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It’s time we resuscitated the demand for faster trains. Our economy needs purpose and our demography needs youth. Recent data tells a sobering story. Population growth in Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and the Central Coast is modest but dominated by those in older age groups. Jobs growth is similarly tepid and dominated by sectors – like low-value health and personal care services – that have insignificant multiplier effects. Everywhere is becoming Gosford.
On the bright side there are 910,000 people in our combined regions, up by about 100,000 from 10 years ago. In 10 more years a million people will line the coast and its hinterland between the Hawkesbury and Port Stephens. This could be one of the world’s most prosperous, delightful, sustainable places to live.
But on present indications it will be a coastline of disconnected clumps with no coherent economy or connecting transport infrastructure. People will continue to be car dependent. The M1 Pacific Motorway will be a crunch of trucks and frustrated commuters. The slow stinky rail service will continue. The young and the best will continue to flee.
It’s a depressing scenario for a region with most of the ingredients to benefit from the rise of the knowledge economy where quality of life is essential to ensure supply of the best labour. The missing ingredient is connectivity. Finally the NBN is changing the Hunter from the nation’s worst digital landscape to one of world standard. The next step is better transport connections.
Freight connections are needed. But there’s the rub. The region's main freight path is the M1 and that road’s limits are apparent to any regular user. I drive the M1 once a week before dawn. It’s scary with speed and heavy metal. Then at the Sydney end it chokes to a halt. The thing is already unreliable, and unsustainable. But it is the designated freight carriageway linking Brisbane to Sydney for decades to come.
No professional services firm will ever contemplate moving to the Central Coast or Lower Hunter if its staff needs to rely on the M1 for daily connections. But build a high speed rail link and everything changes – as it has all around the world for small cities located 100 to 200kms from a major global city, like Sydney.
We worked in Bologna, Italy, for a few months in 2010 and travelled regularly to Milan 200kms away in just over an hour. Yet a train from Broadmeadow to Sydney takes two and half hours to travel only 150kms.
No one uses the Newcastle-Sydney train for business. Barely one in a 100 workers in the Lower Hunter travel to work by train. The daily flow of professional visits to inner Sydney from the Lower Hunter is a paltry 250. Fewer than 20 come the other way.
In 1998, the then Premier, Bob Carr, announced “fully funded” plans for a high speed upgrade of the Newcastle-Central Coast-Sydney railway line. The upgrade was to be completed by 2007. The promise was re-iterated by Labor’s then Minister for Transport, Carl Scully, in 2002.
Nothing was built.
More recently the Rudd and Gillard federal Labor governments began planning for high speed rail through our region. Nothing is being built.
Sadly, I understand that governments promise things that never happen. What I don’t understand is why no one in the Lower Hunter seems to care any more about a fast train to Sydney.
Maybe people who understand the importance of reliable fast transport connections don't have jobs here anymore?
This article first appeared on www.theherald.com.au
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