Regional cities beware – fast rail might lead to disadvantaged dormitories, not booming economies



Many commuters already travel from regional cities to work in capital cities like Melbourne so what impacts will fast rail have?
Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Todd Denham, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Governments are looking to fast rail services to regional cities to relieve population pressures in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The federal government is funding nine business cases for such schemes. But what economic effect might these fast links have on the regional cities?

The current fast rail schemes seem oriented at relieving population pressures in the major cities rather than a productive regional economic purpose. The minister for population, cities and urban infrastructure recently stated:

… the National Faster Rail Agency begins operating from today [July 1]. The new Agency will oversee the government’s 20-year fast rail agenda, which will connect satellite regional cities to our big capitals. This will allow people to reside in regional centres with its [sic] cheaper housing and regional lifestyle but still access easily and daily the major employment centres.




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The argument seems built on a pitch to city workers priced out of metropolitan housing markets. It treats regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres. But will subsidising metropolitan workers to live in cheaper regional towns have a positive economic effect on those towns?

An unequal relationship

Concern is growing among international observers that fast rail connections between two cities benefit the larger of the pair. Professor Michael Storper observed:

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made was being naïve about connectivity – give infrastructure and it spreads. Well, often it concentrates. The high-speed train network in France, guess what it did. It advantaged Paris.

While Paris is seen as benefiting the most from the national fast rail TGV service, the regional cities of Lyon and Lille have strengthened their economic positions. The Lyon and Lille fast rail stations form the hub of their respective regional transport networks and have attracted new commercial activity. They also sit at intersections of major European fast rail networks.

It’s a pattern that cannot be easily achieved for Australia’s regional cities due to our widely dispersed settlements. So what does this mean for our regional cities?

Improving transport infrastructure doesn’t just improve regional business access to metropolitan markets. It decrease the costs of trade in both directions. And large cities are typically more productive economically. This is because they offer more specialised goods and services and can leverage the agglomeration effects of shared high-quality labour markets and infrastructure, plus a concentration of skills and knowledge.




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Reduced travel times can mean regional businesses become less efficient than metropolitan competitors that can offer a wider range of specialist goods and services. This may lead to regional business closures, employment losses and wage decline. Unless a regional city is able to develop a specialised set of high-skill, high-wage industries that complement or outcompete the metropolis it risks being economically disadvantaged by faster rail.

New regional demand arising from commuter population growth might counter the loss of higher-order regional jobs due to improved transport links. But that will largely be in lower-value retail and personal service sectors. The result will still be a net economic gain for the metropolis.




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An influx of commuters earning metropolitan wages might also inflate regional housing markets. This would disadvantage lower-paid regional workers. The beneficiaries of this scenario are likely to be local rentiers, such as landholders and developers who can profit from land-price inflation.

This interest group will likely vocally promote regional fast rail. But sustainable economic prosperity for regional cities requires more than population-driven land speculation.




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The example of Geelong

The most advanced of the current Australian proposals is the Geelong-Melbourne route. It has received federal and state funding for planning with an estimated total cost of at least A$10 billion. But planners need to ask how this spending will provide a net economic benefit, and how the benefits will be distributed.

Growth in commuter population and the services this attracts may be seem like a resolution to metropolitan population problems, but could further concentrate higher-paid jobs in Melbourne. Faster commutes mean Melbourne-based firms will have a greater pick of Geelong-based workers, thus consolidating metropolitan competitive advantage. Fast rail thus risks placing Geelong at a competitive disadvantage, with jobs and workers being exported to Melbourne.

Meanwhile the pressure of housing another 145,000 residents in the next 20 years already falls on Geelong, a city of 280,000 people. The strain on infrastructure and services is proportionately greater than would be the case in Melbourne, which has nearly 5 million residents.




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What can policymakers do about this?

To resolve this conundrum, thought must be given to what specialised high-value jobs will be attracted to regional cities to accompany fast rail investments, so these cities remain competitive and productive, regionally, nationally and internationally. This might include policies such as relocating public agencies, regional targeting of university-based research and development spending, boosting services such as schools and hospitals, and providing incentives for innovative private companies to relocate to regional towns.

Policymakers should also consider positioning regional cities as rail network hubs in their own right. An example would be connecting Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo by rail, along with better linkages to national and international airports.

