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High speed rail is having one of its regular moments in the sun in Australia, with media articles attracting comments such as “just build it”, or seeing our lack of fast rail as evidence of a national incapacity to deliver large projects (see the NBN).
But the buzz is more than talk: a National Faster Rail Authority has been established, international engineering experts have been engaged, business cases are under way and funding commitments have been announced. The proposals promote a new role for HSR, shifting the focus from interstate travel to connections between major cities and their regional satellites, to address population pressures in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and to stimulate regional economies. But given the costs of HSR – Melbourne to Geelong has been estimated at $10bn to $15bn – we need to ask whether it can solve our urban problems.
First, what can international experience tell us about connecting regional cities to a larger metropolis? Successes in connecting similar-sized and complementary cities, such as Osaka and Tokyo, the cities of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region and the Dutch Randstad, are not relevant to Australia, given the size imbalance between our capital and regional cities. In China the number and scale of large provincial cities allows more for corridor and multi-centre network design than Australia’s sparse patterns.
Where HSR connects imbalanced cities, opinion tends to the view that it advantages the larger city more than the regional cities, as evidenced by the cases of Paris and London. In the UK Prof John Tomaney concluded that that the regional benefits of a planned High Speed 2 network are “ambiguous at best and negative at worst”.
The gains flow to the larger city in two ways. Improved accessibility reduces market access costs and increases competition. While this allows regional businesses to access metropolitan markets, specialised big-city firms with economies of scale can more easily outcompete regional firms in local markets. And reduced travel times between centres means a reduced need for regional offices and service replication.
France offers a useful comparison for Australia, given the primacy of Paris, which has a similar role to Sydney in New South Wales and to Melbourne in Victoria. The two regional French cities that have benefited most from France’s TGV high speed rail system are Lyon and Lille. This is because of their role as nodes between the international HSR links to the Paris main line and among conventional regional connections to the TGV: no Australian regional cities are positioned to be network nodes like this. Though Lyon and Lille have grown, this is seen as coming at the expense of their smaller, less well-connected neighbours rather than as them becoming an alternative to Paris for business locations.
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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