China-backed company proposes $24 billion high speed rail network from Newcastle to Sydney

A COMPANY backed by China’s state railways company wants to spend $24 billion on a high-speed rail network that would make it possible to travel from Newcastle to Sydney in less than an hour.

Centurion Group, a developer and China Rail’s local partner, says a privately funded rail system running from Campbelltown, in Sydney’s south west, to Newcastle, is financially viable and could go ahead if the state government supports the project.

The 150-kilometre line, as envisioned by the company’s chief executive Patrick Yu, would run from Campbelltown, to Central, Chatswood, Wyong, and then to Newcastle after turning at Cameron Park. 

“It would take less than an hour from Central to Newcastle,” Mr Yu said. “We are being cautious and saying 50 [minutes] at this stage.”

The line would run all the way into the city of Newcastle, but still allow the city to connect to the harbour, Mr Yu said.

“We would go underground,” he explained.

The plan would be for the line to run to its truncation point – presumably the proposed Wickham Interchange – and then enter a tunnel which would lead all the way to the site of the former Newcastle railway station. The company has been pursuing the idea for some years, and has the support of NSW upper house Christian Democrat Fred Nile, but there’s one big challenge stopping the plan at its first hurdle. 

Centurion says the line could be funded by “value capturing” – that is developing in areas around new stations – but first wants the state government to redesign it’s $7 billion Sydney harbour tunnel crossing to accommodate a high-speed rail line. It says it would only cost $250 million extra to make the tunnel large enough to fit the line.

“Otherwise you would have to legislate for a third tunnel through the harbour,” he said. “It’s a narrow harbour as it is, it could take 10 years before that happens.”

But Transport for NSW has been quick to knock the idea on the head, saying that designing the tunnels for high speed rail would mean making new stations in Sydney almost three times deeper.

“The new twin metro railway tunnels ... are being designed to be as shallow as possible on either end of the harbour to make it easy for customers to get into and out of stations as quickly as possible,” Transport said in a statement. “The whole point of Sydney Metro is to deliver fast, frequent, convenient services.”

Don't put the cart before the corridor

IT WAS four years ago that Todd Williams, the chief executive of Regional Development Australia in the Hunter, helped cobble together a coalition of business leaders, government officials and politicians to lobby for work on a high speed rail network to begin in this region.

At the time, the then Labor government was working on the second part of a major study into the feasibility of a Brisbane-to-Melbourne fast rail network.

When the report came out in 2013 it put the overall cost of the project at $114 billion and estimated that the stretch between Newcastle and Sydney would be the most complicated and expensive – attaching a price tag of $141 million per kilometre.

Despite the cost, Regional Development Australia haven’ given up. Next month the general manager of Central Japan Railway, Shohei Yoshia, will deliver a key note address for the group.

Mr Williams said the issue was still “so important”, but had to be dealt with “one thing at a time”.

“What we found out back then was that there is currently no corridor preserved, there’s no land available, that needs to be dealt with as a priority,” he said. 

The chief executive of the Hunter Business Chamber Kristen Keegan, agreed, saying that while she wasn’t familiar with the Centurion Group proposal, preserving a rail corridor was the first step. “It is important that if high speed rail in Australia is to become a reality that  the appropriate rail corridor is identified and preserved,” she said.

Since the landmark 2013 study the government has changed and the issue has dropped off the agenda.

However a spokesman for the federal government’s infrastructure minister Warren Truss said the government was working with states “to identify priority sections of the preferred alignment for protection”. 

“Jurisdictional consultations have focused on corridor issues relating to the preferred alignment,” the spokesman said.

Garry Glazebrook, an adjunct professor of urban planning at the University of Technology Sydney, did work mapping out routes for high speed rail for the previous government. He is skeptical of when it might happen, but thinks Australia would benefit.

“I think we’ll be just ahead of Antarctica in getting it,” he said. 

He said that having a far closer link with a “global city” would make it easier for businesses to justify moving to Newcastle, as well as make it an attractive place to live.

“From a business point of view, you could argue firms will think well it’s cheaper, the lifestyle is better, but you have Sydney less than an hour a way,” he said. “I think certainly it would have that impact for housing, you would see development around rail stations.”

The cost of not building high speed rail 

ZAC Zavos says he would “definitely” still be in Newcastle if high-speed rail linked the city to Sydney.

The co-founder and managing director of Conversant Media – the publisher of culture site Lost At E Minor and sports opinion site The Roar – ran the company in Newcastle from the end of 2007 until last year, when the toll of travelling back and forth to Sydney caught up with him.

“I think a lot of businesses want to be in Newcastle but are forced to operate out of Sydney because that’s where they need to be,” he said. “But we only moved because of the distance, if you eliminated that then all of sudden businesses have the option of staying, or coming, to Newcastle.” 

Mr Zavos employs 16 people in his Surry Hills office. Most were already based in Sydney, but, he says, if he could have, his Newcastle office would have been larger. 

“We wouldn’t have left if there was any viable option to stay,” he said. “The economic benefit to me is simple; you’re decentralising Sydney and bringing businesses into regional areas like Newcastle.”

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