JOHN AUSTEN. NSW farce rail

Dec 7, 2018

NSW Premier Berejiklian says her Government will ‘deliver a fast rail network slashing travel times across the State.’  Work will commence in the next term of Government and won’t wait for the Commonwealth – NSW will go it alone! 

A supporting map showed high speed rail lines from Sydney hundreds of km to the north, south and west.

A UK expert has been engaged to advise and there is to be a $4.6m study.

The idea was immediately and universally derided.  The Daily Telegraph – normally a Government booster – carried a ‘farce rail’ headline, mentioned a $100bn cost, and ran a negative editorial: ‘Premier goes long and wrong’.[i]

 Others called it an election stunt.  One commentator asked why the Premier would bother to announce anything so unbelievable, claiming the Deputy Premier (Minister for Regional NSW) was steering clear of the issue.

Other criticisms were: there is a library of studies condemning high-speed rail projects in Australia; if the Government can’t deal with a few km of light rail in Sydney there is no chance it could handle hundreds of km of high-speed rail; the plan was stolen from a TV satire.

Many said we’ve seen this before and know where it ends – nowhere.  Which is true.  Both major parties and both levels of Government continue to waste our money and time on stupid rail ‘plans’.  No wonder everyone is cynical.

The last NSW Labor Government made an art out of announcing transport projects that did not go ahead.  The Rudd/Gillard Government spent $20m on a high-speed rail study in which the Department seemed to be at pains to advance idiotic views.

Former Prime Minister Turnbull attempted to start some realistic consideration of faster – not high-speed – rail between big cities and major centres like Wollongong, but this seems to have gone nowhere.  Then there is CLARA etc.  I have troubled Pearls readers with this before!

The latest bout relates to the Premier’s dubious distraction of immigration/’crowded’ Sydney – yet more unfortunate echoes of a predecessor.   Matched by the equally dubious ‘NSW needs ‘high speed rail over several hundred km for commuting / to ease aviation pressures’ because (supposedly) that’s what happens in Europe.

Do these politicians understand where they live? By European – let alone American or Asian – standards Australian cities, even Sydney, are big in area but not population.  Our cities are not crowded and most are far apart from each other.  And on aviation capacity – Badgerys Creek airport will deal with that.

The sad thing about the Premier’s latest is that good ideas – like some involving faster rather than high-speed rail to big centres – will get buried with the usual truckload of rubbish.

The table below illustrates some faster rail ideas are many, many orders of magnitude better than the usual regional and high-speed tosh.  It shows ‘density’ numbers – the higher the number the better the prospect.

City/Region Population 000 Distance to State capital km ‘Density’
Central Coast

Newcastle & Lake Macquarie



















Bowral area











Bathurst & Orange 75 230 0.3

 For example, one interpretation is faster rail to the Central Coast is at least a 14 times better prospect than to Bathurst / Orange.  To Wollongong more than a dozen times better than to Bathurst / Orange.  Even ignoring their 155km shorter routes which imply vastly lower costs and much better travel times!

Note those with the best density only need faster rail to achieve the target of 1-hour on-board travel time.  They do not need bleeding edge technology and don’t need to worry about competition from aviation unlike say Sydney-Canberra.

But as usual in rail there is more.

The big unknown is the impact of the State Government’s projects on faster rail feasibility and cost.

In Newcastle, the 2km or so light rail project has closed the line into the city centre reducing the potential for faster rail.   Curiously, the Commonwealth Department’s ‘study’ (above) assumed any high-speed rail station would be many kilometres to the west of the city – a fatuous proposition.

But that is nothing compared with probable Government-made obstacles in Sydney.

In Sydney, Metro may have negated all potential routes for faster (or high-speed) rail into the CBD.

It may also have jeopardised – if not ‘designed-out’ – most routes into the central metropolitan area.  Business interests warned – as early as 2012 – about this.

If the Western Sydney ‘city deal’ goes ahead, faster rail from the southwest or through Badgerys Creek airport would also be in jeopardy because of Metro and the foolish design preventing different trains from sharing tracks.

Is it worth recalling Ms Berejiklian’s opposition to a new airport when she started to lead NSW down the metro path?

With this background, it would be good for the public to hear a UK expert’s views on these and other critical issues.

However, that may not please the Government.  Previous reviews by international experts sharply criticised its policy, in particular Metro.

In 2008, the Sydney Morning Herald told of a ‘buried’ report from a ‘world-leading’ expert which ‘demolishes’ the proposal for a north-west metro as a ‘disaster’.

In 2012, the international expert advisers to Infrastructure NSW suggested a very different approach to metro – including greater compatibility with (and sensitivity to) other railways – than has been adopted.  They also repudiated Government claims about Metro capacity etc.

Were these warnings properly heeded we might have avoided big problems now facing rail – including faster rail – in NSW.

Let’s hope the current expert proves to be equally independent but more effective in convincing governments about what to do.

And let’s hope the public inquiry into Metro starts soon.

 John Austen is a happily retired former NSW and Commonwealth official living in Western Sydney .   Details will be at



[i] Daily Telegraph, 5 December 2018

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