Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022; Second Reading

5:52 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I was in continuation before we got rudely interrupted by hard markers, which are an essential part of business in this place. Just to wrap up my remarks: before I was interrupted by the hard marker, I was waxing lyrical about the 'Utopian' nature of high-speed rail in this country. I'd mentioned how many attempts we've had at setting up high-speed rail agencies, doing investigations, doing desktop audits, looking at maps on tabletops and considering high-speed rail around the world and what could and could not work for Australia. We continue to come up against the fact that we've got a huge continent and a sparse population.

We all agree that we need high-speed rail. We all agree that high-speed rail would be a very good thing for passengers, for freight and for the environment, as we heard from the Greens in their contribution. We all agree it's a great thing. What we don't agree on is how to go about it. I implore the government: instead of renaming another agency—instead of shuffling papers and bums on seats—actually look at the work that has been done. Look at the work that our government initiated with the Newcastle-to-Sydney faster rail upgrades, take that work and let's see something come to fruition instead of starting all over again and reinventing the wheel. If it's not Utopia, it's Groundhog Day. Quite frankly, I, for one, am well and truly over it and would just like to see movement at the station—pardon the pun.

5:54 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I speak to the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022—or, as I prefer to call it, the 'elect Chris Minns as New South Wales Premier bill'. It's not a coincidence that this bill provides for the national high-speed rail network proposal to start with just one section: between Sydney and Newcastle—just in time for the New South Wales state election in the coming March. Oh, the photo opportunities and announcements! I can see them now—for example, 'Vote Labor and we will get you to work in 40 minutes.' What dishonesty. What treachery.

I appreciate that that the Central Coast and Hunter are now dormitory suburbs of Sydney. Every day, more than 100,000 residents use rail and road on their daily trek to Sydney for work. High-speed would be a wonderful way to make that trip. One problem with making that promise is that high-speed rail on that route is never going to happen. It's impossible. Here's why. The route consist of mountain ranges, massive sandstone cliffs and waterways. Unless the High Speed Authority sprinkles magic dust, there is no way it will make a straight, flat track with the solid foundations necessary to sustain high-speed rail through the Hawksbury, Central Coast and Lower Hunter.

The current discussion involves sending high-speed rail along the existing alignment through the Central Coast, through the Gosford waterfront, through residential areas to Wyong and then via YE into the lower Hunter. The area's geography makes any other route almost impossible, at least without substantial environmental impact, meaning massive, long tunnels and cuttings through national parks and equally long and heavily engineered bridges across the frequent waterways and soft ground.

Anything can be done at a cost, although the cost here will ensure a white elephant for taxpayers that will never recover the investment. I shudder to think how much the tickets will cost, certainly more than working families can afford, the families who are being targeted with this false, deceptive promise.

While Australia does need a modern rail network connecting our capital cities, airports and major ports, high-speed rail is not the answer. The federal government last examined the possibility of building a 1,748-kilometre high-speed rail link from Brisbane to Melbourne in 2013, when the cost was estimated at $114 billion, with the Sydney-to-Newcastle section costed at $17.9 billion. At that time, by the way, the Inland Rail was costed at $4 billion. It's now $20 billion. That's five times higher. So I would expect this same inaccuracy factor would apply to the fast rail, costing out the Sydney-to-Hunter section alone at $90 billion in today's dollars.

The Grattan Institute has found high-speed rail projects have little chance of passing the cost-benefit test based on the typical discount rate used for transport infrastructure of about seven per cent. Marion Terrill, the current director of the Grattan Institute's Transport and City Program, has said:

Australia is just not suited to high-speed rail because our cities are too small and too far apart.

Too small means the passenger volume will not be sufficient to justify the capital expenditure, leading to prohibitive fares or massive government subsidies—or, most likely, both.

To illustrate this point, when New South Wales XPT trains were purchased in 1982, the intention was to create fast rail in New South Wales. The XPTs are designed to travel at just 150 kilometres per hour. So what stopped fast rail at that time was the inability to build a track capable of supporting those speeds. This is essential for safety and reliability. Our rail lines curve around too much. The Great Dividing Range provides serious hurdles to fast rail, and our waterways along the coast complicate the flat sections that we do have. For clarity, fast rail is generally speeds up to 150 kilometres per hour. High-speed rail is 250 kilometres per hour to 300 kilometres per hour. Fast rail requires entirely different and substantially more expensive rolling stock and track.

