Transcript - interview - ABC Radio Newcastle, Breakfast with Paul Culliver

PAUL CULLIVER (HOST): Twenty-four minutes to 9 o’clock. Do you believe that high-speed rail between Sydney and Newcastle will ever actually happen? Well, as of two days ago, there is now a CEO of the High Speed Rail Authority working in that job. Let’s find out what progress is going to get made and what else Catherine King, the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, is doing while she is here in Newcastle and the Hunter.

Minister, good morning to you.

CATHERINE KING (MINISTER): Good morning, Paul. Lovely to be with you.

PAUL CULLIVER: What brings you to the region?

CATHERINE KING: Well, we were here yesterday, of course, with the Prime Minister to mark the progress of the Raymond Terrace M1 project, which is a fantastic project for the region, as well as having a look at the widening of Hexham as well. And so that was a great opportunity to really see the amazing amount of work that is being done across this region. And as you pointed out, I know it’s causing a lot of traffic hazard, but it’s going to be worth it in the end, because this is really fixing what has been a significant bottleneck. But people do need to be really careful, particularly around roadworks as they’re entering into, you know, people’s workplaces as well, as we’ve got construction workers going on all the way through those areas as well, and we want everyone to get home safely. So take care on our roads out there particularly today – there’s going to be a fair bit of weather around.

PAUL CULLIVER: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about the High Speed Rail Authority. Just to understand, why did you establish this authority? What is it actually going to do in delivering this project?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, so the purpose of the High Speed Rail Authority, which is now legislated and it legislates the board, is that it is to deliver high-speed rail, and the first part of that is to concentrate and deliver high-speed rail from Newcastle to Sydney. This is a very big project. If you’d remember back in 2013, when Labor was last in government, we started the process of establishing the authority, started the business case to look at Melbourne to Sydney, and we started that work and then basically in the last decade nothing has happened. So we’ve had to re-establish or establish an authority from scratch. We’ve got work to do on the business case. We’ve got to do the planning work, the geotechnical work. But we’re well underway with starting all of that process. We’ve got a board in place, we’ve legislated the authority, we appointed the CEO, who I met with, Tim Parker. He’s come out of New South Wales Rail Transport. He’s a project delivery person; it’s what he does – he builds rail. He’s as keen as mustard on getting well and truly started on this job.

And so we’re working our way through all of the things that will need to be done to stack this up to make sure that we can get high-speed rail Sydney to Newcastle – incredibly important. It’s not just about the rail; it’s actually about the economic opportunities it brings to Newcastle and the Hunter once we’ve got it here. And you’ll start to see, you know, over the coming years a lot of that investment start to come as a result. I’ve been over to Birmingham, had a look at High Speed Rail 2 and seen the sort of incredible things that are happening to Birmingham as a city where you’ve got major investment happening, where you’ve got head offices of significant companies moving out of London because of the costs and moving into Birmingham, and that’s the opportunity presented to Newcastle by high-speed rail.

But we’ve got a lot of work to do. This is not something that you can just magically build. I wish you could wave a wand and it would be there. There’s a lot of work to make sure we get this right and there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from high-speed rail in other countries as well as the failures of rail projects in our own country as well that we’re very determined to learn from make sure we get this done right.

PAUL CULLIVER: What’s the timeline for delivery?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I’ve been very cautious about that. What we’re asking the High Speed Rail Authority to deliver to me is the business case for Newcastle to Sydney by the end of this year, and that’s the time frame I’ve set for them for the business case. I don’t want to put arbitrary timelines on this to start with because, what happens is you – politicians love to get out there and go, “Oh, we’re going to do the sod turn here and we’re doing this”. That’s the problem that we’ve seen with rail projects in the past, is people have rushed out when the planning hasn’t been done, we don’t know – we haven’t got environmental approvals and suddenly I find, lo and behold, the costs have tripled for a project. So I’m very cautious about putting a time frame on it until the experts have actually done their work, until we’ve actually got planning and environmental approvals for this project and until we’ve got partners in place to actually fund it. We’ll start to talk about implementation timeframes when we’ve got all of that information, and we just don’t have it yet. We’re starting that work now.

PAUL CULLIVER: In broad strokes, though, like, are we talking five years, 10 years, 15, 20? Like –

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, I don’t want to put a timeframe on it. I know everybody is desperate for that, but that’s the mistake we make – I think promising things we can’t deliver. I want to make sure that we actually deliver this project. We’re very determined to do it. It’s well and truly time we had high-speed rail in this country. This corridor is the busiest, busiest corridor. The fact that you’ve got a train service that is now slower I think than when it first started a long, long, long time ago, is ridiculous. You’ve got a lot of people commuting but also, as I said, a lot of economic activity along this corridor. We want to get this right. You don’t go – we don’t go out putting time frames on something before we actually have knowledge about how we’re going to fund it, how we’re going to implement it, what the geotechnical issues are. So I’m very reluctant do that until we’ve got a lot more information on this project.

