1 March 2023

All aboard? How Canberra could become a test case for high-speed rail

| Claire Fenwicke
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High speed rail

Could the agonisingly slow train trip from Canberra to Sydney really be cut down to two hours with high-speed rail? Photo: File.

Imagine jumping into a train in Canberra and arriving in Sydney within two hours.

That could be a reality according to FastTrack Australia’s new implementation plan for high-speed rail from Sydney to Melbourne.

The report singled out a high-speed rail section from Canberra to Goulburn and Yass as a “high priority”, which could serve as a guinea pig to prove the concept would work across the east coast.

“The Canberra section of the high-speed rail line is largely a self-contained project that is worth doing in its own right,” it stated.

“It can be treated as a ‘no regrets’ project. It has good benefits that its success will not be determined by the addition of future stages, and is not dependent on the completion of the full Sydney-Melbourne high-speed line.”

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The argument for high-speed rail to the nation’s capital is nothing new, with a Commonwealth High Speed Rail Authority set up in the second half of last year to investigate options, and $1 billion pledged by Labor before the 2019 election.

But this report’s authors, Dr Garry Glazebrook and Dr Ross Lowrey, argue it shouldn’t be built as a standalone system, but rather as an upgrade to the existing network, progressively rolled out in stages to connect regional cities along the line.

While the Sydney to Melbourne corridor is the ultimate goal, they wrote starting in Canberra would both prove the concept could work and open the potential for “dramatic growth” of the city’s population.

They envisioned the line would start near Canberra Airport (where it could link up with the proposed light rail to Civic), following the Majura Parkway out of the Territory, and then branching off after Gunning to Yass in the west and Goulburn in the east.

“The line opens two new areas for expansion of the urban area north of Canberra that need faster rail connections to be considered as suburbs of Canberra,” the report stated.

“It also frees the existing rail line to Bungendore, allowing Canberra’s light rail to be expanded to support a third proposed urban renewal area (Kowen), as well as connecting the nearby town of Bungendore.”

The authors said constructing this section of track would disprove arguments that Australia’s vast distances between destinations and dispersed populations meant high-speed rail wasn’t economically viable.

“While studies can support or dispel these hypotheses, they cannot be completely proven until tested with the actual implementation of high-speed rail,” the report stated.

“This project encompasses both aspects needed to show that high-speed rail (faster connections) promotes regional growth and that it has to be implemented as an upgrade to the existing network: the new high-speed track connects both Goulburn and Yass to Canberra, creating the opportunity for growth and development in each city.

“This limited section of high-speed track will be integrated with the existing network in order to add new services (including ones that will extend beyond this track) and also improve the performance of existing services operating between Goulburn and Yass.”

map of proposed high speed rail line from Canberra to Yass and Goulburn

The report suggests new business precincts for Canberra could be created along the high-speed rail line. Photo: FastTrack Australia.

It also suggested Goulburn and Yass could be used to explore other ideas and then be used as a template for the development of other regional cities as they’re connected to the high-speed network.

It expects the line would ultimately carry very fast Canberra-Sydney and Canberra-Melbourne services, potentially to speeds of 350 km/h.

Currently, the average speed of the Canberra to Sydney trip is 70 km/h.

But the report warned the Federal Government would need to come to the table in a big way to make it all happen.

“The high-speed line crosses the border between NSW and the ACT, which makes it national infrastructure,” it said.

“In fact, it is unlikely to proceed without federal leadership, backed by both the ACT and NSW governments.”

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It’s something the ACT Government is keen to make a reality.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said his government had “very little” money it could put towards this kind of project, but it’s something they had been investigating.

“In 2020 the ACT Government provided $1 million for investigations into the corridor to support development of the Transport for NSW Strategic Business Case, undertaking a series of technical inputs to their work,” he said.

