A major landslide cutting off the South Coast line would have a devastating effect on the Illawarra economy.
Regional advocacy body Illawarra First executive director Chris Lamont said this is why the South Coast needs a second rail line
Illawarra First has released a commissioned report that recommends this second line would be an upgraded version of the Maldon-Dombarton line called the South West Illawarra Rail Link (SWIRL).
It estimates a major landslide or rockfall could close the South Coast line for months and cost billions to repair.
Such an incident would effectively shut down the regional economy Mr Lamont said.
“We’re seeing SWIRL as completing the loop, if you like,” Mr Lamont said.
“At the moment there is no alternate freight rail link to Sydney to the South Coast line. Given what we had previously, with Waterfall [the 2003 rail disaster that blocked the line], we think this is not only a necessary investment but also a pragmatic one.”
The Illawarra First study carried out by the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong recommended a key change to the Maldon-Dombarton line – using it for passenger trains as well as freight.
“This is the first time that I’m aware of that any study has looked at changing Maldon-Dombarton from a freight infrastructure program to passengers and freight,” Mr Lamont said.
“When you think about it, it’s a pretty obvious switch. You’ve got that massive growth out in south and southwest Sydney corridor, combined with the need to link this region with Sydney. It just seems to make sense.”
It would provide a second rail line to Sydney, as well as a more direct route to the growing western Sydney area.
In its entirety, SWIRL would see the completion of the Maldon-Dombarton line, as well as its electrification to allow passenger trains to use the route.
It would also make around 95 per cent of the line a dual track and also electrify the seven-kilometre section of the Moss Vale-Unanderra line, which links the region to Dombarton.
The report estimated SWIRL would cost $1.6 billion compared to the $2 billion for an intense upgrade to the South Coast line.
While Mr Lamont said both lines need to be upgraded but SWIRL should come first.
“You can’t do major upgrades to the South Coast line without having an alternate rail network anyway,” he said.
“We see SWIRL as providing that alternate rail network so you can do major upgrades on the South Coast line.”
A BIG PAYOFF FOR $1.6 BILLION INVESTMENT
A new approach to constructing the Maldon-Dombarton line could be worth billions of dollars and create more than a thousand jobs.
The Maldon-Dombarton line forms the bulk of what Illawarra First has tagged the South West Illawarra Rail Link (SWIRL).
The changes would see the bulk of it become dual track and opened up to passenger trains as well as freight.
A report from the university’s SMART Infrastructure Facility estimates this could be worth $2.6 billion to the region and create more than 1100 permanent jobs.
“Completing the SWIRL could provide many economic and social benefits and is worth serious consideration,” the report states.
“For instance, the SWIRL and the South Coast line operating together would increase total passenger and freight rail network capacity and open up jobs, export/import, education, leisure and housing opportunities for both regions.
“A new line could also limit the cost of congestion, short-term closures or a catastrophic geological failure on the South Coast line.”
The report recommends the NSW governmment look to source funding for both the SWIRL and South Coast line improvements under the federal government’s $10 billion National Rail Program.
The SWIRL has an estimated cost of $1.6 billion as opposed to the $2 billion of the South Coast line, largely due to the extensive tunnelling required.
The SWIRL would be prioritised over the South Coast line upgrades “given the significant potential economic benefits on offer and relatively lower cost against alternative options to improve rail transport connectivity in the Illawarra”.
Improvements to the South Coast line would then be introduced incrementally.
STILL WAITING AFTER 40 YEARS
The phrase “Maldon-Dombarton” has been heard in the Illawarra region for decades.
But beyond a vague idea that it’s a rail line, chances are most people who hear that phrase don’t really understand what it means.
That’s the way it goes with a freight rail line – it's an important project but unless you've actually got some freight that you need transported by rail you might pay too much attention.
The name itself is made up of the beginning and end points of the 34.9-kilometre rail link.
Maldon – which boasts a population of 15 according to the latest Census – is an area along Picton Road, north-west of the intersection with the Hume Motorway.
You’ll find Dombarton (population 146) out the back of Dapto.
The project would link into existing rail lines at both ends and provide freight with an alternate route into western Sydney.
It was first considered in the 1970s as a way of linking the coalfields in the Picton and Lithgow areas with the coal loader at Port Kembla.
Tenders were called for part of the project it stalled after that.
Well, until NSW Premier Neville Wran announced in 1983 that the link would be built.
Work began but then Mr Wran was turfed out and Nick Greiner took over in 1988.
Despite pledging to finish the link during the campaign, he scrapped the project citing cost blowouts.
This wouldn’t be the first time a change in government would signal bad news for the Maldon-Dombarton.
In 2011 the federal Labor government revived the line and began providing funding for the line.
The 2013 election put an end to that, with incoming PM Tony Abbott deciding not to throw any more money in the direction of the Maldon-Dombarton.
A year later, the NSW government called for interest from the private sector to build the line.
The government had decided the cost to build the Maldon-Dombarton – estimated at the time to be $667 million – meant the private sector was the only way to fund it.
There were two expressions of interest but Transport for NSW decided that neither met the criteria or would be able to build and maintain the line.