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ABC News

British rail expert backs push for upgrades to 'rather decayed' Canberra to Sydney train line

The train between Sydney and Canberra takes over four hours, but basic improvements can shorten that. (ABC News)

A British rail expert has described the train line from Sydney to Canberra as "rather decayed" and thrown his support behind calls to upgrade it to cut travel times between the two cities.

The train journey between the national capital and Sydney currently takes more than four hours, making it far slower than travelling by bus, car or plane.

Three years ago, Infrastructure Australia estimated only 1 per cent of people making the trip used rail.

Professor Andrew McNaughton, the chair of the authority that manages Britain's high-speed rail line, recently examined the route as part of a yet-to-be-released fast rail strategy delivered to the New South Wales government.

He said basic improvements to the track, such as straightening out bends, could reduce the journey to roughly three hours, which would be comparable to travelling by road.

Professor McNaughton said he believed this would lead to increased demand and more frequent trains, taking cars off the Federal and Hume highways and helping build the case for a new high-speed rail line in coming decades.

"Most of it is just about basic infrastructure management to get a decent railway out of what you've got," Professor McNaughton said.

"Traffic will build up. More people will elect to go by rail, particularly if it's a decent quality service."

Professor Andrew McNaughton says a new, high-speed track should be the ultimate goal.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has long urged the NSW and federal governments to fund improvements to the 320-kilometre-long track, which winds around hills and was built to 19th-century freight train requirements.

In 2017, Mr Barr took the train to Sydney to illustrate his point, and his journey took even longer when his service got stuck behind a freight train.

"[The track] is like a canal, it goes all over the place to keep gradients down," Professor McNaughton said.

"If you want serious journey time you need something pretty straight that goes up and down the hills."

The Canberra to Sydney rail journey has been studied several times in recent decades. (ABC News)

In 2020, the line was added to Infrastructure Australia's priority list for upgrades, including potential straightening and duplication.

NSW Transport says about 18,900 passengers per month travelled on the route over the past year, which was roughly in line with pre-COVID levels.

Could a slightly faster train lead to a very fast train?

The Canberra to Sydney journey has been the subject of several highly publicised rail studies in recent decades.

Some passengers believe the idea of a perfect, high-speed rail network along the east coast has been the enemy of a good, slightly faster service to Canberra.

That view is shared by some ACT politicians, including senator David Pocock.

ACT senator David Pocock supports investing in train travel. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

"We've had decades of talk. It's almost 4 hours and 15 minutes to Sydney. Seems pretty ridiculous," Senator Pocock said.

"You go to other countries and train travel is a viable alternative, and as the population grows I'd argue we should be investing in that."

The Albanese government is in the process of setting up its promised High Speed Rail Authority to build a network along Australia's east coast.

Its priority will be planning a link between Sydney and Newcastle.

But in response to questions about improving the line to Canberra, a spokeswoman for federal Transport Minister Catherine King said "interim upgrades and staging opportunities will also be considered as part of high-speed rail and faster rail planning, to progressively improve rail services".

New high-speed line will 'transform' Canberra region

Professor McNaughton says upgrades should be built with a future-high speed track in mind. (ABC News)

Professor McNaughton has been involved in Australian rail studies for both the federal and NSW governments for about a decade.

He believes a high-speed line that cuts travel time to less than 90 minutes would transform the ACT region and nearby towns.

However, that would require an entirely new line and a substantially different, much straighter, route.

"But the refurbishments of the line would be good and needed for a couple of decades — the minimum time to get a new line authorised and built, inevitably in stages," he said.

Professor Andrew McNaughton says short-term improvements are not wasted investments. (Supplied)

And Professor McNaughton said any massive upgrades should be built with a future high-speed track in mind.

"The perfect example of that is between Goulburn and Canberra," he said.

"You could spend a fortune trying to sort out the existing line for 160 to 200 kilometres an hour, or you could build a new line, which would probably go half the distance and is good for 300."

Previous proposals for high-speed rail to Canberra have ultimately been shelved due to cost and competing transport infrastructure priorities.

Some experts, such as Marion Terrill from the Grattan Institute, have argued high-speed trains are unlikely to fulfil all the wishes of their proponents and are essentially a waste of money.

However, she would like to see a business case for a renovated, faster Canberra to Sydney rail line.

It remains unclear when, or if, faster rail will be headed to the capital, though Professor McNaughton believes it is a big long-term opportunity.

"These things take years to develop and build, you need cross-party consensus, so you have a program that builds over years and decades," he said.

"I think you can achieve that."

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