“Improvements to the Sydney Canberra rail were the first joint initiative to be listed on Infrastructure Australia’s Infrastructure Priority List.”

map of high speed rail into Canberra

It’s suggested the high-speed rail line should follow the Majura Parkway and terminate near the airport. Photo: FastTrack Australia.

Mr Barr said improvements could also be made to the existing train line which runs to Kingston if the project became a reality.

“Improvements to this line could commence almost immediately [once Commonwealth] funding is allocated,” he said.

The Federal Government announced on Friday (24 February) it has started its search for board members to run the High Speed Rail Authority to advise, plan, develop and oversee the construction and operation of a new train network along the eastern seaboard.

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The XPT was supposed to be a fast train, but in reality, it’s marginally faster than the old western suburbs red rattlers. The limiting factor was the rails and hot summers wreak havoc on them

The gov should consider the expected population growth and support more REAL infrastructure projects to the south side. Transportation projects are good investment and they’re never waste of money.

HiddenDragon7:50 pm 02 Mar 23

“Chief Minister Andrew Barr said his government had “very little” money it could put towards this kind of project, but it’s something they had been investigating.”

Add to this refreshing burst of candour the public comment today from Andrew Barr’s predecessor, in her new role as federal Finance Minister, that the Commonwealth budget has a structural deficit of $50bn. per annum and it is difficult to see where the sustainable economic activity will come from to underpin a “dramatic growth” in the population of what is still (massaged stats aside) a public sector town and an expensive place to do business.

A new rail line which confirmed/enhanced the status of Yass, Goulburn and some intermediate towns as dormitory suburbs of Canberra could have some housing choice and commuting benefits for people whose work is centred in Canberra, but that would be about it – a renaissance of economic growth and diversification for the Canberra economy triggered by this rail proposal is very hard to see.

Tom Worthington2:07 pm 02 Mar 23

Legislation would be needed to capture the increase in value of the land along the route. That would then be enough to pay for the line. Existing settlements could be expanded and new ones built, which are “Internet enabled” for minimum cost. For example, each could have a hospital, and a university campus, which would rely on online access to remote surgeons and professors.

Upgrading the existing line would be faster cheaper and pretty good, much better than what we have now. Even 2.5-3hrs would beat flying to sydney

I’ve been saying that for a while – the old XPT from the 1980s could cruise happily at 140km/h if only it had a decent track.

Instead of having a spur to the airport to meet with an unbuilt LR line, have the line go to Gungahlin to be serviced by the existing LR. There’s plenty of along Anthony Rolf Avenue.

Utopia S1 E3 😂

Alex Mihnea Moisescu10:05 pm 01 Mar 23

A high speed train from Brisbane to Adelaide would connect more than 60% of the Australian population and it would be exceptional if built at a decent cost (comparable to other countries – Japan, China, Germany) in a sensitive amount of time (3-5 years).
Canberra to Sydney should take 1 hour or less, Sydney to Melbourne 3 hours, Brisbane to Adelaide 8-9 hours and that would replace most flights.

If this trains would run on clean, cheap energy, then, Australia “welcome to the future”.

ChrisinTurner4:07 pm 01 Mar 23

An ICE3 HST in Germany carries about 450 passengers and busy routes have a train every 5 minutes. Even then the Germans can’t make a profit on HST. We just don’t have the passengers.

Jenny Graves3:50 pm 01 Mar 23

Why take it to the airport? That really defeats the object of making it an alternative. And who knows whether the light rail will ever get out there from Civic? It needs to be somewhere easily accessible by public transport, and the airport just doesn’t fit the bill.

Macquariephil1:24 pm 01 Mar 23

Re high speed rail, my Japanese friend says ‘just do it’.

The Japanese system is largely funded through real estate sales and vastly increased values along the routes.

The longer distances here make high speed more viable and east coast traffic is plenty, and growing.

Using solar power could be investigated.

Longer distances only make it more viable if you can convince every little village along the way that there is no need for the train to stop there. High speed an 50 stops don’t go together.

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