Cross posted at Beyond Zero Emissions.

The Australian Greens have put high-speed rail (HSR) back on the national agenda. Greens leader Senator Bob Brown has called on the Rudd government to fund a study identifying the best route for connecting Australia’s two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, with HSR.

The ambitious project represents the type of nation building that should be at the heart of national climate policy. The project has the potential to reduce Australia’s ballooning carbon emissions, and kick-start the development of a larger HSR network that can one day connect all of Australia’s mainland capital cities.

High-speed rail between Melbourne and Sydney would provide a viable alternative to flying. The carbon impact of air travel came to the fore this week when it was revealed that the European air industry is more carbon intensive than the Icelandic volcano that grounded European flights for a week (check out this infographic by Information is Beautiful). Given that the Melbourne-Sydney route is currently one of the world’s busiest, any reduction of flights between the two cities will deliver substantial carbon reductions over time.

Bob Brown’s request comes amid renewed interest in high-speed rail globally. The Obama administration invested $8 billion in last year’s economic stimulus—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—for HSR projects in Florida and California that will lay the foundation for a national network. And China has recently announced plans for HSR that dwarfs those of the US. The nation that built the Great Wall of China is set to spearhead the construction of the world’s largest ever engineering project: an intercontinental high-speed rail network connecting London with Beijing, and then to Singapore. China is now negotiating with several nations so it can complete the project by the end of the decade.

The rollout of HSR in North America and Asia is good news for Australia. These massive projects will lead to the increased production of HSR components and know-how. These economies of scale are capable of bringing down the costs of the HSR infrastructure, making it economically viable for Australia to undertake a nation building HSR project over the next two decades.

A national Australian HSR network will deliver larger carbon savings as domestic energy production shifts to renewable energy sources like wind, geothermal, and baseload solar. And of course, there are social and economic benefits too. The construction of the network will create thousands of jobs and open up regional centres for sustainable development.

The Beyond Zero Emissions team look forward to the day when Australians can fly by rail. The Rudd government’s support for the HSR study will bring us a step closer to that dream.