Sydney to Melbourne high-speed rail would ‘never really work’, says infrastructure tsar

Higgins said Australia was better off maximising train speeds within big population zones such as Campbelltown, Penrith and Liverpool to Sydney CBD, or between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

Loading

While Sydney trains tend to “trundle along”, London has suburban and regional trains that reach speeds of 160 kilometres an hour, such as ThamesLink between Bedford and Brighton, or higher.

“It would be interesting to see what more you could get out of [your] existing network,” he said. Those investments could later become full-scale high-speed rail from Sydney to Goulburn and Canberra, Higgins said, but “focus on getting your urban areas to work first”.

NSW Cities and Infrastructure Minister Rob Stokes said the state government would slash travel times between Sydney and Parramatta to 20 minutes with the forthcoming Metro West line.

The Commonwealth had “expressed a lot of enthusiasm for high-speed rail and we’re waiting for clear signals from them about what their plans are”, Stokes said.

In 2018, months before the 2019 election, the NSW government identified four potential fast-rail corridors; from Sydney to Newcastle, Canberra, Orange/Parkes and Nowra. Then premier Gladys Berejiklian ordered a further review by expert Andrew McNaughton, but it was never released publicly.

‘You have to show people that in the end they are going to get some reward for density and disruption.’

Gatwick Airport chairman, David Higgins

The Greater Cities Commission also recently unveiled its draft “six cities” vision, a key pillar of which is better connectivity between Newcastle and the Central Coast, Illawarra and Sydney.

Higgins, who lives in London but returns to Sydney often, will use his speech on Thursday to tell policymakers the masses of new infrastructure in the city’s west must serve a social purpose.

“My worry is that here it seems to be growth by opportunity,” he said. “It’s a case of: here’s a new railway station, let’s pop up a 50-storey high rise. [But] how many people are going to live there, where’s their community, where are their high streets, where are their parks, where do they get recreational facilities?

“You have to show people that in the end they are going to get some reward for density and disruption.”

Construction continues on the Western Sydney Airport in Badgerys Creek, Sydney.

Construction continues on the Western Sydney Airport in Badgerys Creek, Sydney. Credit:Janie Barrett

Higgins said governments and planners didn’t pay enough attention to parks, citing Bicentennial Park at Olympic Park as a green space that should play a much greater role as the “lungs” for that part of Sydney. Higgins was also chief executive of London’s 2012 Olympics delivery authority.

He criticised Australia’s reluctance to finance major public infrastructure by taxing nearby landowners who benefit from increased land values, a system usually called “value capture”.

“It’s an ideological problem, which is: you’re taking away the right of someone to get a windfall profit by getting a planning gain,” he said. For example, high-speed rail would drastically increase property values in towns it passed through.

Higgins welcomed the additional flight capacity and competition from the forthcoming Western Sydney Airport, which is due to open in 2026 after decades of dithering.

“It’s good it has finally developed,” he said. “The biggest thing we could do is get more direct flights to the growing markets of Asia … hopefully you get more diversity of carriers.”

The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.