There are two websites that get far too many updates.
One site records traffic alerts on the M1 Motorway. The other lists the speeches of Labor’s shadow transport and infrastructure minister, Anthony Albanese, the promotion of fast rail along Australia’s eastern seaboard his common theme.
The log of accidents and breakdowns on M1Traffic.com.au verifies what M1 users know; that your journey is increasingly fraught, and when the traffic halts a queue builds quickly and lasts a long time.
Adding extra lanes is helping, but soon the growth in traffic on the M1 will overwhelm the improvements.
Long AM and PM congestion peaks come from workers commuting to Sydney jobs and tradies driving kamikaze for early starts on Sydney’s big construction projects.
Consider that 100,000 residents are added each decade along the Central Coast-Hunter conurbation and the outlook for car travel to and from Sydney looks grim.
Then add in the trucks, 50 or 60 tonnes each, cramming road space all day and night. Transport NSW estimates that road freight through our stretch of the M1 will double over the next two decades.
The solution is two-fold. First, Newcastle and the Central Coast desperately need more local jobs.
Second, a better rail service must be built from Newcastle through the Central Coast to Sydney, taking people to work and improving business connections.
A person should be able to travel from Newcastle to Sydney (or the reverse), have access to quality wifi, catering and toilets en route, transact their business, and return comfortably in half a day. In the 21st century economy inter-urban connections matter immensely.
Getting the Newcastle to Sydney rail problem sorted is so frustrating. Upgrading the existing service was promised over and over by the Carr Labor government in the 1990s and early 2000s but never delivered.
Then in 2007 Mr Albanese becomes minister for transport and infrastructure in a new Labor federal government.
One year later Mr Albanese says a very fast rail service along Australia’s east coast is the number one priority of his new creation, the politburo Infrastructure Australia. A first feasibility study is delivered in July 2011. More speeches are made.
A second major study is delivered in July 2013. It says that a Brisbane—Newcastle—Sydney—Canberra—Melbourne fast rail service stacks up financially, even at a total cost $114 billion (in 2012 dollars).
But a few months later Labor loses government and Albanese is jolted from his fast rail dream. All that planning, he wails, and nothing to show except two thick reports in the dumpster.
Still, the growing number of speeches on Mr Albanese’s website shows his ambition for an east coast fast rail project is undaunted.
Hard questions need asking.
Now another federal election is in sight, sometime in the next 12 months.
No doubt, Mr Albanese is dusting off his fast rail studies. But this time round will the electorate simply sigh at the old pony and his one-trick repertoire?
Hard questions need asking. Is there really a business case for a full-on east coast fast rail? Are cost-blowouts (like the NBN) inevitable?
Can a passageway be found?
Along the Newcastle to Sydney section, for instance, there are lakes and rivers, steep escarpments, rare habitats, and then one rich suburb after another on Sydney’s north shore with unlimited power to oppose intrusive construction projects in their leafy ‘hoods.
And then there is finding someone capable of delivering the massive construction and fit-out task. Ring Beijing, or Madrid?
Of course, there is a modest alternative that could start straight away: a substantial upgrade of the existing rail service to make it run quicker, more often and be more pleasant.
Engineers could surely shave 30 minutes off the Newcastle to Sydney journey at a fraction of the cost of building high-speed rail. Upgrading the existing service is low-hanging fruit, with minimal financial and environmental risk.
Yet the latest priority list from Infrastructure Australia (them again) has dropped any upgrade to the Newcastle—Central Coast—Sydney rail line into its group of lowest ranked projects.
We need better political voice on this, as elections loom, state and federal. Otherwise be prepared to put up with more M1 delays, and more Albanese speeches.
Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.
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