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The proposed Very Fast Train project

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: And in Sydney today, the Senate Standing Committee on Transport, Communications, and Infrastructure, began public hearings into the proposed Very Fast Train project. Proceedings began with evidence from a New South Wales Government delegation, led by the Director-General of the Department of State Development, Dr John Saunders. At this moment, that delegation is still giving evidence. But, as Steven Crittendon reports, it's already becoming clear that the Greiner Government is treating the VFT as an each way bet.

STEVEN CRITTENDON: Officially, the Greiner Government has given its support in principle to the idea of a Very Fast Train, on the basis that it will be a private project which will place no financial burden on the Government and taxpayers of New South Wales. And in its submission to the inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Transport, Communications, and Infrastructure, prepared last November, the New South Wales Government stated that it had no doubt that the project, as envisaged in the concept report prepared by the Very Fast Train consortium, will result in `substantial benefits to the New South Wales community'. However, that position is, if anything, less clear after this morning's proceedings.

First, this morning, Dr Saunders of the Department of State Development, was redefining the Premier's previous position, that his government would not shoulder any of the financial burden for the Very Fast Train. He said that Mr Greiner did not mean that the Government would make no financial contribution up front. Any investment by the State would have to be considered against what he called the bottom line of the equation, and would be offset by social and economic benefits accruing from the Very Fast Train. Dr Saunders said these might include a boost in tourism.

The New South Wales Government is certainly keen not to be seen as unfavorably disposed towards the Very Fast Train. But under questioning from Honorable Senators, it became clear that there are major problems to be solved if the project is to get off the ground.

In particular, the New South Wales Government party admitted that a detailed cost benefit analysis had still to be fully undertaken, and that its previous submission that there would be substantial benefits, may have to be qualified. Some of the most interesting questions this morning, focused around the New South Wales Government's characterisation of the project as `a land development project with a transport component', in other words, that by itself, the Very Fast Train is not a totally viable proposition - that its financial success depends on the value of land development. Dr Saunders' admission that the project may, after all, be better characterised as a transport project with a land development component, only underlines the continuing uncertainty about just what the land development aspect of the project actually amounts to. The idea that land values will rise along the route is based on the old pioneering myth that the railways bring prosperity, except that this is a railway specifically designed to have very few stops along the route. Dr Saunders indicated that no dialogue had occurred on this subject to date, between the New South Wales Government and the consortium, and that the consortium had, in fact, produced no written material to confirm its earlier suggestions.

Senator John Faulkner of New South Wales, raised the most interesting question of the morning, when he referred to a recent article in the Bulletin, written by Bruce Stannard, in which Mr Stannard says, that early in May, New South Wales Government planners involved in designs for the McArthur growth area on the southwest edge of Sydney, had been officially told to ignore the possibility that the VFT might pass through the area, and to proceed as if it no longer existed. Dr Saunders said he had no knowledge whether these allegations were true, and agreed to take it on notice to find out. If the allegations are true, they would suggest that the Greiner Government has little confidence in the future of the Very Fast Train.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Steven Crittendon at the hearing in Sydney.