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Ted O'Brien MP Rail

Ted O’Brien proposes a pragmatic solution to the rail debate on the Sunshine Coast.

My vision for South-East Queensland has always been a SEQ fast rail network connecting four major airports to the capital city in a hub and spoke model.

It doesn’t matter if a passenger flies into the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast or Toowoomba, they’d need only hop on to the SEQ network to arrive into Brisbane City within an hour, and be in any one these other destinations within another hour.

For passengers arriving into Brisbane airport, their rail options would be simple: turn left for the Gold Coast, right for the Sunshine Coast, straight ahead for the Brisbane CBD and beyond to Ipswich and then Toowoomba.

Laying out the vision of a SEQ fast rail network from the perspective of an incoming passenger makes it easy to grasp, but its greatest value lies in the improved connectivity for those of us who call the south-east corner home.

When you add freight to the equation, the vision expands further. Upgraded and duplicated lines across the network, including a dedicated freight line that links Inland Rail to the Port of Brisbane, would help secure supply chains and meet growing consumer demand, and dramatically enhance safety and amenity for road users.  

Mapping this vision on a piece of paper is like drawing the southern cross constellation; with the four airports and the port forming a shape not dissimilar to the five-star asterism that shines in the clear night sky.

History, however, is littered with cautionary tales of bold visions never attained. The real challenge is making it happen. In other words, it’s a question of “how?”.

My answer lies in an approach best summarised as: think big, start small, scale fast.

To explain, let me focus on just one stretch of the future SEQ Fast Rail Network – the connection between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. This has special significance for me since the Sunshine Coast is home and it’s also the community I represent in the Australian Parliament.

Firstly, thinking big is to envisage a 45 to 60 minute fast rail connection from Brisbane to both Nambour and Maroochydore.

Secondly, starting small involves duplicating the existing North Coast Rail Line all the way to Nambour Station and extending the existing rail network along the CAMCOS corridor from Beerwah to the Maroochydore CBD.

Thirdly, scaling fast means improving the availability and regularity of trips along these two new lines to enable increased patronage.

There’s a link between these three steps, of course.

It’s important, for example, that the design for rail duplication to Nambour and a new line to Maroochydore accommodates the possibility of fast rail in the future. In other words, investments of this magnitude must be future-proofed.

While the short term plan is for these rail extensions to integrate into Queensland Rail’s existing network, their design shouldn’t preclude a repurposing for use in a SEQ Fast Rail Network at a later date. From a design perspective, this means making the route straighter and wider than would usually be required. 

This begs the question – why don’t we just build fast rail from the get go?

I wish we could. There’s nothing I’d love more than embarking on a decade long transformation to deliver the ultimate vision of a 45 to 60 minute SEQ Fast Rail Network. If it were up to me, we’d set the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2032 as our deadline and go for it.

But… it’s just not going to happen.

A comprehensive business case has already been completed on a fast rail connection between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, called North Coast Connect (NCC).

But when the NCC proposal was assessed by Infrastructure Australia, they couldn’t give it the green light, primarily because it lacked a proponent – i.e. the Queensland Government which owns and operates the network, and also owns the resumed land along both corridors, does not support the project.

As the person who has led the advocacy efforts for fast rail in SEQ for some years, I had a choice to make. I could either spend the years ahead banging my chest and pointing the finger at the Queensland Government while nothing gets done, or come up with an alternate plan to advance the cause, even if it meant a compromise. I chose the latter.

Compromise may not sound like the usual mode of operation for a politician, but it’s probably worth mentioning my background. I spent over 20 years in the private sector and much of that time was spent shaping and negotiating complex deals from mergers and acquisitions to joint ventures and other large transactions.

In my experience, it’s best to avoid situations where parties simply state opposing positions and then go to their respective corners, ready for a fight. Instead, you have a better chance of landing a deal by understanding an opposing party’s underlying interests and then seeking to satisfy their interests as well as your own. 

When the Queensland Government demonstrated they had no appetite for fast rail, I examined their interests. Here is what I learnt. Firstly, they want any new or extended line to integrate into their existing network. Secondly, they do not want to introduce new rolling stock. Thirdly, they do not want a different signaling system.

From the Sunshine Coast’s perspective, our interests are improved connectivity and a far better rail service, including rail duplication to Nambour and a new line along the CAMCOS corridor to the Maroochydore CBD.

Transposing these two sets of interest on top of each other, an alternative solution emerges which could break the impasse and represent a way forward. And that’s what I’ve now tabled for the Queensland and Australian Governments to consider.

By duplicating the existing rail network to Nambour and extending the line to Maroochydore, the interests of the Queensland Government and the Sunshine Coast community can be largely met. What’s more, by designing the new lines to accommodate the possibility of future rail at a later stage, the investment can be future proofed. 

I believe this “Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast” approach is strategically sensible but also pragmatic and realistic. It doesn’t guarantee an outcome and nor does it apply pressure on one tier of government or one side of politics more than another.

It’s a proposal that I’m tabling in good faith and in the hope that it will be received and considered in the same spirit.

Ted O’Brien

Member for Fairfax

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