The International Olympic Committee has officially announced that Brisbane will host the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic games. We now have an opportunity of a lifetime to give South East Queensland an injection of sustainable transport infrastructure that will last us a lifetime.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the current population of the South East Queensland urban area is 3.8 million. Over the next 20 years, an additional 2 million people are expected to call SEQ home, bringing our total population to around 5.8 million people.
If we continue to put mass transit second and roads first, we will end up with a Sydney-style infrastructure catch up situation.
High speed rail or fast rail would fundamentally change the dynamic of the entire region. People could realistically live on the Gold Coast and commute into Brisbane or vice versa at a fraction of the time it use to take to travel.
Instantly, upon opening of the line, our region would become one large accessible metropolitan area unlike anything in Australia, but actually fairly common throughout some Asian and European metro areas. The system would also work for rural Queensland, opening up new affordable transit communities whilst giving existing ones new leases on life.
We are a lifestyle region as much as a growing business and industry hub, we cannot keep saying we don’t have the population, finances or political will for rail infrastructure that would benefit millions, because we do. Queensland is a very rich state which has always looked forward, but we need to be smart with how we spend these Olympic infrastructure dollars that we are about to receive.
Why build sustainable infrastructure?
Queenslanders shouldn’t see the Olympics as two weeks of sport, we should see it as a way to pave future prosperity through sustainable infrastructure.
Unfortunately, upgrading road infrastructure connecting large population centres like Brisbane and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts creates induced demand, which basically means you are creating a favourable environment for cars and therefore additional traffic will join the road.
Eventually, no matter how many lanes you put on a highway, it will end up where we started, gridlocked. Good examples of this can be seen all over American cities which continually expand freeways every ten years and don’t invest in mass transit. Arterial roads are vital for freight and the trades, so it is important that we reduce congestion which also costs the economy billions each year.
The alternative is very clear and is used throughout Europe and Asia. High speed rail and fast rail not only moves large amounts of people around quickly, but also long distances are no longer a problem. More train services can be added to scale up capacity and this helps to save space on existing roads for essential services.
Commencing later this year, the 45-kilometre Coomera Connector freeway project is set to be built between Loganholme and Nerang, effectively half duplicating the M1 motorway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. This project has a cost of $1.53 billion and is being jointly funded 50:50 by the State and Federal Governments.
Undoubtedly, this will help fast growing communities specifically around Coomera, Pimpama and Ormeau. These are regions that are destined to accomodate a vast amount of Queenslanders into the future. Investment in our inter-city, regional rail system however, is lagging behind where it should be. These communities ultimately only have one choice at the moment, and that is to drive and it will only get worse without a fast rail solution.
Possible Route & Funding
A route which takes advantage of flat open space and existing highway and rail alignments thus reducing the amount of property resumptions is most ideal. In some cases, using existing rail corridors such as the new underground Cross River Rail would also cut costs when it comes to the urban corridor sections of the alignment, however upgrades would no doubt be required.
Along the way, between Brisbane and the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coasts, there would be opportunities to create new ‘green commuter cities’ which would also help South East Queensland’s housing affordability and population growth pains.
The Norwell Valley for example, an area which is currently zoned outside the SEQ Urban Footprint, could possibly be rezoned for a new green commuter city.
According to an AECOM High Speed Rail study done in 2011 for the Department of Infrastructure and Transport, Roma Street station was shortlisted as the best station for implementing HSR operations if existing facilities are reconfigured. Although this study was done for a national high speed rail system, the same fundamentals would be applied to a regional HSR system due good connectivity with the Citytrain network as well as busway services, as shown in WMK Architecture’s Roma Street station concept image below.
In terms of a hub for the Gold Coast, a centralised location is necessary in order to meet the needs of the majority of commuters. This means that Surfers Paradise or Broadbeach which boast a centralised location would be most ideal, especially if linked with existing G:Link light rail services.
The Sunshine Coast’s new CBD at Maroochydore which is currently under construction already has a transit interchange and corridor worked into the masterplan and would be an ideal candidate for a Sunshine Coast station.
