Australia PM backs high-speed rail to fill mining void

Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party Kevin Rudd (L) speaks as the leader of the conservative opposition Tony Abbott listens during their People's Forum in Brisbane August 21, 2013.

SYDNEY - Australia's Labor government Monday pledged to press on with plans for a high-speed rail network linking major east coast cities, saying it would diversify the economy as the mining boom slows.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, battling a strong candidate in conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott in September 7 national polls, has committed to focusing on jobs in the last fortnight of the campaign.

To achieve this, he said, good infrastructure was vital.

"If we do not have world-class infrastructure there is no future for the Australian economy. It's as basic as that," he told journalists in Sydney.

"This vast continent of ours has 23 million people on it - unless you've got the infrastructure pumping, well frankly it's not going to work."

The government allocated Aus$52 million (S$60 million) to a new authority to oversee the rail project which would stretch down the east coast from Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.

A government study in April showed the entire project would cost US$120 billion (S$154 billion) and take more than 40 years to complete

Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said as a first step the government would enact legislation this year, if re-elected, to preserve the 1,748 kilometre (1,084 mile) corridor on which the track would be laid.

"This high-speed rail network, connecting our three largest cities and the national capital, forms part of federal Labor's plan to support jobs beyond the China mining boom," Albanese and Rudd said in a joint statement.

Proponents believe high-speed rail has the potential to be a productivity, lifestyle and environmental game-changer in continent-sized Australia, allowing travellers to transit from Sydney to Melbourne in less than three hours.

The proposed east coast network would be built in stages with the first section linking Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra and the regional towns of Wagga Wagga, Albury/Wodonga and Shepparton. It would be completed by 2035.

The next stage pf the line would travel north from Sydney to Brisbane via Newcastle.

Albanese said high-speed rail would spur new high-tech supporting industry and integrate regional and metro communities.

The line would also have environmental benefits because it would take vehicles off the roads, he added.

"This would be an enormous economic stimulus for those regional communities, delivering jobs and economic growth in those communities," he said.

Albanese added that the government wanted to "over deliver" but "under promise" when it came to high-speed rail.

"We haven't tried to suggest that this can be done tomorrow or next week, but by putting in place $52 million in the forward estimates to make sure that our commitments can be realised, that (money) will certainly be able to deliver that," he said.

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