TRAINS between Sydney and Newcastle could be an hour faster if a business case the federal government has pledged to help pay for pans out.
The state government has won a share of $20 million in federal funding to help them investigate improvements to the link between the Hunter and the state’s capital. It is one of three rail projects from around the country chosen to be analyzed in greater detail by the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities.
The line crossing the Hawkesbury joins a link between Brisbane and the regions of Moreton Bay and Sunshine Coast, plus a proposal corridor linking Melbourne to greater Shepparton in those revealed on Friday to be progressing.
In a joint statement with Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities Paul Fletcher, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the Hunter business case cash would be combined with funding from the state government to explore the upgrade’s feasibility.
“Once the business case for each proposal is complete they will then proceed to independent assessment by Infrastructure Australia,” the statement said. “If these proposals prove to be viable, they offer the potential to significantly reduce journey times on these key corridors—meaning better options for people who want to have the lifestyle of a regional centre but access to the job opportunities of a big city.”
Documents detailing the NSW government’s proposal for a business case indicate changes including better segregation between passenger and freight services, removal of level crossings and realigning the track to make trips faster between Newcastle and Sydney could save the hour on a trip that regularly reaches three hours.
“The NSW government has indicated that travel times between Sydney and Newcastle could be reduced from approximately three hours to two hours,” the document states.
An estimated cost is listed to “be confirmed in coming weeks”. Comment has been sought from Transport Minister Andrew Constance’s office.
The Property Council of Australia welcomed the inclusion of the Hunter’s link to the state capital.
“Both Newcastle and Sydney have growing populations and faster rail will mean people can move more easily between the two,” Property Council Hunter committee chair Neil Petherbridge said.
“A shorter travel time is critical to opening up housing and business opportunities for the Hunter region and means people who work in Sydney but live in Newcastle will face an easier commute.
“Faster rail will also make the Newcastle area more appealing for people to move to the region.
The NSW government proposal highlights the faster intercity link’s potential to “unlock housing supply and job growth” between the two cities as one of its main benefits.
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said the business case, which also suggests a freight rail bypass for the region, was a piece of infrastructure the region deserved and one the council had affirmed its support for several times.
But she said she was wary of discussing the link as a commuter route, arguing instead it should bolster the Hunter’s own economic growth and help attract major organisations to headquarter here.
“We shouldn’t be aspiring to be a commuter suburb,” she said. “It’s about increasing the connectivity to conduct our own business.”
Cr Nelmes said any freight rail bypass planning, including the business case, should plan the concept in conjuction with extending the M1 and the Richmond Vale rail trail.
Lake Macquarie mayor Kay Fraser said there were already strong commuter connections from her area that would strengthen with a quicker trip.
“We already have strong commuter connections with Sydney, particularly from southern parts of the city such as Wyee and Morisset, so faster rail has the potential to significantly improve work/life balance by reducing travelling times and allowing people to spend more time at home,” Cr Fraser said.
“It will also encourage entrepreneurs to look to Lake Macquarie as a business location. They can set up here for a fraction of the cost of operating out of Sydney, and the improved rail link would allow them to draw employees from a larger catchment.”
Infrastructure Australia lists preserving a corridor for a future Newcastle freight rail bypass as a high priority initiative, indicating no business case yet exists for an opportunity potentially of national significance.
The Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities said it would take between a year and 18 months to develop the Sydney to Newcastle upgrade’s business case, which will need to demonstrate how the upgrades would result in faster travel times.
“Completed business cases will be considered in the context of the government’s wider infrastructure priorities and future budgets, and any future funding commitments will take into account state and private sector financial support.”
Mr Petherbridge said he was hopeful the business case would be a step towards a concrete financial commitment towards upgrading the train line from both tiers of government.
“We would like a solid commitment from both the federal and state governments to fund improvements to the Newcastle and Sydney rail line and add some hard and fast timeframes to this project,” Mr Petherbridge said.
“Our only concern is that the proposal currently is for a business case only.
“Once the business case outlines the well-known benefits from improvements to travel times, we hope long-term financial commitments will be on the table.
A Transport for NSW spokesman said the investigation would consider “opportunities for integrated transport and land use outcomes for the Central Coast and Hunter”.
“The business case will also examine opportunities to maximise benefits from fleet upgrades, now and into the future,” he said. “At this stage we will consider the feasibility of a range of options to achieve faster travel times and assess them in the business case.”