The state government has been told it needs to spend $500 million to cut the train commute between Wollongong and Sydney to one hour – and to start a pilot program within the next five years.
Infrastructure NSW yesterday released its long-awaited strategy for government spending over the next 20 years. One of its top recommendations is to cut the travel time for train commuters between Wollongong and Sydney through a combination of measures including faster trains, tighter timetables, and express trains with fewer stops.
It said $100million should be spent on a scoping study of speed limits and ‘‘pinch points’’, with more expensive work to follow in later years to cut time from the trip.
But while Infrastructure NSW recommends the Maldon to Dombarton rail line be completed within 20 years – largely with private money – it wants $125million to be spent upgrading the Moss Vale to Unanderra track first.
The forecast demand for freight through Port Kembla was not sufficient to justify the Maldon-Dombarton line being finished sooner, the strategy says.
INSW CEO Paul Broad said Wollongong to Sydney in one hour by train should be one of the "core operational objectives" for NSW trains.
"These trains can go a lot faster," Mr Broad said.
"We're challenging State Rail to really look at their scheduling and their mindset's been that we have to slow them all down and that's the only way we can run them safe.
"While not compromising on safety we want to challenge that mindset to at least get a couple of trains in peak hour faster."
The 20-year strategy has 50 recommendations, which are not binding on government but that Mr Broad said "would increase the size of the NSW economy by over $50 billion and over 100,000 more jobs" by 2032 if it was implemented.
Also included in more than $3.5 billion of "priority projects" for our region are the Princes Highway upgrade (already underway) and the mooted F6 extension to Sydney Airport.
But cutting the train commute from the current 90 minutes to 60 was identified as among the most urgent work.
Mr Broad said the aim wasn't to get every single train trip down to one hour, but at least those in the morning and evening rush hours.
"Faster trains to the Illawarra would support population growth in the region as part of strengthening the region's economy," he said.
That included a suggested $100 million to deal with speed restrictions and "pinch points" and beginning with a pilot program "to develop the new approach without interfering with the core of the network" the report stated.
Further efforts to reduce travel times are recommended from 2017-2021 - with an estimated cost of $500 million - to bring the total time to an hour.
Mr Broad said that these efforts would not include massive infrastructure work on the line.
"We're not about tunnels, we're not about big projects, we're about incrementally changing what we've got to do it better," he said.
Both the Maldon-Dombarton rail line and the F6 extension have been classified as projects to be undertaken "later" - in the next 10-20 years.
In the short term, the report suggests added investment in the Moss Vale to Unanderra line would bring it up to a level to allow it to be used for freight.
"Should Port Kembla grow as rapidly as forecast, there will be a need for major investment in rail capacity over and above the potential offered by the Moss Vale-Unanderra line," the report stated.
That need would arrive in about 10 years, according to the report, and it mentions Maldon-Dombarton as the "lead investment proposal".
"This requires the construction of a four kilometre tunnel through the Illawarra escarpment and has a relatively high price tag of $625 million," the report said.
"It is likely this project will not be progressed until the 2020s."
When - or if - it did progress, it would be "predominantly funded by the private sector".
Mr Broad said the 10-20 year time frame for the rail line was by no means set in stone.
"If the port demand increases more rapidly then you bring it forward," he said.
"Just on the information we have today, on the forecast demand, that's where we saw it. But if it came forward, or we could find a way to bring it forward, that would be a good thing."