26 May 2023

How the national capital can ride the rails to a better future

| Ian Bushnell
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train at station

The Canberra-Sydney train at the Canberra Railway Station at Kingston: outdated and inadequate. Photo: NSW Trainlink.

A faster rail link with Sydney combined with enhanced public transport connections in Canberra would boost the national capital’s tourism potential and increase the number of visitors to the city, a federal parliamentary inquiry has been told.

The Canberra-Sydney Rail Action Group (C-SRAG) argues in its submission to the National Capital inquiry for a faster, more frequent, high-quality rail service between Sydney and Canberra. It also calls for either light rail or connecting bus services between the railway station at Kingston and the national institutions in the Parliamentary Triangle.

C-SRAG also suggests the construction of a new station closer to Civic.

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The submission states it is well recognised the current line to Sydney is outdated and inadequate, and faster rail has been on NSW’s priority transport list since 2020.

But still train travellers face a four-hour-plus journey, something that has not changed in 60 years.

It’s a pitch to the right audience because funding from the fast rail-friendly Albanese Government will be needed to at least fix the track if and when the new Labor NSW Government decides to act, not to mention the ACT side of the border.

C-SRAG says a competitive rail service at a time of high fuel prices and air fares will make the national capital a more attractive and feasible destination, and open up other visitor opportunities.

For example, the proximity of the current railway station to Manuka Oval provides an opportunity for additional regular public transport services – like the annual ‘Elvis Express’ train to Parkes operated by Transport for NSW or chartered rail services such as the heritage ‘Picnic Train’ operator – to bring spectators to cultural or sporting events in Canberra.

“Similarly, the combination of improved local public transport services connecting with upgraded intercity rail services would make day trips or short overnight ‘mini-breaks’ to see Canberra’s cultural sites such as the National Gallery, Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial possible without needing a car,” the submission states.

C-SRAG cites Professor Andrew McNaughton, current chairman of the UK’s High Speed Rail construction agency and author of the most recent Report into Faster Regional Rail Services for NSW, who argues the job is a straightforward infrastructure management task that can bring travel times down by at least 75 minutes.

It proposes two options – rebuilding the existing line to standards that bring journey times down to about 3.5 hours, or progressive reconstruction of the corridor to enable higher speeds for a 2-3 hour trip and increasing services closer to that offered by buses.

This would start to approach end-to-end journey times capable of competing with air travel.

The first option would require some straightening out of the track and new rolling stock.

The second and preferred option would also require new rolling stock to make best use of the upgraded infrastructure and potentially a new railway station closer to Civic.

This would cost more, requiring major realignment and/or deviations of the existing corridor, particularly between Campbelltown and Goulburn.

But C-SRAG says these major works will benefit every passenger and freight train along the Sydney-Melbourne interstate rail corridor.

“Getting a faster, more frequent service running to a 2-3 hour transit time to Sydney is essential to drive improved patronage,” the submission states.

“An ACT Government survey from 2018 indicated 57 per cent of respondents would be more likely to travel via train between Canberra and Sydney if the travel time was between 2-3 hours.”

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C-SRAG believes the travellers are there, with recent patronage trends pointing to a strong post-pandemic recovery.

It says more than 210,000 passengers took the train in 2022, and seating limits on the existing three daily return trains will be tested within the next year or two.

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I caught the train from Sydney to Canberre once and regretted the move.

Let me start by saying that, growing up in Europe, I have done a lot of travelling by train and definitely prefer trains over buses.

On my return trip from Europe in 2008 and after something like 48 hours on the move, I decided to catch the train to get back to Canberra. Halfway along the trip in the middle of nowhere, the train stopped for about 2 hours and it was not until sometime after the train was moving again, passengers were informed that there had been a broken rail!!!!!!! I was appalled – a broken rail? I eventually arrived in Canberra about 3 hours AFTER the train was supposed to have arrived.

Murray’s must be very pleased with the NSW government for failing to provide a decent public transport service between Sydney and Canberra!

