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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1919

Mr LANGMORE(7.28) —The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure has an inquiry under way at present on the national infrastructure. One of the largest and most imaginative infrastructure proposals currently under examination is the Sydney-Melbourne very fast train project. A private joint venture group is investigating the feasibility of a very high speed rail link from Sydney, through Canberra, to Melbourne. The project would use a new standard gauge rail track aligned so as to enable speeds of up to 350 kilometres per hour. Travel times of one hour between Sydney and Canberra, and three hours between Sydney and Melbourne, are predicted. Passenger demand is estimated to be 5 million one way trip equivalents per year. This estimated usage rate is less per head of population in the area served than the rates achieved by equivalent trains in France and Japan.

A pre-feasibility study by the joint venture estimates a capital cost of the project of $3.7 billion. A high proportion of this would be spent in Australia, generating an estimated 25,000 jobs during construction. If viable, the project could provide a cheap, safe, fast, energy-efficient link between Australia's two largest cities and the national capital. It would relieve pressure on the existing road, rail and air infrastructure in the Sydney-Melbourne corridor. The VFT proposal involves a huge investment to create an asset which will have a long life and great social and economic impact. It falls clearly in the same class as the Snowy Mountains scheme and the trans-continental railway. Like these other historical infrastructure projects, the VFT proposal requires a level of vision above the ordinary.

Some of the defining characteristics of infrastructure-large scale and long life-call for vision, and it is clear that large projects will require it more. In an age increasingly concerned with quantification, and increasingly better equipped to obtain it, we must not forget the need for imagination, drive, boldness and innovation, the qualities we lump together in the elusive term `vision'. Earlier generations, less well equipped technically to evaluate and manage large projects, frequently made costly mistakes through overoptimism. The danger in our age is the opposite-that we will miss opportunities through evaluations that are too narrow and vision that it too limited. The challenge is to use the new techniques and technologies of evaluation and management without being blinkered by them.

The distinguished American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr argues that there is in American history a 30-year cycle of political eras of conservatism and liberalism in the non-partisan sense. He calls these periods of private interest and periods of public purpose. Schlesinger places the present age in a period of conservatism or pessimism but suggests that we are approaching a turning point towards a period of greater optimism. The VFT project may well be a harbinger of such a periodic change in Australia.

The VFT proposal has both potential benefits and costs. On the benefit side, the project could create new markets and jobs and bring Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne much closer, both socially and economically. It could boost both exports and import substitution and relieve pressure for additional investment in the existing transport infrastructure. On the debit side, the project would absorb a very large amount of capital which might yield better returns in other areas. As well, it may reduce the returns available from the huge existing investment in transport infrastructure in the Sydney-Melbourne corridor and destroy or disrupt jobs in that sector.

The VFT project highlights the interlocking relationship of much infrastructure. There is already a massive investment in transport infrastructure in the Sydney-Melbourne corridor. The Hume Highway, currently approaching the conclusion of a major and expensive upgrade, the existing rail links and a very large investment in aircraft and their support facilities would all be affected by a new high speed rail link. There is a clear need for co-ordination of investments as large as those needed in transport infrastructure, which have potential both to compete with and complement each other. I hope that within that context the Government will give the very fast train project a sympathetic hearing.