A FEDERAL government report into high-speed rail along Australia's eastern seaboard has identified a route between Brisbane and Melbourne, via Sydney and Canberra, that would cost almost $100 billion.
Phase one of the report is due to be released by the federal Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, at an infrastructure conference on Thursday. Briefings for MPs, transport bureaucrats and industry representatives will be held tomorrow.
The Herald understands the report urges the federal government to secure a corridor for the train as soon as possible, with the most likely stops being Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Sydney, Goulburn-Southern Highlands, Canberra, Albury-Wodonga, Tullamarine Airport and central Melbourne.
A source familiar with the report said it was an "implementation study", which goes "well beyond a feasibility study". The study has the support of the government, opposition and the Greens.
It comes just days before the Australasian Railway Association - represented on the committee that is examining high-speed rail - releases its own report arguing an expansion of passenger and freight rail would result in economic and greenhouse savings.
The association's study, The True Value of Rail, completed by Access Economics, finds one passenger train takes 525 cars off the road and reduces road travel by 3.2 million vehicle kilometres a year. One passenger train also reduces road accident costs equivalent to 130 hospital visits and, in one year, reduces carbon emissions by the same amount as planting 320 hectares of trees.
The estimated $100 billion price tag for high-speed rail reflects the entire cost of a project that would link four capital cities and five major regional centres along the densely populated east coast and would take decades to construct. The cost of building smaller segments would be significantly cheaper.
Federal government sources have indicated there was little chance of starting construction on parts of the project within the next few years but if the government introduced planning controls along parts of the east corridor slated for the high-speed line, it would be easier for future governments to complete the project.
The Melbourne Greens MP, Adam Bandt, who has been pushing the project, said the government should make the Sydney-Melbourne route, which is already the fourth-busiest air corridor in the world, the first priority, rather than starting on a shorter, but more complex and expensive, leg between Sydney and Newcastle. "I am concerned that the government is thinking small … when they need to be thinking big," Mr Bandt said.
The former deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer, who has been campaigning for high-speed rail and is familiar with the rail industry plans, said that by using the shortest route between Sydney and Melbourne - about 830 kilometres - a high-speed train could achieve a commuting time between the two capitals of under three hours "without breaking any speed records".
He said a line built to cope with speeds of up to 330km/h would allow trains to achieve an average speed of 280km/h. "This is easily within the international standards in places like Europe and Japan," he told the Herald.
Mr Fischer, who is on leave from his job as Australian ambassador to the Vatican to promote his book on rail transport, Trains Unlimited, also criticised Max Moore-Wilton, the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under John Howard, for opposing the expansion of rail projects.
Mr Fischer suggested on ABC Radio that Mr Moore-Wilton, who is now a board member of the O'Farrell government's agency, Infrastructure NSW, had "sabotaged [by] greatly inflated cost estimates" the case for rail.