We don’t yet know for sure what the effects of fast rail on regional cities will be. But the impact of this infrastructure needs to be assessed very carefully lest it turns Australia’s regional cities into dependent population dormitories rather than regional dynamos, at vast public expense.The Conversation

Todd Denham, PhD Candidate, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why roads and trains may be key to bringing peace to the Korean peninsula


Hussein Dia, Swinburne University of Technology

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left his historic Singapore summit with US President Donald Trump last month with a massive political victory in hand, but questions remain how this will help his isolated country in pragmatic terms.

A Japanese newspaper reported Sunday that Kim has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his help in lifting the sanctions that have crippled the North Korean economy. But even if sanctions are lifted, will this be enough to improve the standard of living for North Korea’s impoverished citizens?

In recent years, Pyongyang has focused on twin policy objectives: achieving global political legitimacy, and embarking on a program of economic modernisation. The Singapore summit has arguably helped in reaching the first objective. North Korea will now be looking to achieve the second.

A possible high-speed future

Compared to neighbouring China and South Korea, North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling and in dire need of expansion and modernisation. For decades, the government emphasised investment in heavy industry and weapons programs, allowing its roads, ports, rail lines and airports to fall into disrepair. North Korea’s energy, water and communications systems lag behind the rest of the world, as well.

When Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Moon said he would like to travel through North Korea to climb Mt. Paektu – a site of great importance in Korean folklore. Kim responded with a revealing admission that he would be “embarrassed” by his country’s railways.

Kim also told Moon how the North Korean athletes who took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang were impressed by the South’s high-speed rail network. This was seen by many as a likely signal that North Korea was motivated to bring its own rail network – and the rest of its infrastructure – into the 21st century.




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And South Korea evidently wants to help. At the summit between the two leaders, Moon gave Kim a USB drive that laid out a vision for connecting the two Koreas through new infrastructure projects and special economic zones.

At the heart of Moon’s plan would be a US$35 billion upgrade of North Korea’s rail network, including high-speed rail lines connecting Seoul, Pyongyang and other industrial zones and a retrofit of other rail lines in the North.

Moon’s proposal is shrewd. The rail lines would also connect North Korea to its northern neighbours, China and Russia, and ultimately serve as a vital link between the entire Korean peninsula and the rest of Asia and Europe.

The promise of mineral wealth

More importantly, the South Korean proposal goes well beyond infrastructure. It would be a catalyst for unlocking the potential of the North’s untapped mineral reserves, which have been valued at somewhere between US$6-10 trillion.

These reserves consist of iron, gold, copper and graphite, as well as large amounts of rare earth deposits needed for production of smart phones and other high-tech gadgets made in the South. There are also unconfirmed reports of oil and gas deposits in North Korean waters.

However, modernising North Korea’s neglected infrastructure won’t come cheaply. The cost is estimated at several trillion dollars , similar to what West Germany spent to develop the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall.




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The technical know-how and capacities of North Korea’s labour forces will also pose huge challenges.

Already, Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo and other corporations provide training for the North Koreans they’ve employed in special economic zones along the border. These giants are well-placed to rebuild the North’s deteriorating infrastructure, but would need to invest much more time and money to train the local workforce.

Whether the North accepts the South’s help remains to be seen. This could prove to be a major stumbling block.

Of course, China could step in and play a major role. The country has built the world’s longest high-speed rail network, extending some 22,000kms, in a remarkably short span of time.

Beijing has strategic interests in developing the North’s rail network, as well. A future inter-Korean railway could serve as an extension of its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure development initiative linking China with key markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Baby steps

Before any progress can be made on grand plans like these, North and South Korea need to take an important first step and reopen the rail links and roads between the countries. The two neighbours agreed in June to work towards that goal, but any material progress will need to wait until international sanctions against North Korea are lifted.

The two Koreas agreed to start limited cross-border rail service to an industrial zone just over the North Korean border in 2007, but the fraught relationship between the two countries soon brought the initiative to a halt.

The ConversationThis time around, progress will depend on the cooperation of the North Korean leader, who has been reluctant to accept help in the past, but might be persuaded to do so now with his country’s future in the balance.

Hussein Dia, Chair, Department of Civil and Construction Engineering, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections


Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News