Budget can end the wait for rail upgrades

The South Coast railway between Central station and Wollongong was completed in 1888 as a single track for use by steam trains.

In the early 20th century the track south of Waterfall was rebuilt as a double track with easier grades. However, the new track added more than four kilometres of extra length and included many tight curves.

In a 2017 paper from myself and rail operations expert Max Michell, computer simulation showed that an electric train moving on the older track between Waterfall and Otford with some curve easing, would save around seven minutes  when compared to the current track.

The paper then looked at other measures to reduce the current train times from 90 minutes to 60 minutes. 

These included replacing slow speed points near Waterfall with higher speed points, curve easing on parts of the track and better separation between suburban and intercity trains north of Sutherland.

In 1988, some electric trains took only 74 minutes to go from Wollongong to Sydney. 

Speed restrictions are one thing. As noted in a 2007 joint federal-state  Sydney Wollongong Corridor Strategy, capacity constraints are impacting on the rail line, which cannot be used by freight trains for at least seven hours a day.

Since 2007, these constraints have become more severe.  The 35-kilometre Maldon Dombarton link as a good option to ease these constraints.

As noted by Wollongong MP Paul Scully in a speech to State Parliament on May 23, it is now 30 years since the then Greiner Government cancelled construction of the Maldon-Dombarton link.

This was despite a pre-1988 election commitment of Mr Greiner speaking in Wollongong  that “a Coalition Government will complete this railway by 1991”

In 1987, with much work already done on the rail link, a contract to construct the four-kilometre Avon tunnel was set at just $20.8 million.

When the contract was cancelled by the Greiner Government, $6.1 million of work had been done on environmental works, preliminary tunnel evacuations on the east portal and work to make the site safe.

Rather than complete the tunnel and leave other track work to later, the Greiner Government chose to terminate the contract and make compensation payments of $4.5 million. 

An extra $10.2 million would have seen completion of the tunnel. The cancellation was a very expensive mistake, and one that will cost well over $100 million to rectify when the tunnel is built. 

Despite growing rail congestion, the 2013 lease of Port Kembla that short-changed the Illawarra, and the billions of dollars being poured into Sydney rail track and roads by the NSW Government, work on Maldon-Dombarton is yet to restart.

Our South Coast train services stand in contrast to those between Melbourne and Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.

New trains on upgraded track to Ballarat average 100km/h, as against our 55km/h and on the Geelong line where peak services run on average every 10 minutes. This is due to two major track upgrades, with a third on the way. Our last major upgrade was Kiama electrification in 2001.

It would be good to see some funding for upgrades to the South Coast line in the state budget and a restart of work on Maldon-Dombarton line.

Associate Professor Philip Laird is an Honorary Principal Fellow at the University of Wollongong.