But the Grattan Institute’s head of the cities and transport program Marion Terrill said the government should stop using public money to continually study these proposals.
While the sound of a Eurostar, Shinkansen, or TGV might sound appealing, fast rail networks in Europe and Asia connect large and concentrated populations even where the distances covered are very long. Countries similar to Australia in population size and spread — such as Canada and the US — do not have bullet trains.
“As regrettable as it might be given the undeniable appeal of an Australian east-coast bullet train, we should put the idea to bed and move on,” Ms Terrill states in her new Fast Rail Fever report.
Rail upgrades such as electrifying track or removing bends and inclines to enable speeds as high as 200km/h makes more sense in Australia, and may improve life for people in regional cities, the report suggests.
But claims they will take pressure off crowded capital cities while at the same time boosting struggling regions are “overblown”.
“Australia’s regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail, including better internet and mobile connectivity and freight links. And governments would help a lot more CBD commuters by improving transport options for people in the outer suburbs rather than the regions.
“Every proposed rail renovation project in Australia should be reviewed in light of the COVID crisis. The costs and benefit of each one should be rigorously assessed, and those that don’t stack up should be abandoned.”
The analysis also warned that once a bullet train was up and running, it would emit far less than today’s planes, but construction would take nearly 50 years and be enormously emissions intensive.
The Victorian government has invested $100 million in its Western Rail Plan, to improve speeds on the Geelong and Ballarat lines by fully separating regional and metro services.
The federal government launched its Faster Rail Plan last year to speed up links between Melbourne and Geelong, Shepparton, Albury and Traralgon.
It provided funding to the Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) company, which proposed to build two inland cities in Victoria and a further six in New South Wales that are linked by high-speed rail lines between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.
Federal Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has renewed calls for an east-coast bullet train in the wake of the pandemic after developing the policy a decade ago. He argued it would “revolutionise” interstate travel and become an “economic game-changer” for regional communities.
Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge said the government’s ambition over the next two decades is to “connect the big capital cities to the satellite regional centres surrounding them”.
“In doing so, it can allow people to live in those regional centres and have the cheaper housing and lifestyle associated with that, while still being able to easily access the big city employment centres on a convenient and affordable basis.”
Federal opposition transport, infrastructure and regional development spokeswoman Catherine King reiterated that Labor was a firm supporter of rail – “whether that be urban, regional, freight or high speed”.
“High Speed Rail is a transformative, nation-building project which would reshape all of eastern Australia and deliver major decentralisation and development benefits to regional centres along the route.”
A Victorian government spokesperson said high speed rail along the eastern coast was a matter for the commonwealth government.
“We make no apologies for delivering on our election commitments to deliver fast rail to our regional cities – that will not only deliver faster travel times, but boost our economy and support jobs.”
Timna Jacks is Transport Reporter at The Age