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London: Federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine King says high-speed rail will happen in her lifetime but has refused to commit to a deadline after viewing Britain’s troubled fast-rail scheme.
King, on a trip to the UK, said she believed fast rail would connect Newcastle and Sydney within 30 years.
Infrastructure Minister Catherine King.Credit: Peter Rae
Australia has appointed UK woman Dyan Perry, who oversaw Britain’s High Speed One (HS1), to Australia’s High Speed Rail Authority Board.
HS1 is a 109-kilometre rail line between London’s St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel and enables Eurostar passengers to travel at speeds of 300 kilometres per hour instead of 160 kilometres per hour. It was completed in 2007 and cost £5.8 billion.
The UK is now embarking on its second fast rail project called HS2. It aims to connect London with Birmingham in the Midlands and Manchester in the North, but it has been plagued with cost blowouts and delays, and the government regularly talks of scrapping phases not yet under construction.
The first leg of the project linking Birmingham to London for train journeys of just 52 minutes was originally set to cost £58 billion and open in 2026. It will now open in 2029 at the earliest, and costs have already reached £70 billion.
King said in an interview that learning the reasons for the delays was vital given Australia was at the start of its fast rail journey.
“What is it in terms of the governance structure, what is it in terms of the financing mechanisms, in terms of the planning and engineering,” she said.
“So really I’m trying to pick people’s brains about what to do right, what to be wary of.”
She said defining the route from the start and sticking to it was vital.
“Infrastructure projects really blow out when you’re not very clear from the start exactly what it is that you’re doing, and changing scope constantly and changing design features just adds substantially to the cost,” she said.
“One of the other things I certainly pulled out of HS1 meetings yesterday was [to] use existing corridors, use existing routes, particularly in the way in which you’re engaging communities along the way.”
A Newcastle to Sydney link would traverse through a national park and tricky terrain, the minister said.
She added it was critical to get the Authority’s governance structures right as well as staff. The government is in the process of appointing a CEO.
When asked how high-speed rail would be funded in Australia, how soon it would be delivered and the estimated cost, King said she could not provide those answers.
”I don’t want to make promises about when it will start, when it will be finished, when we’ll be digging soil until we’ve got all of that really solid work done.”
But she insisted that she would board high-speed rail between Newcastle and Sydney in her lifetime.
“Yeah absolutely, that’s definitely something I want to do, I’m in my fifties, I’m not that old, I don’t think I’ll be the minister but I certainly want to be boarding it.”
High-speed rail has been talked about for four decades in Australia. However, it has failed to get moving because it is considered economically unviable for private backing unless heavily subsidised by taxpayers.
King pointed to the concession model the UK used for HS1, in which two Canadian pension funds bought the concession for £2.1 billion in 2010 and sold it seven years later for £3 billion including debt.
She said the last business case conducted in 2013 needed to be refreshed and would provide some of those answers.
“There’s a lot of interest in this project in Australia, but it’s in its infancy at the moment. This is project that may take 30 years.”
King said the grand plan remained linking Melbourne to Brisbane by rail.
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