PAUL CULLIVER: So, this could be a decade away?

CATHERINE KING: It’s – you know, it will take time to build. Like, let’s – you know, let’s be realistic; it will take time to build. But we’ve got to do the work first, and if you don’t do the work first, then it’s never going to happen. So we’ve got to do that work first, and that’s really what we’re determined to do – setting up the authority, putting the right people in place, making sure we’ve got that planning and environmental approvals done, making sure we’ve got the money to build it as well. All of those things need to be put in place, and then we’ll have a better idea about the time frames.

I know, you know, I see Senator McKenzie has been out there from the National Party criticising. I’m not going to take lectures on rail after the incredible failure of Inland Rail and what they’ve done there from the National Party.

PAUL CULLIVER: Okay, sure.

CATHERINE KING: We want to get this right and we actually want deliver it.

PAUL CULLIVER: Ian’s on the text line. He’s in the Hill. He says, “Paul, why can’t we have a faster rail service to Sydney, say, in 90 minutes? This is far more achievable than a bullet train.” Why go for high-speed rail when maybe just a faster rail service is an option?

CATHERINE KING: Well, faster rail in and of itself is a good idea, but it’s also very expensive. You spend a lot of money just to get an extra minute. So to actually get – you know, you have to take all of the curves out, you have to change alignments, and it’s incredibly costly. Our view, frankly, is having committed to high-speed rail, getting that rail service – you know, I’ve travelled on high-speed rail internationally; it’s amazing and incredibly great for economic opportunities for the region. So, we think if we’re going to spend a lot of money, let’s get this right and let’s actually deliver something that will really change the whole way in which the economy of New South Wales, but particularly this part of the world, operates and the opportunities for jobs for people to actually live, work here and then maybe commute into Sydney a couple of days a week if they’ve got meetings. But let’s see if we can get more head offices out here in Newcastle.

PAUL CULLIVER: Here on ABC Newcastle, Paul Culliver with you. Catherine King, the federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, is your guest this morning, spending some time in the region visiting some key projects. Look, June 11 last year was a tragic day for the Hunter – 10 lives lost when that bus rolled at a roundabout near Greta. Adam Bray, of course, lost his son Zach. He met with Federal Assistant Minister for Transport, Carol Brown, last year discussing a Federal Bus Taskforce. Is that going to happen?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, and I met with him as well in very early days. And I know yesterday and again the news, it’s running in the media today, will be very triggering for people as well, and I don’t want to comment on the specifics of those charges. I do want to – you know, my heart goes out to people. These terrible incidents have ramifications right the way through the community for years and years to come, and I’m really incredibly sympathetic about what’s happening right at the moment.

So, we hosted a roundtable in August straight away because we wanted to get the bus industry, the heavy vehicle operators and road safety experts together quickly to see what as a Federal Government we could do. Nationally, as you know, the road toll has also not – is not where any of us would want it to be. So we’re about to have road safety ministers, transport ministers and police ministers meet earlier – early in the new year just trying to look at what else do we know about the road toll at the moment, what’s changed, what else can we do to try and get it down. And a National Road Safety Conference is also being hosted, as I said.

We have established a Bus Safety Working Group, so you can call it taskforce or work group, so we’ve actually already established that. It’s progressing looking at a number of the Australian Design Rules; so looking at lane departure warnings, whether you need black boxes on particularly on heavy vehicle coaches, looking at lighting as well as looking at reviewing the seat belt design rule, and also working with the bus industry around driver education, driver training, about fatigue, all of those issues that are the responsibility of the Heavy Vehicle Regulator to see, you know, what are the things that we need to do. So, in essence, we’re getting on with the work that needs to be done through that working group – so we can call it a taskforce or working group. But that’s really what we’ve been doing since August last year.

PAUL CULLIVER: Yeah, sure. We appreciate seeing those updates as they come through. Minister, finally you’re heading to the Newcastle airport today.

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, I am, to look at the progress there. It’s pretty busy. When I flew in on Monday there’s a lot of activity there happening obviously both with the terminal upgrade but also with the business park there as well. And, again, airports are really important to transport people, but they also provide economic opportunities. So just going to have a look at the progress there. I know there’s been a bit of delay because of supply chain issues, but I’m comfortable about that. It’s a big project and there’s a lot of construction happening at the moment. So really getting a bit of a chance to see what’s happening out at the airport.

PAUL CULLIVER: Minister, appreciate your time today. Thank you.

CATHERINE KING: Really, really good to be with you, Paul. Thank you.

PAUL CULLIVER: The Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Catherine King, here in the region, as you’re hearing, today and yesterday as well. The Prime Minister, of course, visited yesterday as well. Getting some updates on the future of high-speed rail, safety for our coaches and buses on the roads, obviously something that is very close to our hearts here in Newcastle and the Hunter after that tragedy last year.