House debates

Wednesday, 28 September 2022


High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022; Second Reading

6:56 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

High-speed rail has the potential to be a game changer for Australia—a game changer for productivity improvement and a game changer for environmental outcomes, with a reduction in urban congestion and better, more efficient and convenient travel options for Australians. For far too long we have delayed and procrastinated about high-speed rail in this country. If we do go ahead with this bill and get on with the process of planning a high-speed rail line along the east coast, we have the potential to improve productivity in our nation.

We all know that too many Australians spend too much time in traffic on their daily commutes to and from work. It's not only having an effect on their productivity; it's also having an effect on the quality of lifestyle that Australians can enjoy. We know that high-speed rail can improve environmental outcomes by taking more cars off roads that people are using these days to commute to and from work. And it would take pressure off some of Australia's busiest airline routes, in particular the Sydney-to-Melbourne route, which is the second-busiest airline route of any in the world.

High-speed rail has the potential to dramatically reduce urban congestion. We know that history shows that, where high-speed rail stations are situated, over time cities and services will spring up around those stations. Think of this: a station in the southern highlands could provide the opportunity for new development and new opportunities for residential accommodation around that station, providing an opportunity to reduce urban congestion in Sydney and for people to live in a region like the southern highlands yet be able to commute in an efficient time without having to sit in traffic going into the city or into Western Sydney to do their work. It really has the potential to be a game changer for urban congestion and to take pressure off our major cities. And, of course, it will deliver better, more efficient and more convenient travel options for Australians.

I find it remarkable that we haven't already gone down this path of high-speed rail in Australia. High-speed rail has been a feature of most European cities for almost half a century. It certainly has been in Asia, particularly Japan, for well over half a century, and more recently in China and other large nations. Most of Europe and Asia move around on high-speed rail, and it's remarkable that a nation like Australia, with such a dispersed population and large gap between major cities, hasn't taken up this transport option in the past. The reason we haven't, unfortunately, is that we have had a wasted decade under the conservative government. It missed the opportunity to get on with planning for high-speed rail.

When Labor was last in government, the Rudd government commissioned a comprehensive study into the viability of high-speed rail. That study showed that an east coast high-speed rail network would be viable and economically sustainable. That plan was released by the Prime Minister, then infrastructure minister, in 2011. The plan prioritised where most of the cost would be in reserving the corridor up and down the east coast—in other words, the government buying or securing the land for the high-speed rail lines to go down, to transport people on the network.

To do that, the government planned to establish an authority to buy that land, to reserve that network and get on with the planning process, which is most of the work associated with planning a high-speed rail line. Unfortunately, the Rudd and Gillard governments lost office and we never got the opportunity to do that. But this isn't the first time a high-speed rail authority bill has been introduced into this parliament and debated. A bill was introduced in 2013 by the member for Grayndler, then shadow infrastructure minister and now Prime Minister.

What was the response of the government, at the time, when the then opposition introduced that bill? They opposed it and refused to debate it. So it's remarkable that many members of the opposition are now coming out in support of this bill. I think they're doing it because their constituents know that this is a popular infrastructure proposal and is nation-building and would be a game changer for many communities.

This important bill now seeks to establish in this parliament—finally—a high-speed rail authority to plan and oversee the construction of a high-speed rail network through Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT. The authority will build on the previous work, including that comprehensive study that was commissioned by the former infrastructure minister and now Prime Minister. That work, back in the early 2000s, found that a high-speed rail line was not only viable in Australia but will return $2 for every $1 of investment that was made in the project. That's what productivity investment is all about.

During our last period in government, we invested more in rail projects than all previous national governments combined. And that is nation-building. We're committed to delivering long-term infrastructure that drives economic development, ensuring the continued prosperity of our regional centres and Sydney. High-speed rail would substantially reduce travel times, allowing passengers to travel between major cities and significant regional cities at speeds exceeding 250 kilometres an hour. That means a crucial unlocking of regional economies and the generation of significant employment opportunities.

I mentioned earlier that where you have these stops, particularly in rural and regional areas, cities will spring up over time. Business will start to locate there. Government services will be delivered there. Populations will move there because they have the transport options to get them to and from employment, in particular, and other destinations in a reasonable time. It could help to change the lives of millions of Australians, especially in our regions, while also bringing our east coast capitals closer. We know that rail infrastructure also helps decarbonise our economy, by taking more cars off the road and, for long-distance rail, reducing that reliance we've traditionally had in Australia on air travel.

The first priority of the authority will be planning the corridor works for the Sydney to Newcastle section of the high-speed rail network. That's backed by a $500 million commitment from the Albanese government. This was a commitment that was promised in the election campaign. The Australian people voted for it, particularly along the Central Coast. Those seats that changed hands to the Labor Party were very much a reflection of those communities saying they wanted a big transport project like this and access to high-speed rail for their communities. The commitment will see the corridor planning and early works progress in this fast-growing east coast region.

While the authority works closely with the New South Wales government on this section, it will continue to advance plans for other sections along the broader network. This will eventually connect Brisbane to Melbourne, with stops in Canberra, Sydney and other regional centres. The authority will provide independent advice to governments on high-speed rail planning and delivery, leading to coordination with states and territories.

The authority will be overseen by a board drawn from experts in the rail and infrastructure sector. Faster rail will also continue to be advanced under the authority, with the functions of the National Faster Rail Agency being undertaken by the authority and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

High-speed rail will help to revolutionise interstate travel along the east coast. It can provide fast alternatives for people to move between capital cities compared to other modes of travel. And the option for high-speed rail for inner-city travel will also help in the transition to net zero by 2050. Delivery of the high-speed network will provide economic benefits. Think of all the jobs that will be created, not only in the planning phase but also in the construction phase of this important infrastructure. It will enhance connectivity through faster alternative modes of transport and increase price competition in the market for travel along the east coast.

Australians in regional areas will benefit from improved liveability through enhanced connectivity to urban areas and international gateways. The high-speed rail network will reshape settlement patterns along Australia's east coast, alleviating pressure on outer suburban areas and growth corridors in major cities. The construction of high-speed rail will also secure significant jobs for the economy through Labor's National Rail Manufacturing Plan.

The Australian government will ensure that more trains are built in Australia by local manufacturing workers and that every dollar of federal funding spent on rail projects will go towards creating local jobs and providing sustainable industry. We know that Australians can build efficient and effective train carriages for our rail networks. It happens in Victoria. There is no excuse for governments to continue buying off-the-shelf products internationally or from other nations and having to rework them in Australia to fit along stations, along the rail gauges and along the networks that we have on the east coast and broader Australia. It never made sense. It actually led to cost overruns because of the modifications that had to be made to the carriages once they arrived in Australia to sit within our network. We have a dispute in New South Wales at the moment that is all about that particular issue, the government having to modify those carriages so that they're suitable and provide a safe form of travel for Australians in the rail network.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly support this bill. It's a long time coming, but it represents the new Labor government getting on with the job of planning better transport options for Australians and finally getting on with planning a high-speed rail network up and down the east coast of Australia.


No comments