The Very Fast Train Revisited

The planned route of the Consolidated Lands & Rail Australia’s (CLARA) proposed high-speed line.
July 15, 2016

Australia desperately needs high-speed rail, if for no other reason than short-haul aviation is a major source of rising greenhouse emissions.

This does not mean, however, that the Consolidated Lands & Rail Australia's (CLARA) proposal to build a high-speed line from Sydney to Melbourne, along with eight new “smart cities” along the route should be welcomed. Any proposal for a privately built, privately operated railway should be suspect. CLARA's proposal is particularly so.

First, there is the proposed 40-year build time. China built 19,000km (about 20 times the distance between Sydney and Melbourne) of high-speed rail in 12 years.

Then there is the proposed funding of the project through land speculation.

This, plus the improbable 2-hour travelling time between the two cities being touted (about twice the speed of the fastest trains currently running in Europe), raises questions as to whether CLARA intends building a rail line at all.

The whole proposal is very similar to the “Very Fast Train” proposed in 1989. Alan Broughton explains how that proposal was defeated.

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When rural communities in south eastern Australia defeated the Very Fast Train proposal in 1990 we knew it would reappear. It has, in a similar form. It is surprising that it took 25 years.

In 1989 a consortium of private interests led by Sir Peter Abeles and John Elliot developed a proposal for a fast train line between Melbourne and Sydney via Canberra. The proposed route went through Gippsland and south-east NSW, with stations in the La Trobe Valley, Sale/Maffra, Bairnsdale, Orbost, Bombala, Cooma, Canberra and Bowral.

Initial local reaction centred on concern about the loss of productive dairy farming land and environmental destruction. The fenced 200 metre wide corridor would divide people's farms and the cut-and-fill Great Dividing Range section through the bush would cause immense environmental damage to the Brodribb River valley. However these issues were somewhat subsumed when financing was revealed.

It soon became clear that this was not primarily a transport proposal but a land development proposal. The train would be financed by the compulsory acquisition of up to 300 square kilometres of land around each of the planned stations (a radius of 10 kilometres) for new cities. The proposal was connected to a Japanese idea called the Multi-Function Polis.

Peter Abeles, then managing director of TNT said: “It would be more appropriate if one would call the project the restructuring of our sociological and economic structure of the east coast ... I regard the train as only the catalyst for the rest, but the rest will have to fund the original capital costs …”

When people realised that not only was the corridor being acquired, but also massive amounts of land for speculative purposes, they were absolutely livid.

Land value capture is also a key component of the current proposal.

Opposition groups were formed to fight the proposal in every Gippsland town, in south-east NSW and along the alternate route via north-east Victoria and Albury. Coordinating meetings between the groups were held regularly. Small local hall meetings were conducted in every town and hamlet. Apart from business groups who hoped for new opportunities, opposition was total.

The unity that developed between previously hostile sections of the community, including environmentalists and anti-greenies, was amazing. Speakers from the VFT Consortium at public meetings were howled down. City people also got involved — 1000 people attended a public meeting in South Melbourne Town Hall in March 1990.

A book was written and published by the Left Book Club, edited by Paul James, called Technocratic Dreaming: Of Very Fast Trains and Japanese Designer Cities. Several of the chapters were contributed by activists. The work done then needs to be revisited.

In July 1990 the Consortium announced it was abandoning land value capture, no doubt because people found it so obnoxious, and in October dropped the Gippsland route in favour of the north east. Soon that was dropped too. We felt we had won, after an all-consuming battle over two years, but expected it to come up again some time.

The Victorian Labor Government was never enthusiastic about the plan, and provided funding for local groups to prepare submissions for a public inquiry into the VFT. Most groups received $3000 each, which enabled further research to be done. The groups divided up topics between them to prevent duplication of effort and increase the impact. Federal Labor however was supportive of the proposal — Bob Hawke, a friend of Abeles, was very enthusiastic.

Few details have emerged about the latest fast train proposal, except that land value capture is to be the funding mechanism. While from an environmental point of view trains are much friendlier than aeroplane travel, we need to realise that the train does not come alone. As one of our leaflets at the time was headed “The VFT and what else?”

Leaving decisions to corporations is not going to provide the best outcome for transport, the environment or communities.

[Alan Broughton was an activist at the time with Bruthen and District Community Forum, one of the many organisations that sprang up to defeat the proposal.]

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