Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Is Australia ready for High-Speed Rail?

Many Australians are in awe of transportation systems overseas like Hong Kong's MTR and the super-fast Japanese and European bullet trains. But what about having a bullet train that travels past one's own backyard?

Is it possible that Australians are happy to use new transportation technologies elsewhere, as long as it doesn't affect them at home?

This is an interesting theme - one which a colleague suggested recently - and one I will explore further here.

I tend to view things as an historical institutionalist. This means that I see path dependencies and limitations in individual behaviour resulting from institutions - what March and Olsen (1989: 22) and North (1990: vii) see as the formal and informal rules of the game - and to view the co-evolution of institutions and technologies via a model of punctuated equilibrium.

There are some academic issues with this view but it is difficult to understand why a rich, well-educated and otherwise techno-savvy country like Australia lags so far behind the world in high-technology. 

As with broadband, high-speed rail is a case-in-point.

Much of the problem associated with infrastructure deployment has been a growing trend in governments avoiding debt. Even though interest rates are at their lowest in living memory.

But what makes things even more bizarre is that there is plenty of private sector investment money that is not being captured for investment in Australian infrastructure. Is this a case of yet another Australian policy regime?

Wilson (2000 citing Dougherty & Pfaltzgraff 1997) suggests that a policy regime consists of the following characteristics:
First, there is an organizational dimension made up of states, social or political institutions. Second, regimes consist of mutually accepted decision-making procedures and agreed upon rules for action. Third, regimes contain shared principles, norms, and beliefs. Finally, regimes are organized around a particular issue.
I can't help but see policy regimes in the communications and transport sectors in Australia. Even though we will often hear complaints about the way policy is "done" in this country, we never hear the idea of the "policy regime" invoked to explain the reluctance to envisage different approaches to deploying infrastructure. For some reason, most likely related to the political benefits government can gain from fixing communications and transport issues, there is little scope for a systemic change to how we "do" networked infrastructure policy.

There seems to me to be a general agreement that government is responsible for solving our networked infrastructure problems, which includes high-speed rail. To date, acceptable "unsolicited" private sector proposals for infrastructure development, in particular from Transurban, have been focused on roads.

Meanwhile Spain has constantly pushed its high-speed rail barrow, yet there has been little traction in this area. Even though Australian estimates of the time to deploy high-speed rail are rather long (according to the Spaniards), domestic media still push the NIMBY aspects of corridor preservation rather than the benefits of more efficient ways to travel. It beggars belief.

The first and most obvious impediment to infrastructure deployment is commonly (and often pejoratively) referred to as ‘nimbyism’ (from NIMBY, an acronym for ‘not in my back yard’ – see Shepherd in Butcher 2008: 122-23).

Much of the resistance repeats what is happening in the United States. Australia and the United States share their reliance on the private motor vehicle at the expense of other forms of transport. For example, the Dallas-Houston high-speed rail link has been bogged down with utter nonsense. One "resistance group" even goes so far as to suggest that:
We need more roads for citizens to travel to ease our existing roadways... We do not need a high-speed railway in Texas that will only benefit a few, while at the same time disturbing thousands of citizens within its path.
You can't build your way out of congestion. Yet in Australia we see the American context repeating: an entrenched use of private motor vehicles as the most desirable way to travel.

So what does it mean? Well, if I had the answer I'd have plenty to do rather than blog my thoughts on transport policy. But what is clear is that there is a reluctance to try new transport technologies, and this most likely has something to do with entrenched ideas scaffolded by a policy regime..

But it is strange that these ideas seem only to exist in Australia and the United States. Maybe the idea of our "Washminster" system was much more than a federation superimposed over the system developed by our less-than-democratic forebears?

In the meantime, we seem to be satisfied with less-than-ideal systems such as Sydney's light rail and Canberra's Action bus service, even though using these services for the first time is an inside job requiring inside knowledge.

Maybe we are in awe of Hong Kong's MTR because it makes sense. You buy an Octopus card simply by following the instructions, then you turn up to the station and point yourself in the right direction until a train turns up. Simple.

But why we can't have the same thing here seems to be a conflation of history, entrenched preferences, and a policy regime that can't see past the end of the next road. And I think there-in lies the problem. Australia will not be ready for high-speed rail until the government says so.


Butcher, J. (ed.) (2008). Australia Under Construction: Nation-building past, present and future. Canberra: ANU e-Press.

March, J.G. & Olsen, J.P. (1989). Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics. New York: The Free Press
North, D. C. (1990). Institutions, institutional change, and economic performance. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, C.A. (2000). Policy Regimes and Policy Change. Journal of Public Policy, 20(3): 247-274.

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