WSP Transport and Infrastructure specialists – Graeme Steverson, Technical Director, Planning and Mobility and Mark Xerri, Associate Rail Engineer – discuss how planning for fast rail should now be pushed to the front of the infrastructure agenda given the geographic shift in the Australian population and the need for long-term economic recovery from the pandemic.
“Up until now the focus for the potential development of fast rail has been on linking capital cities” explains Graeme. “Given the growth we are now experiencing in regional areas, we need to broaden that focus somewhat. It’s a case of providing fast rail using the infrastructure that we already have and investing and building off that.”
Escape to the country
The June 2021 Regional Australia Institute Regional Movers Index states that since March 2020 an increasing number of people have departed capital cities for regional areas while regional people have stayed in place. This has led to an increase in net migration into regional areas that is 66 per cent higher in March 2021 than it was in March 2020.
This pandemic-driven acceleration of net migration indicates that those already in regional areas are finding reasons to stay while city dwellers are finding compelling reasons to make that tree or sea change.
The top five Local Government Areas for the movement of city dwellers are the Gold and Sunshine coasts in Queensland, Greater Geelong in Victoria, followed by Wollongong and Newcastle in New South Wales. These are all areas in the pipeline for future fast rail connections. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the net outflows are from Sydney (49.5%) and Melbourne (46.4%), with regional NSW (32.4%) and Queensland (28.8%) being the main beneficiaries of the Sydney-Melbourne exodus, followed closely by regional Victoria (27.8%).
Although thousands of people are already seeing the benefits of moving to our vibrant regional areas, the barriers between city and country still exist.
Overcoming the tyranny of distance
Aside from the geographical divide, our regional communities experience a greater feeling of isolation; they have a high reliance on cars with a greater risk to safety; and less opportunity for employment, education and recreation. While improvements in digital connectivity have gone some way to bridging the gap between our regional centres and capital cities, it hasn’t been the instant remedy that we thought it would be. If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are social beings and crave face-to-face contact, albeit behind a mask for the time being.
“This is where fast rail comes in,” explains Graeme. “while it is typically looked upon in terms of technical specifications, top speed, or door to door travel times, there is more to fast rail than these numbers. Quite simply, it can change the perception of distance by providing a high capacity and high frequency physical connector for regional centres.
“We need to start extending opportunity and equality to regional communities through greater connectivity, mobility and choice. Forget about the notion of funnelling increasing numbers of commuters into the major capitals. Use fast rail to flip this concept on its head and focus on the needs of regional areas, with two-way flows and all-day services stimulating synergistic relationships between connected communities, economies, and industries.”
The regional renaissance
There is no doubt that fast rail provides an opportunity for regional Australia to be at the centre of our nation’s economic recovery and ongoing prosperity. While it may take decades for a fast rail network to be fully realised, there has never been a better time is to start process of strategic planning and investment in regional centres to take full advantage of this critical infrastructure, commitment and vision.
Growing regional hubs is not new. The NSW Government has been working on its Special Activation Precincts for some time now in Moree, Narrabri, Parkes, Snowy Mountains, Wagga Wagga and Williamtown. Elsewhere around the country, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria and Toowoomba in Queensland have been earmarked as regional development areas.
Graeme says, “Regional hubs such as these need forward-thinking transport infrastructure solutions to attract the broader economic benefits of increased services and businesses. Travel reliability is needed to attract the population growth in the longer term, and is essential for growing employment as well as providing affordable housing and service
“Faster rail solutions benefiting from improvements in the existing urban rail network and rolling stock investments, together with corridor protection programs, will meet the aspiration of reliable travel for regional to city connections.”
Helping regional communities thrive
The pandemic has brought about significant changes to both our urban and regional communities. We certainly live, work and socialise in a different way than we did two years ago.
“There is a clear pathway for better job opportunities outside of our capital cities – either through big business setting up in regional areas with Government incentives, or through the acceptance of working from home arrangements. The paradigm of needing to be in a major city to have a meaningful career or having to live near your work has shifted.
While regional tourism has been impacted by the closure of international borders, it is enjoying a nation-wide revival from Australians and could certainly benefit from fast rail. When travel is fast, accessible and comfortable, regional locations become increasingly part of the tourism map as they are within easy reach.
“We have a rare opportunity post-COVID to make our regional areas more accessible and therefore more valuable,” says Mark. “And it’s broader than tourism, trade and employment, it’s also about access to healthcare and education.”
Fast rail as an enabler for regional planning
Graeme says, “The strength of a fast rail network is realised when it is developed hand-in-hand with visionary regional planning. Ultimately, fast rail is only the enabling infrastructure and is not the answer itself. Future ready thinking in land use planning and development of industries should be starting now with fast rail in mind.”
Mark concurs, “Complementary planning policies will set out a future vision for regional areas that capitalises on the potential of a fast rail connection. These policy changes may need to be at a state level, given the potential and scale of fast rail to change population settlement patterns, job distribution and industry.”
When fast rail development and planning policies are aligned, we can start to coordinate the staging and prioritisation of the infrastructure with the roll out of new residential areas, business parks and anchor industries to take full advantage of the investment. In this way, the two initiatives are able to support each other and provide confidence to existing regional communities, families looking to relocate, and industries searching for new areas to set up business.
A sustainable fast rail future
Sustainability is an increasingly significant objective of future infrastructure and planning, and it is a core aim of fast rail. Traditionally, where infrastructure construction is built for immediate capacity, growth and return on investment – such as toll roads and commuter rail networks – fast rail supports long-term social, economic and environmental sustainability.
“Fast rail allows for greater social sustainability through significant community benefits around job access, increased mobility and improved access to services”, says Mark. “It allows us to reduce car dependency in regional areas while also enabling regionally based skills and jobs.
“Fast rail also allows our regions to reach their full economic potential through attracting new industries and businesses to invest in setting up a regional presence. For regional communities, this translates to greater economic opportunity and security through more diverse, innovative and resilient regional industries.”
By helping our regions thrive, growing local industry and making regional Australia a great place to live, a sustainable response to climate change is provided by reducing the need for the ongoing and excessive commute to our cities. Where travel is necessary, fast rail provides an efficient and green travel choice.
The benefits of fast rail are clear. We just need to take the first step of delivery.
WSP is a leader in fast rail development with a unique understanding of the possibilities and opportunities through our broad-based experience locally and internationally.
“Developing fast rail in Australia must be undertaken with urgency to make our regional economies the drivers of our pandemic recovery,” concludes Mark.
Find more on Mark’s thoughts on fast rail here.