Opposition leader Anthony Albanese today announced that Labor would “make fast rail connections between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle a reality” and establish a High-Speed Rail Authority if it wins government in next year’s federal election. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to be cynical about High Speed Rail (HSR) pre-election promises in Australian politics given their perfect track record of non fulfillment, but in this case it is just possible that the stars might align for Albanese’s promise to actually be kept if Labor wins office. If so, this raises another question – does his proposal go far enough?
It is now just over three years since the former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and then Transport Minister Andrew Constance made their “Fast Rail” announcement, stating that “The NSW Government will start work on a fast rail network in the next [ie, the 2019-23] term of government, linking regional centres to each other and Sydney, significantly slashing travel times across the State.” So far, very little has happened, apart from an announcement in April that there will be an upgrade of the NSW South Coast corridor.
No time frame has been provided for the implementation of this or for any other Fast Rail proposals, though the government does have around 15 months to go to the next state election. However, it’s very unclear if Dominic Perrottet or the new transport minister David Elliot are committed to their predecessors’ promise.
On the other hand, Albanese seems to have crafted his announcement to match closely what was proposed in the 2018 NSW fast rail announcement. He states, “this line will be built with the capacity for trains to run up to and over 250kmh. This would slash journey times from Sydney to Newcastle from over 2 and a half hours to just 45 minutes. From Sydney to Gosford would take only half an hour.” This is the same time saving mooted back in 2018 by the state government, as I noted in my 2018 article on the announcement (see the chart below from my 2018 article for more information on the original Fast Rail proposals).Albanese goes on to note that “this is a staged project with a long-term focus, [and] the new High-Speed Rail Authority would work collaboratively with the NSW Government to determine the best way of delivering the project, whether that be a phased faster rail approach or an immediate provision of High Speed Rail services.”
While travel times like 45 minutes from Sydney to Newcastle are very ambitious and the infrastructure required to achieve this would be extremely expensive (let alone the cost of a fully-fledged east coast HSR network), an intermediate “fast rail” two-hour trip between the two cities as foreshadowed in the NSW government’s 2018 announcement is much more feasible – though whether a total of $1 billion would be enough to achieve this is another matter.
Whatever the amount and despite a lot of ifs and buts, the political timing would seem to give Albanese’s promise some chance of being implemented. In effect, if Labor does win office it could try to wedge the current Coalition state government in the run-up to the 2023 state election by forcing them to either back their 2018 promise and provide the matching funds – or repudiate their own commitment and walk away from Labor’s offer.
Importantly, there is also a precedent, one which has interesting implications for both levels of government and both major parties. The current Federal government has done a similar deal with the Victorian Labor government to co-fund stage one of Geelong Fast Rail, the upgrade of the current rail corridor from Geelong to Melbourne which will halve travel times from one hour to 30 minutes. The project cost of $4 billion and the matching funding contributions of $2 billion from each government dwarfs Albanese’s proposal for the Sydney-Newcastle corridor, though Albanese indicates the $500 million he’s promised is a “downpayment”, with “further investment options” to be identified between the Federal and NSW Governments “once detailed planning work has been completed”.
Albanese does have a powerful argument to use in NSW and further afield as he can claim that Labor’s proposal is linked to a High-Speed Rail Authority with a broader national focus than the Coalition government’s one-off funding for the Geelong corridor. However, in the short term, the Coalition would have the option of attempting to nullify Labor’s promise and upping the ante by committing to pledge an amount for the Newcastle link closer to the sum agreed with the Victorian government for the Geelong corridor.
It’s also worth noting that the $4 billion cost of the first stage of Geelong Fast Rail indicates that at least a similar amount would need to be spent on the Sydney-Newcastle corridor to achieve similar time savings, especially given the rugged topography involved. In summary, while Mr Albanese’s commitment is commendable as the first stage in a much broader national vision for HSR, he may need to consider a substantial increase in the amount he has offered in order to achieve both his political objectives as well as any real improvement in travel times.