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The Newcastle-Sydney Rail Corridor: History & Status

Because it may become a controversial topic, let’s jump now to the case of the Newcastle-Sydney rail corridor. Let’s start with a quote out of Wikipedia

Wikipedia: History of rail transport in Australia New South Wales:
“…New South Wales’ railways were standard gauge lines built to connect the ports of Sydney and Newcastle to the rural interior. The first public railway was built from Sydney to Parramatta Junction and after two decisions to change the rail gauge, problems in raising capital and difficulties in construction, the line was opened in 1855. The Main Southern line was built in stages from Parramatta Junction to the Victorian border at Albury between 1855 and 1881 and connected to the Victorian Railways at a break-of-gauge in 1883. The standard gauge connection from Albury to Melbourne was finally completed in 1962. Meanwhile, the Main Western line was built in stages to the north west of the state, starting in 1860 at Parramatta Junction and reaching Bourke in 1885.
The Main North line was built in sections over several years. The Sydney to Newcastle section was connected with the conclusion of the final 2 stages of the Homebush to Waratah line {Mullet Creek to Gosford – opened 16 January 1888, and Hawkesbury to Mullet Creek – opened 1 May 1889}. These final 2 stages required the construction of the Woy Woy Tunnel and the original Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge. The Newcastle to Wallanagarra section was constructed between 1857 and 1888 with a break-of-gauge required at the New South Wales & Queensland border. The North Coast railway line (was) constructed between 1905 and 1932 …”

Current Status

The point often made about the Sydney to Newcastle line is that it currently runs slower than it did in the steam era. I refer to a recent quote from Gavin Gatenby of EcoTransit Sydney: “Compared with best international practice the intercity journey is pitifully slow. Before the Government truncated services at Hamilton, the fastest trip from Central to Newcastle was 2 hours 36 minutes. The alternate slow services, with stops at 36 stations, took almost 3 hours…… In the steam era, the fastest scheduled were 2 hours 18 minutes.”

The speed of this rail line is pretty close to a worst case in terms of international standards. Note that this is between NSW’s 2nd major city and Sydney, servicing an area that has over 1 million population compared with circa 4 million within the Sydney basin. Indeed the Phase One Study into High Speed Rail, commissioned at the start of the Gillard Federal Government era prior to the 2010 Federal election, had backed the Sydney-Newcastle corridor as the first candidate for High Speed Rail. Yet, by the time of the Phase Two Study which followed, it had been downgraded to a status less important than Canberra to Sydney; Nb Canberra/ACT has a population of circa 400,000. It appears that the Federal Government was again challenged by the cost factors.

There have been ongoing difficulties with the State government making progress on improving the service along this corridor. The Phase Two HSR study had pointed to a very large construction cost per km to traverse the Hawkesbury and the terrain to its immediate south and north, with the cost of tunnelling being a major impediment. More recently, the Transport for NSW proposal for a new Intercity fleet, which would have benefited travellers in this corridor, has been postponed. That followed strategic  recommendations by Infrastructure NSW, under Paul Broad and Nick Greiner, that up to 1 hour could be cut off the travelling time from Newcastle. That involved not new technology so much as improving the line, in order that applicable trains could run faster.  There have been varying attempts to put greater priority on straightening the existing rail line (including a new tunnel south of Woy Woy, even a high bridge over the Hawkesbury, like the Chinese High Speed Rail companies have done), but so far to no avail.

A slow train, beaten by road travel

So, to conclude, the status quo is a trip between Newcastle and Sydney of between 2.75 and 3 hours (say) – which works out for the approx. 160 kms distance as just 50-60 km/h.

No wonder the F3 route, now M1, is used so much!

Despite that, what are the possibilities?

Using latest high speed rail or very high speed rail technologies, from mooted stations to the west of Newcastle City (Hexham and Cameron Park areas have been studied as possibilities) the trip time to Parramatta could be in the range of 30 to 35 minutes (+ or -). This time would be reduced if HSR/VHST is constructed from outer city station to outer city terminus as happens in some other parts of the world, but then interchange for passengers is needed and the total trip time expands by both changeover interval (wait time) and slower connecting services from origin location plus to eventual destination. The Phase One study of 2012 quoted a lowest travel time of 40 minutes, direct to Sydney Central from their nominated Newcastle HSR station location, whilst the Phase Two study of 2013 refined that to 39 minutes. Anyway, a significant gain on the current situation!

To get such fast travel involves minimising station stops, having skip-stop or non-stop services, and also a lot of engineering effort and cost, to take the corridor through difficult terrain and get as straight and level a line as possible. We note in this regard that it has been claimed that engineering costs for large scale tunnelling contracts (and such a project would enjoy much in the way of economies of scale) have been reduced to as low as perhaps half of that assumed in the Phase Two HSR study. This is claimed to be as a result of both new techniques and competitors from places such as Europe, China, and Japan where such engineering is more prevalent and more efficient than the experience of Australia prior to major projects such as (in the Sydney context) North West Rail, North Connex, and WestConnex.

Furthermore one of the possible proposals we have seen, involved the concept of a spur line north of the Hawkesbury, to bring Gosford and Woy Woy patronage into a HSR line that in previous studies had bypassed that strong commuter area.


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