‘Springfield monorail of Australian politics’: how a Very Fast Train is a very pre-election promise

Former prime minister John Howard takes a close look at a model of a ‘Speedrail’, the winning tender for a proposed Sydney to Canberra service. Photo: Andrew Meares Former infrastructure and transport minister Anthony Albanese releases a report examining high-speed rail in 2013. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The Simpsons watch on as Springfield’s monorail is built.

New Melbourne to Sydney rail pitch destined for Malcolm Turnbull’s desk

If Australia’s high speed train is as reliable as the rate at which it is promised by politicians, it will be a truly remarkable service.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is expected to soon flag plans to once again pursue a high speed rail link down the country’s east coast – a veritable favourite for Australian pollies under pressure.

It’s a bit like our version of the Springfield monorail from The Simpsons – a transport project sold with great fanfare to an adoring public that turns out to be a bit of a pup.

Over the years, politicians have promised high speed rail with such alarming regularity that SBS Comedy’s The Feed predicted this very occurrence only weeks ago, jibing that it was “like a tired old lover teasing their partner with a sex toy they’re too scared to open”.

Indeed, the elusive fast train has now cropped up for three elections on the trot – great fun for headline writers and satirists, but doing very little to inspire public confidence in politics.

Just 12 days out from the last election, a flailing Kevin Rudd announced plans to buy a rail corridor between Sydney and Canberra, and to reserve land for a line south to Melbourne. The then deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese predicted trains could be operational by 2030.

It followed a 2010 election undertaking, when Labor committed $20 million to study the feasibility of high speed rail. That report concluded the line could be profitable, but would require a substantially taxpayer-funded investment of $114 billion in construction costs.

Rewind just a little further to 1998, and it was John Howard himself who ventured down those time-honoured tracks, commissioning the Speedrail Consortium to submit a detailed proposal for a $3.5 billion link between Sydney and Canberra. It was wiped away when the government could not be satisfied the project could be financed without subsidies.

As the Greens’ Adam Bandt observed on Monday: “High Speed Rail seems to be the train that only ever runs in election years.”

Of course, the saga goes back much further. It was the dawn of the optimistic 1980s when the Institution of Engineers first lobbed the grenade of high speed rail into Australian politics. Three years later, the CSIRO proposed the Very Fast Train – a 350km/h bullet train based on the French TGV. It would have linked Sydney to Melbourne in about three hours and cost $2.5 billion in 1984 money.

For a while, it looked as though the VFT might actually leave the station. There were joint ventures, reports, conferences and protests. There were also thought bubbles, with alternative technologies including magnetic levitation and a tilt train coming under consideration. Bob Hawke’s government eventually rejected a proposal to allow tax concessions for investors in the project, and the consortium of infrastructure-builders folds in 1991.

This time around, the government has a different and more innovative approach. Mr Turnbull has previously spoken at length about the virtues of value capture infrastructure – an investment instrument in you use the increased land values that arise from a piece of infrastructure to finance its construction.

The Australian, which reported the government’s high speed rail plans on Monday, described value capture as a “radical new” funding approach. But it is neither, having been used regularly in the US and other countries for decades.

Indeed, in an ABC radio interview last month, Mr Turnbull explained that 19th century railroad projects were “in effect property deals” because they boosted the value of surrounding land.

“This is increasingly what is being done again in the United States,” he said. “In a sense it’s back to the future because people are really remembering that what good transport infrastructure does is transform the amenity and hence the value of real estate.”

Professor of Urban Policy at the University of Sydney, Ed Blakely, said while value capture would not fund the entire cost of a high speed rail line, it could be used to finance land acquisition for stations, the stations themselves and the construction of apartments and other amenities at major junctions.

He rated the chance of the project actually coming to fruition as “better than 50 per cent” because of the added incentive provided by the proposed Badgerys Creek airport.

“I think you have to do it,” Professor Blakely said. “I think if we press on this thing when we have the second airport it’ll get done, because it actually reinforces what we’re doing there.”

But even in those circumstances, Labor – a keen proponent of high speed rail in the not-so-distant past – was unwilling to applaud.

“This is a desperate Malcolm Turnbull clutching at straws,” said Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. “Talk is cheap, but it’s actions that really matter.”

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