Social Media Claim

Bushfire fast train conspiracy claims run off the rails

A Facebook post from January 6, 2020 claims bushfires are clearing land for a proposed high speed train line.

The Statement

As bushfires continue to burn across the east coast of Australia, numerous social media posts are claiming or suggesting the fires are part of a conspiracy to burn a path to construct a fast rail network.

One post by an Australian user from January 6, 2020 features three images including a one that compares a potential route for a high speed rail project between Melbourne and Brisbane with a map of the bushfires burning along the coast. The post also has a screenshot of a fast rail map connecting Melbourne and Brisbane and a detailed map showing a proposed corridor for a fast rail system.

The post, which claims “land is actually being cleared (by fires) to make way for the rail line” has been shared more than 870 times and attracted more than 300 reactions.

The Analysis

The bushfires in Australia have been burning since September 2019 in Queensland, with a state of emergency was declared in that state in November, and since then in NSW and Victoria. As of January 15, 2020, more than 17.1 million hectares have been burnt across the country, according to a statement to AAP FactCheck from the federal Department of Home Affairs.

Posts linking the 2019 Australian bushfires to a supposed plot to clear a path for a fast rail system began appearing in November 2019.

A similar theory was circulated in the United States in 2018 during the Californian bushfires where users claimed the wildfires were started to clear a path for the US state’s proposed high speed rail system.

Those claims were debunked by US fact checkers Snopes.

A map using data from the NSW Rural Fire Service shows where fires have burned in NSW since July, 2019. See the zoomable version of the map here .

The image in the Australia-focused Facebook post is a screenshot from a self-described "alternative media" website called Tott News, which describes itself as “a multimedia content publisher and a primary source of alternative media in Australia”.

AAP FactCheck traced the fast rail map image to page 48 of the Infrastructure Priority List report by Infrastructure Australia, an independent group that advises the federal government. The map appears in the report under a recommendation titled, “Preserve corridor for East Coast High Speed Rail”.

The post claims the “CLARA company (Consolidated Land and Rail Australia) ... made a proposal to Govt in 2017 for a high speed rail train line from Melbourne to Brisbane”.

While there is consortium called Consolidated Land and Rail Australia or CLARA, that group confirmed it has not proposed a Melbourne to Brisbane line.

In an email to AAP FactCheck, a spokesperson for CLARA said: “CLARA proposals have been Melbourne to Sydney”.

Since the 1980s, successive federal governments have discussed building a high speed rail system in Australia but no plan has proceeded. In 2010, the former Gillard government commissioned a study which recommended a route along the east coast between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

In the 2019 federal election campaign the Labor opposition announced a plan to spend $1 billion on acquiring land along the proposed rail route if it won the election. Labor lost.

A spokesperson for the federal Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge told AAP FactCheck the claims that fires were clearing a path for a fast rail line were “absolutely ludicrous”.

The second image contained in the first post was taken from the website of the Australasian Mine Safety Journal. The image is a screenshot of an interactive map that appears on the site from December 31, 2019.

The interactive map shows the fires using information from state rural fire services. While the map displays bushfires, it also includes some building fires and transport accidents.

A comparison of the areas burnt by the bushfires with the area of the proposed high speed rail corridor shows little overlap between the two. In Victoria, bushfires burned in the Gippsland region in the state’s east and in NSW in the Kosciuszko National Park, neither of which intersect with the path of the proposed high speed rail route.

In NSW, data from the NSW RFS shows where fires have also burned on the state’s south-east coast in towns including Batemans Bay, Merimbula and Bega, which are not on the proposed speed rail route.

North-west of Sydney, areas in the Blue Mountains have burned. The proposed fast rail line does not run through the Blue Mountains.

While there have been fires in the state’s north near Coffs Harbour, the route of the fast train proposal runs close along the coast and not in the area where the fires have burned which are further inland.

The third image in the post shows a map of the proposed rail line taken from the Department of Infrastructure's High Speed Rail Study and Reports. The site, which was last updated in September 2017 states that the map is a depiction of the recommended alignment for the fast rail between Melbourne and Brisbane. The map does not show the locations of any fires.

The post’s caption mentions Agenda 21 and Agenda 2030, both of which are part of the United Nations resolution for sustainable development. Agenda 21 is a non-binding UN resolution from 1992 which provides governments with different tools to promote sustainable development.

Agenda 2030 is a 2015 UN resolution which sets out a 15-year plan to achieve the 17 sustainable development goals which aim to “end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere”.

Agenda 21 and Agenda 30 are common targets for conspiracy theorists, including in Australia, who believe the resolutions are a plot to undermine national sovereignty and put the world under UN rule.

The UN resolutions do not mention plans to remove “people from the land and herd them all into ‘smart’ cities, connected by high speed rail”.

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the Facebook post to be false. The proposed high speed rail route used in the post does not line up with the areas burnt in the 2019/20 Australian bushfires. The bushfire map accompanying the map does not clearly show the specific areas burnt and also includes other fire incidents including building fires and traffic accidents.

The third image in the post shows the map of a proposed rail line overlaid with a green shaded area. The map was taken from a report by the Department of Infrastructure and depicts the preferred rail alignment for the project. It does not depict any fires.

Contrary to the post’s claims, the CLARA consortium has not proposed a high speed rail system between Melbourne and Brisbane.

Claims that the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 21 and Agenda 2030 are behind the bushfires to herd people into smart cities are unsubstantiated. The two UN resolutions relate to sustainable development and do not mention smart cities or high speed rail.

  • False - The primary claim of the content is factually inaccurate.

First published January 15, 2020, 18:42 AEDT