High-speed rail benefits questioned

Regional towns and rail enthusiasts have welcomed a revival of plans for an east coast high-speed train, but some experts question whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

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After more than three decades of debate, hopes for a Brisbane-Melbourne service have been reignited amid reports that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supports it being built in phases, with high-speed links between cities and regional centres such as Shepparton in Victoria and Goulburn in NSW eventually joining up to create a network.

While previous proposals have relied heavily on taxpayer funds to cover the cost of such a project, last estimated to be about $114 billion, Mr Turnbull reportedly favours using value capture financing.

The government has previously said it is considering innovative ways to support better infrastructure such as value capture funding, which uses increased land value generated from major transport projects as a potential source of money.

The idea has been welcomed by Goulburn Mulwaree Council and the Australasian Railway Association, which are urging the government to secure land corridors for the project.

But Sydney University associate professor in aviation management Rico Merkert says while there are environmental and strategic benefits from having high-speed rail services, questions remain as to whether it represents value for money.

He says an east coast service would compete with airlines, which don’t require government subsidies, plus there would be huge costs associated with maintaining the network.

Having the fast trains stopping at regional towns en route to Melbourne or Brisbane could also be a disincentive for travellers.

“Where and how often it will stop plays an important role in the economics of that train journey,” he told AAP.

“If you stop all the time, that jeopardises some of the economics behind the project.”

Assoc Prof Merkert also questions whether regional centres such as Goulburn and Shepparton would ever have big enough populations to warrant a high-speed service.

He favours a more limited fast-train network, initially connecting Badgery’s Creek airport in Sydney’s west with the nearby hub of Parramatta and then another link to Canberra.

Goulburn Mulwaree Council chief executive Warwick Bennett believes a high-speed network would bring huge benefits in terms of jobs and population growth to the area.

But he said securing land for the project was key.

“It requires state and federal governments to put in the corridor and we could have it in six to eight years if there was real buy-in by both governments,” he said.

The rail industry’s peak body, the Australasian Railway Association, agrees on the need to secure land corridors but doesn’t want a high-speed network to come at the expense of inland and metro rail projects.

Chief executive Danny Broad says governments need to prioritise which sections of a network would be built first.

“It is a visionary project and has great community appeal but securing the corridors is the first step and then looking at where the business case stacks up,” he said.