7 March 2023

Political disinterest, rain and freight load slow rail

| John Thistleton
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Almost like clockwork, a lunchtime Canberra Explorer nears North Goulburn. Photo: Leon Oberg.

Election campaigns often elicit promises to upgrade rail services. But it’s the lack of any commitment to improve rail that irks community action body The Goulburn Group (TGG), which says train services between Goulburn and Sydney are a national disgrace.

TGG is calling on the NSW Government to start immediate planning to upgrade the rail line between Canberra and Sydney to allow speeds of up to 200 km/h to slash travelling time.

It also is urging major repairs to sections of the left lane of the Hume Highway between Goulburn and Campbelltown damaged by heavy trucks.

The recommendations are in a nine-page submission to Transport for NSW following the release of its Draft South-East and Tablelands Regional Transport Plan. Over the medium term, TGG is seeking a commitment to high-speed rail, with speeds of 300 km/h or more between Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

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TGG member Peter Fraser, the author of the submission, writes that anyone living, visiting or studying in the Southern Tablelands will nominate transport as one of the most challenging and neglected areas of government policy.

“A rail line that connects the country’s capital with its largest city that at times can only allow a permanent speed of 30 km/h (Bungendore to Canberra), and where many sections have an 80 km/h permanent speed limit, is a national disgrace,” Mr Fraser said.

The poor condition of rail lines, delays caused by constant speed restrictions due to maintenance issues, old rolling stock and inappropriate timetables further discouraged rail passenger patronage from Goulburn in either direction, as travel times were simply too long for most people, Mr Fraser said.

The result was that same-day train travel to Sydney or Canberra was almost impossible.

Mr Fraser is scathing about the draft plan’s references to further investigations and intentions because there is little concrete action. He said the rail and road transport had deteriorated since the NSW Government’s so-called master plan 11 years ago.

Goulburn rail author and photographer Leon Oberg, who has spent much of his life studying and observing train travel, agrees planning is overdue for the Sydney-Canberra corridor, although it’s easier said than done.

However, Mr Oberg said to imply the rolling stock running the three exacting return services a day between Sydney and Canberra must be incapable because of their age was misinformed.

“These fast Explorer cars, delivered from 1994, continue to be well maintained and generally trouble-free as they nudge only 19 years of age, quite young in rail circles,” he said.

“While Transport for NSW continues to negotiate the replacement of these, and the hard-working XPT fleet, with a Spanish firm, those replacements will not travel any faster on the current network but instead need to run to the current XPT/Explorer curve speedboards.

“This is partly because the NSW Government failed to embrace last-century tilt-train technology, which would have improved speeds through the many sharp curves along the Canberra route, by up to 32 per cent.”

Mr Oberg said he was not a public relations defender of the rail network, but it should be remembered that two years of unprecedented rain had caused massive landslips, flooding and prolonged line closures in many parts of NSW.

“But weather conditions have improved in recent months and the network is almost back to normal,” he said.

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“Given the amount of freight traffic (particularly between Marulan and Campbelltown), including hard rock, cement, limestone, Tarago refuse, copious grain and fast interstate intermodal freight trains all fighting for headway in between the current southern line passenger services, the only way faster passenger train timings will improve is with a new, straighter passenger-only line and more meaningful southern NSW decentralisation to help justify the massive expense,” Mr Oberg said.

Mr Fraser said Victoria’s new trains travelled at 160 km/h. Mr Oberg said Victoria’s decentralisation and flatter and straighter tracks added to that state’s advantage over NSW.

Greens candidate for Goulburn Gregory Olsen said every train should be a first-class one and it was Greens policy to replace fares with free services. As well as making all trains accessible for disabled people, the Greens would allow companion animals on the first and last non-quiet carriage.

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate Andy Wood said the insufficient services were at inconvenient times for people needing medical appointments in Sydney. He said successive governments had overlooked putting on more services for people in Goulburn and Yass to and from Sydney and Canberra.

“The Liberal-National Coalition has dropped the ball,” Mr Wood said.

Comment was also sought from other candidates for the seat of Goulburn.

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