The slow, slow work to speed up the Canberra-Sydney heavy rail line

NSW Country Link Train
Photo by Hugh Llewelyn, Flickr

The Canberra-Sydney rail journey takes as long now as it did in 1964!

In October 2016, I wrote about the Canberra-Sydney rail link, comparing it with the much better rail services in some Third World countries, and suggesting a way to get the travel time down significantly without spending a lot of money on high-speed rail.

You may be interested to know whether anything came of it.

After I wrote the article, I had many responses from Canberra Times readers, some of whom were involved professionally in past Australian rail studies, and others who were just interested in improving the Canberra-Sydney service because they preferred to travel by train.

There is now an interest group committed to improving the Canberra-Sydney line in the short term (preferably by the end of this year) at a modest and affordable cost.

One of them, Peter Kain, worked on a Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics study titled Improving Regional Passenger Rail Services, released in May 2014, in which the federal government was given a range of options for upgrading Australia's rail system, which included the Canberra-Sydney line. Case studies illustrated the range of upgrades available and their effectiveness in increasing patronage.

That study went nowhere because politicians focused (as they are at the moment) on the high-cost Rolls-Royce options. One author of the rail study commented cynically that politicians' obsession with high-speed rail projects – that are unaffordable and unrealistic – seems designed to keep affordable upgrade options off the agenda.

The University of Wollongong's Professor Philip Laird, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and inaugural national chairman of the Railway Technical Society of Australasia, has written along similar lines to the bureau report.

Laird also observed that the Abbott government allowed for a massive increase in road funding at the expense of rail in the May 2014 budget. He said a recent US study of energy efficiency found that, among 16 OECD countries, Australia had the lowest score for energy-efficient transport. He proposed a more balanced approach between road and rail to include some track upgrades to allow for higher-speed passenger and freight trains.

Given the interest in my article last year, I contacted the leading international company for upgrading outdated rail systems to see what they might be able to do for us. The company subsequently appointed a senior manager as "commercial director for Australia". His assigned priority was to review the Canberra-Sydney line with a view to meeting the ACT, NSW and federal ministers in April this year to discuss what could be done at modest cost to bring the travel time down from 4¼ hours hours to about two hours. Canberra Times letter writer Guy Swifte observed that the Canberra-Sydney rail journey takes as long now as it did in 1964!

To try to set up a meeting for the commercial director with the three governments that would need to be involved, I wrote in November last year to the relevant ACT, NSW and federal transport ministers (Meegan Fitzharris, Andrew Constance and Darren Chester). The responses were as follows:

  • ACT: Fitzharris has made available her chief of staff and transport adviser to meet the commercial director.
  • NSW: I received a form letter from Ministerial & Government Services, essentially saying the NSW government was waiting for the federal government to come up with a masterplan. It also said opportunities to reduce travel times between Sydney and Canberra would be considered as part of the NSW government's future transport strategy. "Consultation for this strategy is planned for 2017." (Note: only "consultation" for the strategy is planned!) This is not encouraging, because the main problems with the Canberra-Sydney line are in NSW. No meeting was offered.
  • Federal: I am yet to receive a response from asleep-at-the-wheel Federal minister Chester

Hopefully, the commercial director will have better luck getting high-level political meetings by working through Austrade and both our countries' embassies, but clearly it's going to be a hard slog getting the political support needed to improve the Canberra-Sydney rail link, even if it can be undertaken at modest cost.

THis article was first published in the Canberra Times on 2 March, 2017.

Mr Clive Williams MG

Campus Visitor

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team