11 March 2023

High-speed rail is still important but fix the track so we can first have a faster trip to Sydney

| Ian Bushnell
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train at station

The Canberra-Sydney train at Kingston Station: in 2023, the four-and-a-half-hour journey is ridiculous. Photo: NSW Trainlink.

It’s a long haul to Sydney on Canberra’s third-world train service.

Despite any number of grand visions for a high-speed rail network in this country and more modest investigations of a faster connection with the NSW capital, not much has happened and the trip still takes more than four hours from a terminus that continues to be an embarrassment.

Hopes were again raised recently with a new plan from Fastrack Australia spruiking the Canberra-Sydney corridor – including a new line from Goulburn to Yass and a branch line from Gunning to Canberra Airport – as a perfect test case to show the benefits of fast rail.

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

It proposed a staged transition for the Sydney-Melbourne route over the next 30 years.

But the first work would be straightening out the track in the Southern Highlands where trains slow to a crawl as it winds around the hills. That could bring the Canberra-Sydney journey back to three hours, comparable with a car trip.

Over time, and with a new line and trains, that would be just 1.5 hours by 2050.

Yes, we have heard it all before.

The Albanese Government has put fast rail back on the agenda by re-establishing the High Speed Rail Authority. However, that only seems to have prompted the Perrottet Government in NSW to shy away from previous commitments and pass the buck to the Commonwealth.

In any case, its priority was the Newcastle-Wollongong corridor, not rail to Canberra.

Professor Andrew McNaughton, the chair of the authority that manages the UK’s high-speed rail line, whose report to the NSW Government is still under wraps, believes basic improvements to the Canberra-Sydney track would deliver a comparable service to road travel and be a start on a faster rail network in Australia, and the benefits it would bring.

It doesn’t seem much to ask but, as ever, it will come down to political priorities.

Anthony Albanese loves his infrastructure, but in post-COVID straitened times there are more highly populated corridors to service and, frankly, providing a faster train service to Canberra will struggle to compete with the demands from other electorates.

For the national capital, the focus will more likely be on helping fund light rail in Canberra.

The prospect of a Labor Government in NSW after 25 March may change the equation, so Chief Minister Andrew Barr should again be on the train to Sydney to plead the case for at least improving the track because it is not just about faster connections but opening up land along the corridor to new development so population can be spread inland and not be so concentrated in Sydney or along the coast.

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With a housing crisis that will be exacerbated by the resumption of migration, easing the pressure on the eastern capitals will be desperately needed.

The increasingly busy corridor to Goulburn and Canberra would easily serve that purpose.

That should be important to any NSW Government.

The political odds may be stacked against a faster rail service between the two capitals, but that does not lessen the case.

All the ACT’s political representatives should be on board.

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kaleen_calous5:35 pm 16 Mar 23

Rail, high speed and infrastructure spend. These are all concepts that reside in the back of the Narnia cupboard that are only wheeled out for state or Federal elections. When will the usually breathlessly accepting media understand this and stop proving these fantasists with an uncritical platform. I can assure you anyone living in the real world has a good chuckle when they hear these terms bandied about.

HiddenDragon7:27 pm 13 Mar 23

“It proposed a staged transition for the Sydney-Melbourne route over the next 30 years.”

A much higher priority 30 year commitment for federal funding will be formally announced in San Diego tomorrow morning – so good luck to the optimists who have been talking up east coast fast rail for at least that many years.

As to NSW government funding for worthwhile upgrades to the Sydney-Canberra line, Chris Minns was in the media today with strong criticism of the Perrotet government’s current debt levels and future borrowing plans. With much of that debt and planned borrowing related to infrastructure for vote-rich Sydney, it is difficult to see a NSW Labor giving higher priority to the Sydney-Canberra line.

The decentralisation argument in favour of the Sydney-Canberra line raises, once again, the “value capture” issue, which seems to be much more talked about than implemented – possibly because it is much easier said than done, and even on the most optimistic estimates, still leaves a large funding gap to be met by shy private capital and/or increasingly scarce public funds to cover the extortionate costs of building and upgrading infrastructure in Australia.

Roger Shelton7:16 pm 13 Mar 23

It is more than ‘fix the track’. In the 1990s some services Canberra/Sydney were scheduled for substantially less than 4 hours. Also, what has been overlooked is the impact of prioritising goods trains, ditto Sydney suburban services, and setting section times to suit the pace of goods trains and suburban services.
Victoria and Queensland both have long distance services doing up to 160kph! NSW used to. TrainLink needs to get its mojo back first up.

ChrisinTurner1:06 pm 13 Mar 23

Please stop talking about an HST bringing people to Canberra Airport. Why? To catch a plane? The rest of the world brings train passengers to their inner city transport hub. Put the terminus at Ainslie Avenue as proposed by the Feds.

Rodney Freeman11:45 am 13 Mar 23

There are always issues on the SHL, just waiting for a passenger train derailment! Most delays are caused by the condition of the track. The Endeavour trains that ply the SHL can go faster, about 130kph, however by an Endeavour drivers own admission speed is restricted because the track is in such poor condition and not sufficiently well maintained for the trains to go faster. About time the NSW Gov, got onto the ARTC to fix the track before lives are lost when a train goes of the rails.

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