Push for high-speed rail to transform Australia

Privately funded plan to link Sydney and Melbourne to include eight new inland 'cities'

For decades in Australia, there has been talk of building a high-speed rail along the east coast, where the bulk of the nation's population lives.

Numerous plans have been put forward for the project, which would solve Australia's great dilemma of having more than a third of its residents in two heavily congested cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

But successive governments have failed to commit to the venture, largely due to the estimated cost of more than A$100 billion (S$108 billion), which opponents claimed to be too high for the country's population of 24 million.

The years of procrastination have now prompted a privately funded A$200 billion plan, which has attracted strong support in Canberra. About A$60 billion will be for the rail line and the remainder for urban development.

The firm behind the plan is Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (Clara), which was set up to pursue the project. It has proposed a 30- to 35-year plan for a line that can allow speeds of 430kmh to 450kmh. The plan would include the creation of eight inland "cities" to be linked by the line that could be up to 950km long. Each city would have up to 400,000 people.

A 'NATION-BUILDING PROJECT'

This is about making sure we have a population which is decentralised but is connected to the major capitals. It could allow Sydney and Melbourne to put a pause on their growth. It gives them a pressure valve relief while expanding our economy.

MR NICK CLEARY, chairman of Clara.

Mr Nick Cleary, the firm's chairman, said the rail plan is a "nation- building project", likening it to the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He said the project would solve a range of issues facing the nation, including congestion, housing affordability and overcrowding.

"This is about making sure we have a population which is decentralised but is connected to the major capitals," he told The Straits Times.

"It could allow Sydney and Melbourne to put a pause on their growth. It gives them a pressure valve relief while expanding our economy," he added.

The proposed line would slash train journeys between Sydney and Melbourne to just two hours. Existing train trips between the two cities take about 11 hours. It now takes one hour to fly between the two cities, an air route that is currently among the five busiest in the world.

The high-speed line would go via the capital Canberra, as well as eight new inland stops. These stops would be placed near existing regional towns, which would be expected to rapidly grow into cities because of their fast access to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Clara's website said high-speed rail can change Australia and "establish the national interior for growth for the next century". Its preferred option is understood to be Japanese maglev trains. But it has also flagged designs from France and China.

"Imagine living over 200km from the (Central Business District) of Sydney or Melbourne and being able to commute to the city inside 30 minutes," said the website.

Mr Cleary said the firm plans to present a proposal to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the first half of the year.

The initial plan would be to build a A$13 billion rail line from Melbourne, Australia's second-biggest city, to Shepparton, a regional centre in the state of Victoria. Construction would start in 2021 and the initial line, which is about 20 per cent of the entire line, could be up and running by 2026.

Canberra has floated various proposals for high-speed rail since at least the 1970s. The most recent serious plan was considered by the Labor government in 2012, which commissioned a report that found the line would cost A$114 billion from Melbourne to Brisbane, which are about 1,800km apart.

Clara has recruited several high- profile former politicians as advisers, including former trade minister Andrew Robb. Its major selling point is that the project would not need government funding. Instead, the aim is to secure farmland around the line and resell it as the property is rezoned into new urban hubs.

The proposal won the backing of a parliamentary committee last November. Its chairman, Mr John Alexander, a Liberal MP, said in the committee's report that "the corridor between Melbourne and Sydney represents the greatest potential for uplift of land values anywhere in the world when connected with high-speed rail".

Mr Cleary, a real estate agent and former farmer and financial adviser, has done deals with farmers between Sydney and Melbourne to buy their land if the rail line is approved. He said he had already secured about 50 per cent of the required land for the proposed cities.

The project still faces serious hurdles, including winning over the local, state and federal authorities which will be needed for planning and other approvals. But commentators said the return to investors could be substantial.

A report last December in The Monthly magazine said that if the authorities back the plan, "Mr Cleary and his co-investors will make so much money out of the hundred-fold uplift in property values that spending (A$60 billion) on a high-speed railway will be the least of their worries".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2017, with the headline 'Push for high-speed rail to transform Australia'. Print Edition | Subscribe