A Very Fishy Transaction


By Gerry Harant

The VFT (Very Fast Train between Sydney and Melbourne) project is being indecently exhumed, after we thought we had buried it for good in the early '90s.

Sir Peter Abeles, the main driving force behind the project, explained that this was definitely not a transport scheme, but an all-embracing get rich(er) quick concept for him and his mates, in which transport played some part.

If you pictured yourself whizzing between Melbourne and Sydney in 3½ hours on a $50 ticket, forget it. For a start, fares were going to be much the same as air travel.

You would be able to send faxes, make phone calls and all those other things you always desperately want to do on an interstate trip. But some airlines are also providing this sort of "essential" gimmick.

The following, based on the VFT Consortium's publication, VFT Focus for the Future, give some idea of the project.

  • The VFT is not an answer to Australia's interstate transport problem. There will be no heavy freight carried to reduce the amount of road transport, and there will be no sizeable reduction in passenger car traffic either. The VFT is a tourist attraction (snow-sports featured heavily in the brochures) — and a rich businessperson's toy.

The VFT is meant to create new artificial settlements along the lines of the similarly ill-conceived multi-function polis, which was being pushed by a consortium which fielded many of the same players, and which has now bitten the dust.

If these satellite city schemes did succeed — and when, in recent history, has a railway station in the middle of nowhere led to the creation of a town? — they would create new road transport problems. The promoters of the VFT consortium, who had huge holdings in road transport, were likely to gain on the swings as well as on the roundabouts.

  • The VFT is not economically viable. With a $5 billion investment, each of the annual 5 million projected Melbourne-Sydney trips would carry a $200 tag in interest alone, in addition to operating costs not far removed from aircraft mileage costs.

Truthfully, however, the book does point out that state electricity utilities would have been expected to supply power at fractional cost — fat chance with Victoria's privatised utilities.

As well, we were told that if the system doesn't pay, governments would be expected to pick up the tab.

The book made it plain that land speculation rather than electricity is expected to be the driving force behind the VFT. And while there is nothing in this for us, at the time land prices were already rising in VFT-affected areas, and guess who was the likely winner?

  • Jobs. Of the $5 billion to be spent, half is expected to go to overseas companies. Every other country running fast trains makes them locally — no such luck here.

Once in operation, the system will employ only a handful of workers under conditions which would set the VFT apart from other railway operations. Given Abeles' later conspiracy with Bob Hawke in the pilots' lockout, and the current waterfront provocation, this was clearly a sign of things to come.

  • The environment. The impact on the environment will be appalling, an almost straight swathe being cut through the foothills of the Alps. The inland route, which would be less destructive, was ruled out because of a smaller expected rake-off from land grabs and tourism.

Carefully concealed in the book are figures which show that carbon dioxide emissions would actually be worse per passenger-kilometre than those generated by aircraft, more even than those of a passenger car with four or more passengers!

The noise pollution would destroy the peace of the bush for many kilometres either side of the track. At 0.5 kilometre, it would, according to the book's "hopeful" projections, still be as noisy as a suburban street.

In Europe, trains have been run experimentally at 350km/hr, but their energy consumption would be around three times higher than the 250km/hr average which is the current standard for fast trains worldwide. Yet the consumption quoted in the book is that of the 250km/hr trains.

The problems of keeping the tracks straight and level and keeping the overhead wire aligned are difficult enough at 250-280km/hr, and would cost a fortune at 350km/hr.

Because the permanent way would have to be inaccessible to animals — imagine the look of a locomotive after a 350km/hr impact with a two-tonne Hereford bull, not to mention the look on the face of the bull — the entire line would have to be fenced, creating an impenetrable barrier for local fauna.

The consortium solved this minor problem by providing for tunnels under the line; presumably there would be adequate signage to show the creatures the way to the nearest one.

  • Financial impact: The $5 billion project cost was to come from overseas. Apart from overseas tourism, there would be no offsetting factors to this increase in the national debt. On the contrary, most of the investment in the MFP-type satellite developments would be based on further overseas investments, generating a multiplier effect.

How do we know the current scheme is the same as earlier ones? We don't. As in the early stages of the original project, we aren't given anything other than hype.

However, that hype is the same, and so are the scheme's main proponents. So is the major publicity effort, such as a glowing leading article in the Age, which misled readers by ascribing the VFT's earlier failure to a short-sighted failure on the part of the Hawke government to grant massive tax concessions.

The very existence of the VFT project, even though it has no relation to any known transport problem in the eastern states, would retard the desperately necessary upgrading of our national transport system.

There is no reason why the present permanent way cannot be improved to carry trains at 160 km/hr, as it did in the steam-driven '50s, and later 200-220km/hr by straightening the route and employing light trains such as the NSW XPT. This sort of project has been priced at $1-2 billion.

Clearly, if Victoria alone can afford to build a shonky casino to the tune of $1.5 billion, we could also afford a rail upgrade of which Victoria's share would be less than half that sum — or, choosing another example, equal to the cost of two unneeded and unwanted office towers in our already environmentally appalling CBD.

Such an upgrade would bring untold benefits in reduced road toll, less environmental damage and massive savings as we switch from road transport to rail for both passengers and freight. Instead, our public transport system is being systematically degraded, depleted and destroyed.

Even though this proposal was first raised in the financially gung-ho '80s, doubts opponents raised in the minds of the financiers may well have been what ultimately led to the scheme being abandoned. These doubts overrode the combined hype of a well-oiled publicity machine, "development"-oriented "Labor" governments and the machinations of very highly placed tycoons.

The weight of arguments by environmentalists and academics, defenders of public transport, farmers threatened with expropriation and a tiny handful of sensible politicians (particularly Victorian MP Joan Coxsedge) allowed sanity to prevail.

Last time we won by broadcasting the facts about this scam far and wide. Using the same tactic, we can win again.