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AUSTRALIA'S obsession with massively expensive high-speed rail between the east coast's major capitals is "pie in the sky" and the country should instead be focusing on connecting our largest cities to regional centres.
That's the view of transport boffins who have said the focus on 300km/h Japanese style bullet trains and even the Elon Musk championed 1000km/h Hyperloop system has blocked the way for less ambitious, slower - and certainly less sexy - but far cheaper and game-changing rail projects.
By some estimates, a high-speed rail network linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne could cost north of $100 billion.
Cutting train times from Sydney to Newcastle by an hour would cost far less and open up the possibility of commuting between the two centres for many currently put off by travel times.
"We've been talking about high-speed rail in Australia since the 1980s and nothing ever happens. So maybe it's time to look at more affordable options," Professor Rico Merkert, from the University of Sydney's Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, told news.com.au.
He said the level of funding the Federal Government had so far dedicated to higher speed rail to regional cities was "disappointing".
A Chinese high-speed train leaves Shanghai.
In the 2017 Budget, $20m was committed to prepare three studies to look at speeding up trains times between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and specific regional cities. Of the billions in the 2018 Budget for rail, very little was earmarked for regional passenger rail.
However, Associate Professor Philip Laird, an Honorary Principal Fellow at the University of Wollongong, said some $125m had been spent by successive governments on high speed rail studies and yet not a skerrick of track had been built.
"It is now time for Australia to commit to medium-speed rail, trains operating on new or existing tracks at speeds of between 160km and 250km/h," he wrote in The Conversation this week.
In NSW, modern Intercity trains can go as fast as 130km/h but rarely reach anywhere close to that speed. A 2013 report found the average speed of trains in Sydney was just 43.3km/h.
When, last year, Labor asked Transport Minister Andrew Constance for the average speed of the state's trains, he said speeds "were affected by such a significant amount of variables … there is no value in calculating it".
The current services between Newcastle and Sydney could hardly be called speedy.
NSW TRAINS FAR SLOWER
Nonetheless, trains in NSW can take longer to get to their destination than in other states. A trip from Sydney's Central station to Gosford takes almost 90 minutes by train, while a train from Melbourne's Southern Cross to Geelong, a similar distance, takes less than an hour suggesting V/line trains are speeding along at around 80km/h.
But even that isn't fast enough with the Federal and Victorian Governments commissioning a study to see if a line with a top speed of 250km/h could be feasible.
"A fast rail link from Geelong to Melbourne would slash travel times between Victoria's capital and its second biggest city," the Andrews Government said.
In Britain, a rail journey between London and the regional city of Ashford, 93kms from the CBD, takes just 35 minutes on a true high-speed line.
“We talk about suburban trains and at the other extreme Hyperloop (above); maybe there is something in between?"
'PIE IN THE SKY'
Undoubtedly Sydney is cursed with a challenging topography of national parks and mountains that will make cutting travel times tricky.
But Professor Merkert said the fact there were three flights a day between Newcastle and Sydney airports, just 160km/h distant, was a sign not enough had been done to improve rail links between NSW's first and second cities.
He said the Hyperloop air vacuum system that could see pods shoot through vacuum sealed tubes, was "pie in the sky" though.
"Hyperloop is way too expensive; it's not feasible at the moment because you need a very straight line and any curve in it would be unpleasant for passengers and the sheer distance between the capitals destroys the economics.
An artist’s impression from the 1990s of a “speed rail” high speed train shooting through the Sydney suburbs.
"We currently talk about slow (suburban) trains and at the other extreme Hyperloop; maybe it's worth thinking about something in between.
"(Medium-speed rail) would be better for regional development."
Speaking earlier this year to news.com.au, Professor Merkert said this was because: "The idea would be to get people moving into regional centres such as Goulburn and then commuting into Sydney."
Yet, to compete with airlines, very fast trains would be under pressure to not stop in any regional centres.
Professor Laird said while the private sector had shown some encouragement for high speed rail, "at all levels" government was not supportive.
"Despite many studies recommending the need to identify and protect a corridor for a future high-speed rail network, government has failed to reserve any."
They may not be high speed, but the medium-speed Victorian V/line trains have been a huge success.
CONNECT UP THE REGIONS
In contrast, the move towards medium-speed rail in regional Victoria had been a huge success. Costing around $4.5bn the investment in new track, trains and stations over the last decade has seen jumps in passenger numbers to and from regional centres.
Regional NSW was now the laggard. "The rail situation in Australia's most populated state is not good for its regions," he said.
While a growing Sydney was overflowing with infrastructure projects, such the Sydney Metro and light rail, connections to the surrounding areas were lacking.
"The State Government is getting new intercity electric trains and has committed to buying new regional trains. But it's yet to commit to track upgrades to help the new trains go faster than the present slow ones."
Professor Merkert said the Government's regional rail priority seemed to be the 1700km Inland Rail route between Brisbane and Melbourne which aims to reduce the number of trucks charging up and down coastal motorways.
But once that was done, more should be focused on how we bring our regional cities to within commuting distance of the capital.
"There's lots of infrastructure in the cities but not much connecting the cities," he said.
This article first appeared on www.themorningbulletin.com.au
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