FOR decades now, both sides of politics have expressed their support for better rail links between Newcastle and Sydney.
After all, road transport has gone ahead in leaps and bounds in recent decades, yet rail has by-and-large failed to keep pace, except in traffic-clogged capital cities, where commuting by train is commonplace.
Responding to calls for better rail services, the federal government allocated $20 million in last year’s budget to support the development of business cases for faster services in up to three areas of the nation. On Friday, the government announced the successful areas: Newcastle to Sydney, Melbourne to Shepparton and Moreton Bay to the Sunshine Coast.
Interestingly, the Victorian and Queensland proposals have been put forward by private consortia, both of which contain property groups, while the Sydney-to-Newcastle submission has been lodged by the NSW government, which will also draw up the business case to lodge with Canberra.
Once this is done, it seems that the Sydney-to-Newcastle rail system will be competing for its share of a $10-billion program over $10 years that was also promised in last year’s federal budget.
What this goes to show is that on the publicly available information, the realisation of a faster inter-city rail service is by no means a certainty. A fact sheet put out on Friday said the state government was hopeful of cutting as much as an hour off the trip between Newcastle and Sydney. But as optimistic as this might seem, a look through the list of potential improvements shows that this will be a capital-intensive project, no matter how the government goes about it. Whether it is removing freight from passenger lines – perhaps by building the long-awaited Hexham-to-Fassifern freight rail bypass of Newcastle – or by cutting travel times through the Hawkesbury by tunnelling a new, more direct route, the bill is going to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, at least. And the cost will be the rub.
Canberra was explicit on Friday in saying that “financial support for the development of a business case does not indicate Australian government support for delivery of a project”. But we won’t get to an endgame without going through all of the steps in the process. The next step on this slow road will be when the business case is finished in the next 12 to 18 months. Then we’ll see how serious the commitment to rail is.