High-speed rail should be about city building, not creating distant dormitory suburbs

High-speed rail should be about city building, not creating distant dormitory suburbs
Alastair TaylorApril 12, 2016


Little by little, detail is beginning to paint a larger picture of the Federal Government's direction on cities. We've heard snippets about value capture, 30 year bonds and talk of high-speed rail has surfaced once again.

Despite the intellectually-bankrupt, marginal seat election-positioning announcement on Friday - that Melbourne Metro will have strings attached to federal funding yet various road projects around the city will be the beneficiary of a not-so-many-strings-attached Federal Government ATM - by joining some of the dots and if we weren't on the precipice of election season in Canberra, perhaps the national city building discussion would be a little more mature.

The mainstream media appear more interested in click-baiting the Simpsons generation with headlines invoking quotes from that famous episode than dissecting the commentary that's been put in the public domain.

NSW backbencher John Alexander appeared on 7:30 last night and said that value capture could be the way to fund a high-speed rail system.

The opportunity to release incredible amounts of land that have got very low cost - that could be 20-30 minutes from the cbd - gives that opportunity of enormous value uplift and therefore the opportunity of value capture to fund that infrastructure.

John Alexander MP, 7:30, 11/04/2016

And here's the rub, if a high-speed rail system began its life by progressively rolling out in phases from Melbourne to Shepparton, from Sydney to Goulburn and then eventually linked somewhere in the middle near Wagga Wagga (the half-way point between Melbourne and Sydney on the existing rail line), a culture of daily long-distance commuting is likely to dominate the system from day one.

This is bad, very bad - it's effectively extending the major issues of suburban sprawl over even greater distances and the argument could be made that rather than dumping suburban sprawl on regional cities like Shepparton and Goulburn then why isn't the same funding spent within existing growth boundaries of Melbourne & Sydney?

Imagine Shepparton with a population of over 100,000 and a few thousand of its highest income residents waltz on down to the station and hop onto a train to Melbourne every morning and come back in the early evening - what kind of city would it be during the weekday?

If there were no significant employers locating to or growing in the regional cities, it would mean these larger regional cities are robbed of a significant daytime economy that creates urban vibrancy. The regional cities would become dormitory suburbs of the state capitals linked by a single transport service that should be it be taken out of action for any great period of time, would have profound economic impacts through delays it would cause to the people who rely on it.

Australia's affordable housing issues are not going to be solved by very expensive rail lines that are going to take people from low-cost regional cities to the centres of state capitals. This type of long-distance commuting will only be available to those who can support that lifestyle financially and I dare say it would be out of reach for most on middle incomes and really only be accessible to those considered to be on upper-middle incomes.

No, if we are to use high-speed rail as a catalyst to grow regional cities, there's one element that has not been mentioned to date: the regional cities will need tools to incentivise the growth of existing, and most importantly, new employment so that residents who do move to these cities both live and work locally.

Just like the symbiotic relationship of Melbourne & Sydney and the current 'air bridge' of high-frequency flights between the two cities which facilitate large amounts of travel for business, tourism and family-related purposes; high-speed rail's primary function at the capital-to-regional level should be the same.

Mechanisms for incentivising employment and local business growth like the creation of lower-tax zones in the regional centres with high-speed rail stations could be one way to ensure that population growth is matched by employment growth in the regional cities however the debate should not be limited to the tax arena - this is where the planning and economic policy wonks need to get to work and come up with a suite of mechanisms.

By all means, investigate and utilise value capture mechanisms to help finance a high-speed rail network - it's a smart idea and would force many people in all three levels of government to do a great deal of forward thinking; but for the sake of the regional cities, don't sell the high-speed rail network on the benefits of commuting to capital cities.

Lead image credit: streetview of the location proposed for Shepparton station in the Rudd Government's High Speed Rail study.

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Urban.com.au. Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

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