1 August 2023

'Sanity not vanity': the case for faster rail over high-speed options between Canberra and Sydney

| Claire Fenwicke
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Xplorer train

Decades have been spent arguing how to make the trip between Sydney and Canberra more efficient. Photo: Leon Oberg.

Advocacy groups have argued the Commonwealth needs to take the front foot in improving train services between Canberra and Sydney to make it an attractive and viable travel option.

But the question of whether we should be aiming for high-speed rail or just faster rail in general is still up for debate.

Canberra-Sydney Rail Action Group co-convenor Bob Bennett is firmly in the ‘faster rail’ camp, telling the Federal National Capital Inquiry that now was a “pivotal time” for establishing more efficient and effective train services between the two capital cities.

“It goes to a series of debates about whether Canberra should be part of an east coast fast rail,” he said.

“[The option you choose] depends on how quickly you want to do it, and how much you want to spend.”

The group has argued improving the rail service between Sydney and the Territory is essential in maintaining Canberra’s “currency and vibrancy” as the national capital and would contribute to raising the profile of the city.

Mr Bennett said while we already have trains that can travel between 160 km/h and 180 km/h, the infrastructure doesn’t allow that speed to be reached.

The ‘faster rail’ argument suggests it could get the trip between Sydney and Canberra down to between 3 and 3.5 hours – the shorter you want the trip, the more money needs to be spent to get it done.

Mr Bennett said the approach needed to be about “sanity not vanity”, explaining the region didn’t need the fastest train service in Australia, it just needed to be better than the current option.

“A very, very fast train wouldn’t necessarily mean stopping as frequently,” he said.

“You’ve got to establish what your goals are, what you’re willing to pay, and what benefits you want to see … it really depends on what you want to do.”

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Mr Bennett argued not only did the infrastructure need to be improved to allow for faster travel times, but more services also needed to be scheduled to keep up with current demand.

According to the Canberra-Sydney Rail Action Group’s submission to the inquiry, the three return trips currently on offer between the two cities were nearing full capacity before the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 250,000 passengers (or 80 per cent of the service’s capacity) travelling on the corridor in 2018-19.

Mr Bennett said extending the current Xplorer trains with a fourth carriage, along with another three-car return service, and potentially a shuttle service between Canberra and Queanbeyan to Moss Vale would help create better connections.

“We’re now back to and exceeding pre-COVID levels … so more and more [services] are being booked out,” he said.

“Having more frequent services would deal with the other problems, such as access to the Sydney network.”

READ ALSO Transport Minister visits troubled UK High Speed rail project

Another option that has had decades of advocacy is high-speed rail.

University of Wollongong associate professor Philip Laird appeared independently to argue part of this case, but submitted a “middle ground approach” to achieve faster transit times ahead of any high-speed rail project.

“We deserve, you deserve, a better service in Canberra when you want to go to Sydney,” he said.

Assoc Prof Laird submitted that the case for high-speed rail, or even faster rail, couldn’t be made until the necessary land corridors needed either for new tracks or upgrading existing tracks were identified and protected.

He said the case for medium-speed rail was appropriate as a short-term objective to reduce transit times and improve service frequencies.

“All new works should as far as possible be built to [high-speed rail] standards,” Assoc Prof Laird submitted.

“By using Sydney-Canberra as a demonstration project, the successful features of improvements to track, trains and service quality could, in time, be absorbed into a future Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney high-speed rail line.”

The Federal High Speed Rail Authority board was appointed last month, with $500 million in funding to study what works would be needed to establish the Sydney to Newcastle section of the high-speed rail network.

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We could fund it easily if the government were to scrap the Stage 3 Tax Cuts.

One part of our City never finished. We need our passenger and rail links finished: Route to Melbourne and freight link to sea port (probably Eden, as you will be precluded from Jervis Bay now).

Linda Seaniger3:30 pm 02 Aug 23

Of course we need a high-speed train between Canberra and Newcastle desperately. Recently in the school holidays I needed to book a bus or a train to Sydney so that I could eventually go up to the Central Coast because my dad had passed away. Before Covid I made this trip many time is by public transport, usually takes about 6 1/2 hours. None were available and I would’ve had to of gone in three days time. Also Qantas airfares from Canberra to Sydney will between $225 and $885 If we had a fast train, I could probably do it in about 2 1/2. I have visited many countries around the world that are more impoverished than Australia and they have fast trains. Even Morocco has fast rate and it has less traffic on two lane highways than we have on Adelaide Avenue. We really need to sort out infrastructure in Australia.