It may be feasible with a large government investment to upgrade existing rail lines on the Sydney-to-Hunter route to travel express services at fast-rail pace rather than high-speed rail pace. One Nation would strongly support immediate feasibility studies on upgrading the Sydney-to-Hunter line to fast rail since New South Wales already has the rolling stock.

Senator McKenzie will be moving an amendment to this bill that will introduce Productivity Commission oversight of proposals and a transparent reporting system. If this amendment is passed, this bill will gain the checks and balances it should have had all along, and One Nation will support it. Without those checks and balances, One Nation will oppose this bill. We have one flag, we are one community, we are one nation, and we don't lie for any reason—certainly not to the public to get votes.

6:00 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to start by thanking all senators for their contributions to the High Speed Rail Authority Bill 2022 and acknowledge Senators McKenzie, Rice, Davey and Roberts for their contributions to the debate here in the Senate.

The bill before us will establish the High Speed Rail Authority to develop, advise on and plan for a high-speed rail system in Australia. It will deliver on our election commitment and will plan for high-speed rail along Australia's east coast, from Melbourne to Brisbane. Fast rail connections between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle will be progressed as the first priority, and $500 million will be allocated to start the necessary corridor acquisition planning and early works.

I note Senator McKenzie's remarks regarding the need to ensure regional communities are consulted on the planning and the development of the high-speed rail network, and I can assure the Senate that, unlike the National Party in their delivery of the Inland Rail, the government will undertake extensive consultations with affected communities regarding the design and delivery of the high-speed rail network.

In relation to the amendments proposed by Senator McKenzie, I can advise that, while we appreciate the contribution by the opposition to this debate, respectfully, we will not be supporting their amendments. I will speak to this in more detail during consideration; however, in terms of transparency measures, there are other processes now, through both annual reports and corporate plans, that provide the opportunity for the progress reporting to take place. In relation to the board, we are seeking to establish a skills based board, and the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government has advised, in the other place, that it would be great for regional Australians to be members of the board. However, as it is such a complex project, we can't have a quota system, which is what the Nationals are now proposing in this amendment. I note that this is not something that the National Party supports in other areas, such as the representation of women in parliament or in the coalition.

I also acknowledge Senator Rice's sentiments about ensuring that the delivery and the financing of the high-speed rail network stay in public hands. The government's position is that the consideration of the funding, financing, construction and operation of the high-speed rail network is not a matter for this legislation to determine but should be part of the High Speed Rail Authority's planning work, once established.

I also note Senator Davey's comments around the distinction between faster and high-speed rail. To clarify: faster and fast rail refer to trains that can operate at up to 250 kilometres per hour; high-speed rail refers to services capable of travelling at speeds in excess of 250 kilometres per hour. I also note Senator Roberts' contribution to the bill's debate.

I note also that Senator David Pocock and his office have engaged constructively with the minister and her office in recent days, and I thank him for his engagement. I understand the senator has proposed a number of amendments, which, I can advise, the government will be supporting. These amendments relate to ensuring that appointments to the board of the High Speed Rail Authority and the position of CEO are the result of a merit based process. There is also an amendment concerning the disclosure of interests of board members to the minister, in accordance with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. The minister has already made clear in the other place that the board of the High Speed Rail Authority has to be a skills based board and that it is absolutely the determination of the government to appoint people based on merit.

It is important for us to note the approach of the former government, who stacked their boards with Liberal and National mates. The coalition government was focused more on jobs for the boys than on delivering for the community. We all know what they did with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Infrastructure Australia board.

I conclude my remarks by again thanking all senators for their contributions today and by saying to the Senate that high-speed rail offers many choices. Without it you have to live closer to where you work or you will lose time with your family when you are stuck in traffic. With it you have more choice and can move out of the city, taking pressure off our outer suburbs, and into a regional area, with all the benefits that brings, and still have more time with your family. Who wouldn't want that?

Without high-speed rail your connection to work is more difficult and also your connection to your wider family and friends. Catching up more often becomes more possible with high-speed rail. High-speed rail can get you between cities faster and rail can take you right into a city centre. You can leave your car, taxi or rideshare behind, knowing that in the process you are doing more to help lower the carbon in the atmosphere. It's not only an easy people mover but also a job creator and an industry builder. We want our regions to grow and prosper. We want the economy to be stronger and deliver benefits right across the country, not just in the city centres. We want public transport to be part of the green economy. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.