Is Australia finally going to get high-speed rail?

Thu, 2017-06-22 05:59 -- Doug Peeples

High speed rail - the forever debated, discussed and partially studied means of transport that comes and goes every few years. Until now.

In this article we get the latest from an ambitious private sector-led proposal that not only looks to deliver a high speed rail network from Melbourne to Sydney, but additionally the creation of a number of new regional smart cities. The proposal by CLARA is not so much about transportation, but rather regional settlement. Somewhat of a rebalancing of the population. We will continue to watch this proposal with a close eye, and in particular contribute to any necessary dialogue on smart cities. — Adam Beck

Every federal government since the early 1980s has looked into high-speed rail networks, but they have always fallen off the table during the planning stages – largely because of the massive investment required.

Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA), an Australia-based consortium, will present what has been referred to as an "unsolicited proposal" to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government at the end of June. CLARA Chairman Nick Cleary confirmed that the $200 billion proposal would be submitted during a Goulburn Chamber of Commerce meeting this week.

The CLARA plan includes two smart 'island' cities in Victoria and six in New South Wales, in addition. Two of the cities would be located between Goulburn and Sydney. A business and engineering case analysis is under review, and the company also plans to submit bids to the Victoria and NSW governments.

During the meeting, Cleary made it clear that the high-speed rail component of the project is 'not the cornerstone.' He commented "This is not about finding an easier way for people to go to Melbourne and Sydney. This is about opening our regional opportunity from within." Earlier CLARA promotional literature has described the project as "a plan to rebalance the Australian settlement" by building "new, regional compact, sustainable smart cities and connect them by the world's most advanced high-speed rail."

While the proposal is unsolicited, Prime Minister Turnbull is familiar with it. He met last year with CLARA representatives and was, according to news reports, enthused about the concept – and has said on other occasions that he would support a plan like CLARA's. The delay in submitting the proposal can largely be attributed to a request for more details. And if the proposal fails to win government approval, CLARA will submit a different proposal, one suggested by the prime minister.

Who pays for it… and how?
CLARA insists that taxpayers won't be paying for the project. The consortium's financing plan is based on a 'value capture' model proposed by the prime minister. The idea is that once farmland is converted into smart cities, that land could be sold for far more than its initial purchase price. Cleary earlier estimated that a piece of land bought for $1,000 could be sold for 150 times that much once the cities and infrastructure are in place. Cleary said the consortium has bought options for about 50 per cent of the land needed for the Sydney to Melbourne corridor.

Cleary said he recognizes the difficulties associated with the project, but has also said the willingness of state and federal governments to discuss the plan are encouraging.

He also seems to understand the potential impacts on existing nearby communities. CLARA expects that about 15 per cent of the people who live in the smart cities would commute to work. During the Goulburn meeting there were concerns from some audience members that the new cities would hamper their community's growth. Cleary response: "People who want to live in Goulburn want to do so because of the great attributes, charm and historical nature. They are not the same people I believe want to live in the smart city.

He also acknowledged there are advantages and disadvantages, but that the benefits of the CLARA plan outweigh the disadvantages. "We're not trying to build a utopia here that everyone is going to want; we're saying there's a market."

Doug Peeples is a writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartcitiesanz on Twitter.