After numerous national studies and business cases on high speed rail in Australia, in July 2019, the federal government established the ‘National Faster Rail Agency’ with the aim of developing rail infrastructure between major cities and key regional centres in order to ‘advance social, economic and population outcomes’.
This recently created federal agency will only focus on regional high speed rail, as opposed to a national east coast system. Queensland can no longer wait for a national high speed rail initiative, we must build for our region today – taking into account the ability to one day mesh with a national Brisbane to Melbourne system.
At the moment there are two regional ‘faster rail’ business cases underway for South East Queensland. The first is a $10 million study into a proposed link between the Sunshine Coast (Maroochydore) and Brisbane City.
The second is a $22 million study into a fast rail link between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The Australian Government is contributing $8 million and the Queensland Government $14 million.
The aim of these business cases, which are to be delivered by the end of 2022, is to investigate options to provide faster passenger rail services within the region. Part one of the study is to develop a detailed business case and part two will identify and develop a corridor strategy.
Getting the exact cost of a hypothetical project without knowing the precise route or scale can be almost impossible, however if we use the metrics from a key AECOM high speed rail study done in 2011, which identified potential costs of a Brisbane to Newcastle HSR segment (via the Gold Coast) we can get a rough idea of the cost.
The Sunshine Coast to Brisbane line would be around 100km in length, with Brisbane to the Gold Coast being around 85kms and Brisbane to Toowoomba being 120km. This roughly equates to 305kms of high speed rail track.
The highest of three projected costs outlined in the AECOM high speed rail study of 2011 for a Brisbane to Newcastle route (via Gold Coast) was estimated at $31.7 billion for 706km of 200-350kph track. This would equate to around $44.9 million per kilometre of high speed rail track if applied to South East Queensland’s corridor.
This works out to be around $13.7 billion in 2011 dollars. If we bring this figure into todays dollars and adjust for ten years of 1.9% annual inflation, this figure would sit roughly around $16.54 billion for 305 kilometres of high speed rail track.
Whilst it may seem high, to put this into perspective, the Sydney Metro, a mass transit infrastructure project servicing the Sydney region with a population of 5.3 million is costing $20.8 billion. Melbourne’s proposed suburban rail loop, which services a population of just over 5 million is in its early planning stage and estimated to cost $50-100 billion over the next three decades. South East Queensland’s population will be at 5.8 million in 20 years.
Door-to-door travel times saved
Our region is perfect for high speed or faster rail because the distance between major population centres isn’t that far away but still far enough to sit in traffic for hours if highways are gridlocked.
Currently, getting from Brisbane CBD to Surfers Paradise usually takes upwards of two hours using existing public transport, significantly more than driving. We need to change this in order to motivate residents to make the switch. Cutting door-to-door journey times from the CBD to central Gold Coast from one hour and twenty minutes drive to just 40 minutes on a train changes the game dramatically.
The viability of a super fast Shinkansen style 350km high speed rail network might not stack up in the short term. However, will the $1.5 billion Coomera Connector generate a profit? Are the Bruce Highway upgrades currently underway viable financially? Road projects in Queensland tend to be treated differently and given preferential advantage compared to rail infrastructure which traditionally have to prove itself as a viable profit making asset.
The question is why would a fast rail project need to be run like a business and not like a road? Rail is not only more sustainable but easier to scale up to meet future demands. While the first ten or twenty years may not produce a direct profit for the government, there are intangible social benefits, like what roads provide to regions that would drive livability in South East Queensland.
Forget the sporting legacy, Queensland’s Olympic legacy should fair and square be about building fast rail infrastructure to unleash mountains of benefits for residents of Australia’s fastest growing region.
A fast rail network would be the backbone for local industry to not just thrive and innovative but to attract national and international talent to our region.
We cannot rely on congested motorways and the old Citytrain network to move Queenslanders around the region. 5.8 million people commuting by cars will spell a disaster in 20 years time.