HiddenDragon7:15 pm 01 Aug 23

If the usual strictly rigorous and completely objective infrastructure cost/benefit analysis concludes that spending some money on the Sydney-Canberra rail line would improve federal Labor’s chances of winning Hume, and NSW Labor’s prospects in the corresponding state seats, then something might be done about faster rail – but high speed rail will remain a mirage (in spite of the hype and hoopla and establishment of a bureaucratic edifice).

Most of the trip is in NSW, with only one station in ACT so if the Feds won’t pay, the NSW government should pay for most of it. Trains are full in both directions with families, older people, kids and uni students, so this is not just about Canberra people. It’s also about all those people who visit Canberra, who come here for their universities, who work here during the week as well as those who live in Goulburn, the Southern Tablelands, Bungendore and all the other stations on the trip.

My mother visited me many years ago. I think she must have flown to Sydney and got the train to Canberra. She was dumbfounded to experience such a down-market train trip to the national capital. There has obviously been too much dreaming about very high speed options and money wasted on feasibility studies. We should have had a high quality medium speed e.g. 160 to 180 km/hr option long ago.

It would be even more downmarket and off-putting if it ended in Fyshwick as was suggested. The current location is good and should be enhanced for a great arrival experience for those who make the trip. A much more flexible welcome arrival location than the airport, with simpler transfer to other transport and locations.

Tom Worthington3:40 pm 01 Aug 23

The Xplorer trains were due to be replaced with Spanish CAF Civity trains, but those have been delayed. If Canberra wants more trains, then the ACT Government would need to pay for them.

There are ways to fund rail infrastructure by capturing the increase in land value around stations. But that would require a much larger investment, and the political will for a complex interstate venture. If the Xplorer/XPT replacement project has gone off the rails (pun intended) that would provide the opportunity to consider a more ambitious alternative.

kaleen_calous3:02 pm 01 Aug 23

Absolutely hilarious! What is it with trains in Australia? Decades of discussion, endless reviews and political expediency. Surely you have to eventually come to the conclusion that quality, publicly accessible transport is the mark of a society that is mature and equitable and one that believes in a low carbon future. Unfortunately NSW doesn’t want to pay for what it sees as a bunch of alien fat cats within its borders. The ACT can’t afford it so the Commonwealth needs to take control but unfortunately Utopian dysfunction will likely prevail.

National infrastructure between all capital cities demands Federal funding. Trains and buses between Canberra and Sydney are fuller now, with air travel being ridiculously expensive. We paid federal taxes to support Qantas and they’ve repaid us with terrible services and high prices. We need better alternatives.

Many people must travel to Sydney for medical treatment that they can’t get in Canberra and can’t afford the plane. The train is slow but essential for many who’re sick, disabled and can’t sit still in their seat for the entire trip by bus or air. Enforced self government has not been good for Canberra in many ways, so it would be good to see the Feds help out.

Roads never pay there way either though. The good news is we are getting new trains as the NSW gov have secured newer trains than can go up to 160 km/h. So now we just need the tracks straigtened out a bit. We do the same for roads. People are starting to catch on that decent train services beat buses and planes in many areas. Especially business where a 3 hour service without having to pack away theirt laptop for take off and landing and to go from the lounge to the plane etc, means they get more work done.

I do think fast rail will come though. Its just getting peoples mindset out of the fact that we don’t build infrastructure to make money directly. We do it to improve the fficiency of society which in turn improves productivity and lives of people and has a flow on effect. If we could put an actual real $ value on these things infrastructure would pay for itself, but we can’t. When they do a CBA if they don’t want it they undervalue all the things that don’t have a monetary value.

Europe has been straightening out their railway lines for 60 plus years, allowing relatively high speed travel. We could do the same Sydney to Canberra and have a two hour trip using a tilt train. This would make economic sense and put Qantas and Virgin out of business on this sector. Forget a very fast train – it will never pay its way.

Hilarious! This has been discussed since 1976. Currently there are hourly buses from Sydney to Canberra. Why do we need to spend billions on infrastructure because ‘trains’? No one can ever answer that question. Australia is in so much debt please stop p*ssing money up a wall. We can’t afford it.

We spend nillion on infrastructure for cars and buses as well. People just don’t seem to get upset by it. Alspo the train is far more superior than a bus and the prices for bus tickets are just going up with the cost of fuel. Most of the wolrd has worked this out. Yet in Australia we have people like you holding back meaningful progress and providing a decent transport system.

We can’t afford roads that keep filling up with more polluting cars and trucks, needing to be replaced and duplicated as well as being the major cause of road trauma, devastating injuries and deaths. Much cheaper to upgrade and maintain a national web of trains on good tracks between major cities, whether super fast trains or just more efficient.

I totally agree. We need cheaper Nike runners, e-scooters and bicycles to travel down to the coast, stop off at Poo Bear corner, etc.

I thought the Chaser covered this extensively quite few years ago.

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