high speed rail in Australia
Image: Axana Zasorina

A recent article in Spinifex by Mike Brown, How Sydney could lose its global mojo… or keep it, about where and how Sydney could grow, piqued the interest of Russel Lunney, an engineer who has been involved in high speed rail analysis. Here is his extended response to the article first published in the commentary section.

Mike Brown is quite correct in suggesting that Sydney could do with a much faster rail link between the CBD, Parramatta and Western Sydney Airport (the airport then becoming a point of interchange to the southwest).

There are several ways to achieve this, which I won’t go into here. A practical transit time of 12 minutes from the Sydney CBD to Parramatta and 12 minutes from there to Western Sydney Airport is entirely feasible and within the realms of merely “fast” rail – 160 kilometres an hour or more.

However, Brown is missing one vital insight. Such a fast rail line does not have to form part of a longer distance high speed rail network. Instead, it can provide direct city access for a high speed rail network through an interchange. Let me elaborate.

Suppose there was a high speed mainline from Newcastle and the Central Coast with spurs accessing Newcastle and Gosford directly. It stops at Hornsby, at a core station somewhere east of Parramatta, then Campbelltown and then on to the Southern Highlands and eventually Canberra, with a spur to Wollongong.

There would be a point of interchange between this hig- speed main line and the fast rail line between the CBD and Parramatta. This is what I call the “core” station. This architecture saves billions of dollars by not bringing HSR into Central, yet it provides direct access to the CBD and Parramatta. In other words, what you save by not bringing HSR near the CBD pays for the fast east-west line.

Now, the core station would be seven minutes from the CBD. Almost as well connected as Glebe Island. Not perfect, but certainly closer than many parts of the CBD are from each other just by walking. This is where you can offer to house high value corporates with large space requirements (such as Google). It’s a development potentially larger in area than Glebe Island.

Now, I’m not against development of Glebe Island, but fast rail is game changing in how close it brings large areas of land that can create an extended CBD.

And this leads me to Parramatta. Parramatta could be 12 minutes from Town Hall. As it stands, Parramatta will grow, but it will struggle to attract larger tenants (without government intervention) and this will remain so even with Metro West.

However, there is a “stepping stone” effect. I also wish to avoid the term “second CBD”. Rather I’d prefer the concept “extended CBD”. With an extended CBD including the core HSR station, Parramatta is then another 4 minutes away. Again, this is all about creating the conditions for a slow migration of high value jobs towards the west.

It’s interesting that Brown mentions motorways. Motorways should be there for efficient transport of goods and for commerce. But they congest to the point where it’s just as fast to use a slow public transport network. If curious, have a look for the Downs-Thomson Paradox that basically says that the equilibrium speed of car traffic on a road network is determined by the average door-to-door speed of equivalent journeys taken by public transport. In other words, the faster the trains, the faster the roads.

The reason we don’t have high-speed rail in this country is the failure of transport planners to notice one simple fact. If we don’t build high-speed rail we end up spending an equivalently large sum of money on road pavement. And our response to increasing congestion is to simply build more road pavement. Which in turn will become congested.

The poster child surely should be the M9 Outer Sydney Orbital, which is actually part of a wider gambit to build an entirely new motorway from Newcastle to Wollongong. Once you’re headed down a path of spending tens of billions on such a project you should step back and realise that high-speed rail will move more people, faster for an equivalent pile of cash and it will deliver much higher economic benefits in the process.

Now, fast as well as high speed rail has the potential to not just create fast journeys between regional cities – it can actually create a transport network within Sydney that overwhelmingly competes with car travel (once you get beyond 10Km or so).

A combination of a high speed north-south main line and a fast east-west line (CBD to Parramatta to WSA) will connect all four corners of Sydney and compress transport times everywhere. If you can get from Campbelltown to the CBD or Parramatta in 20 minutes, there goes a lot of the traffic on the M5 and M7.

And this delivers more value out of existing assets (motorways) by returning them to goods and commerce.

The City of Sydney needs to think carefully about the extended CBD concept and think outside the box of slow public transport. Nothing wrong with Metro West either, but it’s time to invest in seriously fast rail.

 Russel Lunney is an engineer and part of a  collaboration of professionals promoting high speed rail.

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  1. High speed rail is great but don’t confuse train transit time with travel times.
    Sydney has a great dense CBD that works better than most cities because it is compact and one can walk around it (and go to 6 meetings a day and lunch and diner if you really want to) unlike Paris and London and most large cites which need a metro to get around. A huge advantage for Sydney.
    Under the proposed regime Parramatta to Barangaroo will take 10 minutes to the fast train, 5 minutes wait, 12 minutes to travel to Town hall and 15 minutes to walk to Barangaroo, i.e. about 45 minutes vs 15 minutes currently anywhere in the CBD. Hence people will want to stay in the CBD.

    Let’s stop the nonsense about a 3 CBD city, build a bigger denser single CBD -innovation and commerce increase as density increases. This would require better commuter transport with fast trains but concentrate the result and lead to a better more exciting outcome.