Hunter leaders have responded to the NSW government’s plans for a fast rail network from Sydney to regional areas including Newcastle, expressing enthusiasm for quicker connections but wariness of another study.
The state government announced on Tuesday it would start work on a fast rail network in its next term if re-elected in March, unveiling four potential routes within 300 kilometres of Sydney, including a Northern Route comprising the Central Coast and Newcastle.
Fast rail on the route could reduce the Newcastle to Sydney trip of two hours and 35 minutes to two hours under a ‘faster’ option, or 45 minutes under a ‘high-speed’ option.
The faster option, a short to medium-term focus, would involve optimisation of existing rail routes, while the high-speed option, a medium to long-term focus, would need new lines for possible speeds of 250 km/h.
Hunter Business Chamber CEO Bob Hawes said the faster option was “a realistic objective”, achievable in the medium term and could make enormous difference by “increasing the flow of commuter traffic and investment in both directions”.
He said it would not deliver the 45-minute journey like high-speed rail, but was a more viable option in a shorter time frame.
“High-speed rail remains a difficult proposition due to its prohibitive cost and construction complexities,” he said.
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes supported both options but said existing rail line upgrades had most merit, given a new train fleet would be put onto the line in 2019.
“We should be pursuing the faster option on the current line in the short term,” she said.
“This is an investigation and there’s been many before into fast rail.
“You can cut travel times that already exist by removing some level crossings and doing line straightening. With that [fleet] asset and track upgrades you should be able to get, in the interim, a faster service.”
Newcastle federal MP Sharon Claydon was skeptical of the announcement’s timing, while Newcastle state MP Tim Crakanthorp called the plans nothing more than a “hollow stunt”.
“Anything that brings relief to commuters is a welcome development, but if you’re serious about turbo-charging regional economies, you need the real deal – and that’s high-speed rail,” Ms Claydon said.
“Shaving half-an-hour off the trip to Sydney will improve people’s train rides, but 45 minute trips between Newcastle and Sydney will transform our entire region.”
She said federal Labor would re-install a High Speed Rail Planning Authority if elected next year.
State CEO of the Urban Development Institute of Australia Steve Mann said fast trains had been “debated for decades” but Sydney’s house prices meant a “regional fast train network is needed now more than ever”.
Property Council of Australia regional director Anita Hugo said the council “strongly supports” faster regional-metro connections.
“Such routes provide the opportunity for people who live in the regions to travel easily to Sydney and encourage investment in Newcastle,” she said. “We look forward to the research findings on the identified routes and a strong, long-term commitment from the government.”
The state government has appointed high speed rail expert Professor Andrew McNaughton to assess the routes, train speeds and station locations.
“The expert will provide advice to government on what is possible and what would be involved,” said Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who denied suggestions the plans were an election stunt.
Funding from Snowy Hydro Fund of $4.6 million has been allocated to the research assessment.