Leon Arundell4:28 pm 01 Jun 23

Coaches already provide faster public transport from Canberra to Sydney’s Central Station, much faster transport to Sydney airport, and very much faster connections to Melbourne-bound trains via Cootamundra or Albury. Much of the ‘improved patronage’ of public transport rail trips would be public transport trips that would otherwise be coach trips. Would the benefits be enough to justify the costs?

What people want and what would be achievable is easy to understand. Having any government willing to fund it is a totally different story.

It would make sense to use the existing road corridor of Majura Parkway, then join the Federal Highway to Goulburn. A new elevated twin track is something the Chinese could build in a rapidly short time. Check out what rail systems they have built across China in last 5 years including VFTs. They would have built the “Canberra tram” in half the time and a quarter of the cost, and I might add, using bigger more efficient trams that would have carried double the passengers per tram trip. To the point, let’s just have a faster train service to Sydney. Something that competes a little better with the bus service run of around 3 hours.

The Unions might have something to say about the CCP building our infrastructure

It was interesting that some years ago the suggestion was made to close the rail service full stop. The Queanbeyan citizens kicked up a right royal protest. Despite the dilapidated state of the tracks and infrastructure the service continued. It has been a huge financial thorn in state and territory budgets.
I also recall that rail freighted petroleum products ceased due to risk concerning rail track safety.

Better have a way to prevent hot summers from warping the rails, otherwise it will be a slow train to nowhere

What I’ve read sounds good to me! Though, it reminds me of the JAF 2008 (Jane Austen Festival) when a group from Sydney came down for the Sunday Regency dance lesson. They had to leave early to catch their flight to Sydney, that’s when the Dance Instructor point out “you could always catch the train from Sydney to Canberra. The Train Station is closer and it’s a pleasant ride” to which the others respond with “Canberra has a train station?” LOL

Tom Worthington9:36 am 29 May 23

A fast passenger rail service to Sydney makes sense, but there is still the question of paying for it. One way which has been used for at least a century is to build new homes along the rail corridor, and use the improvement in land value to pay for the line. That then also provides more passengers. This could be done along the Canberra Sydney route, building Internet enabled new, and expanded towns. The tows could offer all modern facilities (schools, hospital, cultural center, university campus) from day one.

The train stopping at all of these new and existing towns to pick up and drop off passengers would not make for a high speed service.

Australia’s rail system is 3rd world stuff. China has over 40,000 kilometers of high speed rail.

Capital Retro12:01 pm 29 May 23

…and 1.8 billion people.

China population density 145 per square km, Australia 3.4 – China’s population density is 4264.7% greater than ours. A Case of comparing watermelons with blueberries?

@Mark R
Population density probably has a lot to do with China’s breadth of high speed rail.

China is approximately 1.2 times the physical size of Australia, yet it’s population is almost 55.5 times that of Australia.

Only country that should be shamed via comparison like this is US. It’s the only country that is rich enough, has the density and yet failed to invest in public infrastructure. Because, tanks and missiles are more important there. We’re about to follow the same path with AUKUS, spending money on expensive military toys and neglecting what will drive our nation forward.

Yeh cause 1.4 billion is exactly the same as 1.8 billion. Google really isn’t hard to use.

HiddenDragon8:09 pm 28 May 23

Difficult to see a federal Labor government with budget bombs going off everywhere making this a funding priority when there are no marginal seats at stake in the ACT and when it has high speed rail as a handy fob off/delaying tactic for dealing with this push.

The NSW government might be prepared to fund upgrades to bring further parts of the line within realistic daily commuting distance of Sydney, but that would still fall short of getting to the ACT.

Things might change if this idea takes off locally, but the self-interest of people who are “passionate about climate change,” so long as it does not disrupt their comfy lifestyles, suggests it will, at best, be talked about on the margins and as something to maybe consider if the high speed rail mirage gets closing to being a reality –


This is consistent with having a transport hub at the Kingston Railway Station, as suggested by the East Lake draft Place Plan. A good connecting bus service to the main tourist destinations, including nearby hotels in Kingston and Barton would be useful.

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