues are not going to be solved by very expensive rail lines that are going to take people from low-cost regional cities to the centres of state capitals. This type of long-distance commuting will only be available to those who can support that lifestyle financially and I dare say it would be out of reach for most on middle incomes and really only be accessible to those considered to be on upper-middle incomes.

No, if we are to use high-speed rail as a catalyst to grow regional cities, there's one element that has not been mentioned to date: the regional cities will need tools to incentivise the growth of existing, and most importantly, new employment so that residents who do move to these cities both live and work locally.

Just like the symbiotic relationship of Melbourne & Sydney and the current 'air bridge' of high-frequency flights between the two cities which facilitate large amounts of travel for business, tourism and family-related purposes; high-speed rail's primary function at the capital-to-regional level should be the same.

Mechanisms for incentivising employment and local business growth like the creation of lower-tax zones in the regional centres with high-speed rail stations could be one way to ensure that population growth is matched by employment growth in the regional cities however the debate should not be limited to the tax arena - this is where the planning and economic policy wonks need to get to work and come up with a suite of mechanisms.

By all means, investigate and utilise value capture mechanisms to help finance a high-speed rail network - it's a smart idea and would force many people in all three levels of government to do a great deal of forward thinking; but for the sake of the regional cities, don't sell the high-speed rail network on the benefits of commuting to capital cities.

Lead image credit: streetview of the location proposed for Shepparton station in the Rudd Government's High Speed Rail study.

9 comments

Aussie Steve's picture

There are issues with our major regional centres, that don't have nor attract big business to locate there. Major cities in NSW such as Wollongong and Newcastle, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria all have existing good rail networks to their capital cities. We need to improve these to ensure that they work independently from the suburban rail network and allow for ta regional fast rail between Melbourne and Sydney that is non-stop that competes with air traffic. There is no way, any business man nor family take a "so called' high speed train between these two capital cities, if it was going to stop several times along the way. What is the point? I want a quick fast competitor to the air that gets me from one capital to another, and not from one capital to a regional city, which I can already do with VLine and CountryRail.

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theboynoodle's picture

There are a heap of places in the South and middle of England that have been colonised by London commuters. The result is some very nice places indeed, but they are expensive to live in.

In England there are a lot of places with direct London rail to chose from. Basically.. everywhere with a station.. and so the commuters pick and chose and basically all congregate in the chosen towns (usually the more scenic old market towns, rather than the industrial & 20th century ones. This does create material differences between towns. That effect wouldn't apply here because only a few places would be on the line... but it that influx of city-workers could be very positive, or it could be divisive.

But surely the main issue here is simply that for HSR to work, it should stop at as few places as possible. When you're linking two ends of the third (?) busiest air corridor on earth, *every* stop that isn't central Sydney or Melbourne is sub-optimal without a damn good reason.

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Alastair Taylor's picture

The most relevant information for a system here is the previous Federal Government's study and it went into this. Service and Operations chapter: https://infrastructure.gov.au/rail/trains/high_speed/files/HSR_Phase_2_C...

This is from page 116

In short - all non-terminus stations would have been designed to be 4 tracks - 2 with platforms, 2 as through-lines allowing a mix of stopping and express trains to run on the network to cater for the different markets. Note the frequency of Melbourne-Sydney express.

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Adam Ford's picture

The stupidity is Shepparton is not a realistic commuter town.
Ballarat and Bendigo however would be, and either or both could conceivably be on the route.
And we've started investing in urban rail projects for both cities.
Doing this without Ballarat or Bendigo would be monumentally stupid. The entire project can be justified on the basis of commuter rail, but only if more proximate cities are included.
It's not about "extending sprawl" to the regions. It's about stopping sprawl in Melbourne, and letting those cities develop into major centres, just like Melbourne did.
http://ptv.vic.gov.au/projects/rail-projects/bendigo-metro-rail-project/

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Uncle Monty's picture

There is no conceivable way Ballarat is on the Melbourne-Sydney route if time remains of the essence. Even Bendigo adds around 90kms (and some difficult terrain) to the journey. Bendigo is also physically constrained in terms of future growth by Bushfire and Native Vegetation Overlays (this was argued at length by Council in last year's Housing Strategy).

If this thing has even the remotest chance of working (and I remain sceptical), the Melbourne-Sydney route has to be at or within 3 hours. Quickest route possible is the only way.

Uncle Monty

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Adam Ford's picture
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Adam Ford's picture

Because we need to forget about this as a Melbourne-Sydney thing.
It's primary purpose should be commuter rail to regional centers.

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Alastair Taylor's picture

Did the Japanese start building their network with a view to just connect Tokyo with Yokohama or the French connecting Paris to the Bourgogne? No, there were always major cities at either end: Tokyo & Osaka, Paris & Lyon.

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johnproctor's picture

Bendigo and Ballarat don't need high speed rail. Genuine 160km/h rail would be enough for rail to be more attractive than car such that they could be commuter belt cities with less than an hour travel. A HSR wouldn't bring it down much more.

RFR has been a major success despite only delivering 1 'flagship' 1 hour(ish) service between the two cities and Melbourne and has bought significant increase in commuters from the major towns and tree changers into the in between towns. 3 of the 7 people closest to me in my CBD office live in Gisborne/Macedon/Woodend and V-Line to work daily.

My view - do a proper Melton electrification (will be needed anyway) that allows for express ballarats out of the city and grade separates probably both sunshine and deer park junctions, as a minimum put in extra passing loops on the Bendigo line in particular and get those 2 towns up to 160km/h for regular services not just one 'flagship' service per day. If you really wanted to get adventurous spend the few hundred million needed to deal with the loop thing on the Ballarat line just after Melton and I'm sure there are equivalents on the Bendigo line.

Shepparton as you say Adam isn't a viable commuter town at 160km/h. but it would be at 300km/h so in that scenario it does make sense to be connected to a HSR link.

Personally I'd favour bypassing Shep and going straight to Albury Wodonga. I think Al-wod should probably have some form of combined regional council across state borders to guide shared not competitive investment in jobs/transport/schools/health. It already has double the population of Shepparton (about 100k v about 50k).

Inevitably any HSR will be ruined by grabs for votes. every local member will demand (and probably get) a stop in their electorate to shore up the vote.

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