Faster trains won’t revive struggling regional cities or relieve pressure on crowded capitals
Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May 2020
Politicians love to tempt us with visions of faster trains. The NSW and federal governments want to fast-track transport projects to revive the economy from its COVID-19 slump. Fiscal stimulus that includes infrastructure spending may be the right prescription. But should that extend to regional rail plans hatched before the pandemic?
Faster regional trains were never likely to take much pressure off Sydney, nor revitalise regional cities and towns. And a new Grattan Institute report shows that is even more true now. Some regional rail upgrades may be worthwhile, but the label of “fiscal stimulus” is not a licence to abandon cost-benefit discipline.
The federal and NSW governments are overseeing the business case for an upgrade to the Newcastle-to-Sydney rail link, and the two governments are funding business cases for upgrades to the lines to Wollongong and to Parkes via Bathurst and Orange.
One argument for these upgrades is that they’ll take pressure off Sydney by enabling people to live elsewhere while keeping their city job. Another is that they’ll boost jobs and tourism in the regions. Neither argument stands up well to scrutiny.
Wollongong is the regional city with the most Sydney commuters, at 19,000. The suburbs and towns along the Central Coast between them have 25,000 Sydney commuters, but after that there’s daylight before the next largest region encompassing Picton, Tahmoor and Buxton, with fewer than 4000 Sydney commuters between them.
It might sound as though Wollongong could be a great place for Sydneysiders to move to, while still keeping their current jobs. But a faster train service isn’t likely to have much impact. That’s because people who currently live in Wollongong and commute to Sydney mostly don’t take the train – and that isn’t likely to change.
Less than a quarter of Wollongong’s 19,000 Sydney commuters get to work by public transport. Once you factor in that many workplaces outside the CBD have free parking, and some people have tools and equipment to carry, it’s no surprise that people coming up from Wollongong tend to drive.
Of the commuters who do take the train from Wollongong to Sydney, 3200 work in the CBD. But even if a faster train service encouraged another 3200 Sydneysiders to move to Wollongong but keep their city job, that would account for just 3.7 per cent of Sydney’s population growth last year. It’s far too small a number to have an impact on population pressures in Sydney.
Meanwhile, parts of metropolitan Sydney remain very poorly serviced by public transport. It can take more than an hour to get to the CBD from Fairfield, Penrith, Richmond and parts of Campbelltown. Fixing blackspots in Sydney, such as Carlingford and Bankstown, may be more worthwhile.
The other argument for regional rail upgrades is that they will boost the regions; that faster trains to Sydney would mean more jobs in towns such as Parkes, Orange and Bathurst. But faster passenger rail is a puny force to pit against 100 years of relentless urbanisation.
The best evidence suggests that Sydney would be more likely to gain than the smaller towns, not vice versa. That’s what happened in France: the high-speed rail network benefited the second-tier cities of Lyon and Lille at the expense of surrounding towns, but it was the capital city of Paris that gained the most.
There’s no doubt that Australia faces hard economic times. But when governments add to the $320 billion of new debt arising from the response to the COVID-19 crisis, they should do so in ways that set us up for the future we’ll actually have, not the one we imagined before the pandemic struck.
When we simply don’t know whether the population will be growing or what future travel and work patterns will be like, it’s smart to keep our infrastructure options open and focus on projects that are likely to give us the biggest bang for our buck.
Likewise, it’s smart to deal with the most pressing needs of regional cities and towns. According to the NSW government’s infrastructure adviser, that’s better internet and mobile connectivity, and better freight links – not faster passenger trains.
In the post-COVID world, the best investment is in improving the productive capacity of the transport system. It’s not a time for tempting voters with speculative needs.