When the press this week reported the latest installment of the TGV saga —not the French train, but the ever-unfolding Turnbullian Grand Vision — my bemused pause to note that the Prime Minister had endorsed yet another Greens fantasy was quickly followed by some key questions. According to news stories, he wishes to see a high-speed rail link stretching all the way from Brisbane to Melbourne, with the first two legs linking Sydney to Goulburn and Melbourne to Shepparton.
The twin goals of boosting regional growth and easing urban congestion suggest that people will be expected to relocate from cities to those regional centres. I am not quite clear on how the provision of a high speed rail link will contribute to this aim, other than to assist in the speedy evacuation when these latter-day pioneers discover the hell hole that Goulburn can be in winter. Sydney it ain’t. Shepparton, too, or so I am told by Victorian friends, is a pleasant place if you like canned fruit and yearn for taxpayer subsidies but unlikely to figure high on any list of destinations most favoured by those thinking of quitting the Big Smoke.
In the case of Goulburn there is a large regional centre just an hour to the south. It’s called Canberra. And there is already a useful freeway between Goulburn and Sydney that could be become even more useful if the speed limit were upped to 130kph, as advocated by some motoring bodies.
If, on the other hand, the idea is that high-speed rail will transport legions of Goulburn-based commuters to and from Sydney, the only regional growth that could be expected would be in the residential property market and, or so I’m guessing, there would be precious little of that. Unless growth in fast-rail serviced areas is large there will be little, if any, flow-on effect. The main reason why Sydney keeps growing is not primarily because that’s where the jobs are. It’s because that’s where people want to live (for reasons that are unfathomable to me, I must add, although I do like to visit the place from time to time.) All in all, it’s hard to see how this proposal makes any sense. As to the economic case, an examination of how the fast-rail works in Europe might be enlightening.
On my first trip around Europe in the early 70s I made good use of the famous Eurail Pass. For $100 (or was it Pounds?) I had unlimited first-class rail travel throughout Europe for a month. More recently, when planning another extended trip through Europe, I fondly imagined a similar experience. Sadly, as I soon discovered, the old Eurail Pass system is nither as flexible nor so inexpensive as in my roaming youth. So I looked at individual fares and found that, with few exceptions, it was cheaper to fly. Because time was no particular object, the most cost-effective option proved to be a 10-day Mediterranean cruise!
But enough of my traveller’s tips. Of greater current relevance is the way fast rail works in Europe and, from that, what we might deduce as to the likely cost of a ticket here.
When you Google ‘train fares Paris to Berlin’, for example, you first thing you see is ‘from $81’. Sounds good but the reality for the date I chose, one week away, was a rather more sobering $353 for second class and $765 for first. If you’re prepared to book three months ahead (the furthest out the system will allow) you could get fares of $312 and $498 respectively. This is 1000km trip takes eight hours on the fast train. Other trips are:
London to Vienna (1200km 16 hour trip) – $473 and $789
London to Rome (17 hour trip – 1800km) – $681 and $867
London to Paris (2.5 hour trip – 456km) – $205 and $391.
Anyway, my point is that Europe’s fast trains aren’t cheap to ride, even with the relatively short distances they travel and economies of scale that we could never match. This brings me to the funding options and prime ministerial preference for “value capture” financing. According to the PM, “That’s how railways were financed in the 19th century actually – it’s not actually a radical new plan at all. It is a sensible old plan that’s been forgotten.”
It seems the strategy is to entice prospective developers to stump up on the basis that land owners along the fast train routes and at their destinations will see property values skyrocket. Part of that windfall will be diverted to the developer by means as yet unspecified. Will a land-tax be levied? Will a special regional tax be applied? Will councils hit their residents with higher — presumably much higher — rates, then remit the bulk of those increased inflows to the rail lines’ builders?
Were I a long-term resident of, say, Goulburn, I would be mightily unimpressed to be slugged with taxes of one sort or another to finance a rail line I didn’t ask for, most likely wouldn’t want and if, Europe’s fares are indication, could not afford to ride. While I am no infrastructure expert nor economic modeller with a government brief to make the improbable appear less so, I do understand a thing or two about the nature of politics. This value-capture financing would be a nightmare administratively and, more than that, electoral suicide for any local politician who threw his or her ardent weight behind it.
This last point might just explain why the idea holds such an appeal for the Prime Minister. Having alienated his party’s conservative base — 19% of Liberal voters detest the man, according to the latest Essential poll — and sown the seeds of division with a long, sly and ultimately successful campaign to destabilise and de-throne his predeccessor, Turnbull perhaps wishes his political legacy to be more of the counterproductive same.
If this is indeed his goal, satisfying the non-existent need for a fast-train network and the dubious means proposed to pay for it will achieve this goal at, well, TGV-style speed.