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A History of Government studies and decisions regarding fast rail, with relevance to Canberra

The latest detailed work, the Phase Two study of 2013 into High Speed Rail, nominated a first stage of the Melbourne to Sydney project being Canberra to Sydney, with a Canberra spur line (see map from study Chapter 6, Figure 6.1). Construction was provisionally envisaged between 2028 and 2035.

Map showing route from HSR Phase 2 study

There is a history to the Canberra connection being the key to political decisions for High Speed Rail in Australia, both by it being prioritised for political reasons (access to federal monies) and also by it often being the impediment (lack of willingness at the Federal level to taking on the risks).

Hawke-Keating Era

The 1987 joint venture between BHP, TNT, Elders IXL and Kumagai-Gumi for a fast rain service from Sydney to Canberra then on to Melbourne went by the name The Very Fast Train (or “VFT “) Project. It had been first proposed to Canberra by CSIRO expert Dr Paul Wild and then backed
by the private sponsors. However, the NSW Govt (Transport Minister Baird) in 1990 instead commissioned a study into use of tilt trains for NSW, a move which unfortunately caused the private sector VFT effort to lose momentum. The late Paul Wild went on to advise the Chinese Government on his visionary ideas: he conceptualised a Beijing–Shanghai high-speed railway, which is now in commercial service. 25 years later of the states only Qld has yet adopted tilt trains, for its very long distance Queensland Rail lines to Rockhampton and Cairns, yet the tilting concept has been built into the latest generations of high speed rail vehicles.

In 1993 another private consortium going by the name Speedrail, proposed a high-speed link between Sydeny and Canberra using French TGV technology. This proposal envisaged an 84 minutes travel time and was to enter Sydney via the East Hills line meaning that it needed sharing of track and co-operation from NSW’s Railcorp. In the event, the Federal Government decided to call for competition for the project via an Expression of Interest approach, which gave rise to six shortlisted proponents and eventually 4 separate and sometimes distinct proposals, one of which was the new German Maglev technology, which has since been implemented (with Chinese adaptations) in Shanghai. Without access to confidential documents from the era it is not possible to say anything really definitive about the speed question, but it has been stated publicly that the maximum speed would have been 320 km/h. However, if one treated the distance as 280 kms approx. and based on the latest stated travel time we saw of 81 minutes (source Prof. Phillip Laird of Wollongong University), the average speed, would have been just over 200 km/h. Moreover,  this would have been affected by the slowing down of train sets once they entered the CityRail network.

Howard Era

The Howard Government in 1998 awarded Speedrail “preferred party” status but insisted that there be “no net cost to Government” in the proving up stage, a condition that proved to be the ultimate stumbling block, with the project being finally rejected in December, 2000. Rumours surrounded the need for access to tax benefits to make the economics of the project work.

To its credit, the Howard Government then commissioned a new study, the East Coast Very High Speed Scoping Study, which did in fact include the option of a Maglev system, but concluded that the construction costs for each of the alternative systems would be very high, being respectively greater the higher the design speed targeted. Subsequently, the Federal Government decided in March, 2002 not to proceed. The total cost had obviously challenged the politicians too much – but those costs seem smaller today, so is it merely a long term perspective that is needed?

Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era

The Rudd Government from 2008 re-instituted the priority to an East coast high speed rail project. When the subsequent Gillard Government studies were initiated, Maglev was excluded, even though it had been implemented in Shanghai and also, by then, Japan was getting quite advanced with its own version of Maglev (a different technical engineering solution called Super-Conducting Magnetic Levitation, or SC-Maglev). So the Phase One and Phase Two studies of 2012 and 2013 respectively envisaged only “wheel on rails” alternatives. For this purpose the design brief was speeds up to 350 km/h with technology that could eventually be taken to 400 km/h. The travel time between Canberra and Sydney was quoted widely as 64 minutes. This works out at about 250 km per hour on average. Again there was a constraint involved, being limitation of speeds in the long tunnels into Sydney CBD {CHECK}.

In the 2nd Rudd Government a policy was announced for the 2013 election that money would be set aside to establish a corridor and legislate for a High Speed Rail Authority.

Abbott Era

In the event the Abbott Government, upon coming to power, disbanded the High Speed Rail Advisory Group led by Tim Fischer, and opted instead for prioritised road spending.

The latest status – how quick to Sydney from Canberra?

Now, if we take the Chuo Shinkansen SC-Maglev project which Japan has recently initiated, as a guide, the travel time from Canberra to Sydney might be reduced to 40 minutes or thereabouts. This project is 86% in tunnels (due to the Japanese mountainous geography) and yet forecasts  an average speed of 429 km/h. The Japanese rail companies have made numerous technical advances with their technology, so why can’t we do this here?

Even diverting via Badgerys Creek to Parramatta from Canberra would only be about 45 minutes if this technology holds for our situation. 

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