Australia has an enormous opportunity to benefit from strategies to unlock fast or faster rail, a new report has found.

Prepared by global engineering firm Arup and released by the Australasian Railway Association during an online event, the Faster Rail Report argues that Australia has significant opportunities to role out fast and faster rail across the country.

ARA chief executive officer Caroline Willkie said the need for faster rail should not be underestimated.

“With an additional 10 million people expected to move to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane by 2060, faster rail will be essential to support urban renewal in key regional centres,” Wilkie said.

“Highways in and out of Sydney are already reaching capacity, which means we must invest now in faster rail to support the east coast’s sustainable development.”

According to the report, the importance of regional rail should not be underestimated.

Rail, it says, helps to connect regional centres to capital cities and to each other. This could deliver benefits for cities such as Canberra, Newcastle and Geelong.

As a means of transport, meanwhile, rail offer benefits when compared with road in terms of safety, sustainability, comfort and productivity (customers using rail can attend to other tasks during their journey) and lower road congestion.

Faster rail could also support better social and economic outcomes in regional areas.

The report also argues that Australia’s regional rail network is not up to standard compared with modern rail systems around the world.

Across many parts of Europe (and some but not all parts of North America), rail offers much faster transport when compared with transport by road (see chart).

The 290 kilometre journey between London and Manchester, for example, takes three and a half hours by road. By train, that travel time is reduced to just over two hours.

That between Gottenburg and Stockholm takes four and a half hours by car but only three hours by train.

In Australia, by contrast, rail journeys take longer compared with road trips along almost all major corridors except for one (Melbourne to Geelong).

Courtesy of historical under-investment, meanwhile, much of the regional rail network is in poor condition.

In many sections, speed restrictions need to be applied on account of deterioration of the track to below tolerance levels.

(Note: Around the world, definitions of fast, faster and high-speed rail vary.

For the purposes of their report, Arup considered the terms ‘faster’, ‘fast’ and ‘high-speed’ rail to offer speeds of between 160 and 200 km/hr, between 200 and 250 km/hr and above 250km/hr respectively.)

Source: Faster Rail Report, Australasian Railway Association, February 2021

Moreover, the report notes several examples internationally where rail improvements delivered substantial benefits. This was especially the case when faster rail has been delivered as part of a program which is integrated with other infrastructure investment.

In the United Kingdom, progressive upgrades of the West Coast Main Line between 1998 and 2006 reduced travel times between London and Manchester by 28 percent and boosted capacity and patronage between London and Manchester by 33 percent and 77 percent respectively.

Partly as a result, air-travel between the two cities was cut by 27 percent, 26,000 daily car journeys have been saved and 23,009 tonnes worth of carbon emissions have been withdrawn from flights.

The moves have also helped to facilitate growth within the creative sector of Manchester. This now employs 84,000 people and contributed £63billion to the regional economy.

Back in Australia, benefits have been derived through the $3.65 billion Regional Rail Link, which has delivered a dedicated high-speed corridor for V/Line trains to access the inner urban areas of Melbourne from Geelong and Ballarat and which also delivers partial separation for trains from Bendigo.

This has created capacity for an extra ten regional and 23 metropolitan services daily and contributed to an 80 percent increase in patronage between 2006 and 2016.

The Victorian Government estimated that the project would take 45,000 cars off the road during peak periods, save over 14,000 tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions, boost investment in Melbourne’s west by growing labour productivity increase the state’s economic output by $1.6 billion per year.

In addition, the state’s Auditor General has identified other intangible project benefits from participation in a project of this complexity.

These include improved project delivery capability along with an increase in the technical skills of the rail and signalling industry and greater decision maker confidence to pursue further risky and more complex projects such as the Melbourne Metro Tunnel and the elevated rail sections between Caulfield and Dandenong.

Tarneit Station, Victoria Regional Rail Link

Speaking at the report’s launch, Peter Dunn, author of the report and Senior Associate at multi-national engineering firm Arup, said six strategies are needed.

First, it is important to develop a long-term vision for the national rail network.

This involves:

  • widening the scope of the national Faster Rail program to consider the entire rail network and to develop a national plan for the network
  • establishing programs of stakeholder and community consultation in order to both inform the plan and to build support for faster rail.

Next, it is important to support better social and economic outcomes for the regions.

This involves:

  • updating regional land use and economic plans and confirming opportunities for each town which resides along the faster rail corridor.
  • identifying complementary measures through which better social and economic outcomes can be delivered to regional areas
  • engaging with community and business leaders to develop long-term visions for regional centres.

Third, it is important to establish a policy framework to support the consistent delivery of faster rail.

Toward this end, government should work with Infrastructure Australia to develop a place-based business case and appraisal framework which accounts for wider social and economic benefits along with transformational benefits.

Governments should also work to develop a national transport network plan which informs the population and settlement strategy.

These two points, Dunn says, are important.

Rail does not sit in an isolated setting but rather forms part of Australia’s broader transport network, he says.

Beyond this, a program should be established to learn from past experiences. This will involve examining which strategies did and did not work in previous projects and determining which lessons which could be applied to new projects.

Fourth, it is necessary to establish a governance framework to deliver faster rail.

This would involve the three levels of government working together through a shared model of governance.

Mega-region deals could be important here, Dunn says.

Models should also be considered which provide transport authorities with the ability to develop station precincts.

The framework should also spell out clear responsibilities for various authorities to realise the benefits of faster rail. This will involve engaging early with important players, outlining the precise role for each authority in clear terms, and spelling out how the actions and performance of each organisation will be monitored against their responsibilities.

Fifth, governments should develop a co-ordinated funding approach.

This would involve each of the three tiers of government working together to hypothecate funding for faster rail along with development of an investment strategy for faster rail.

In doing this, it is important to consider multiple funding mechanisms. Whilst this may add greater complexity to the exercise, it also helps to mitigate risk by reducing reliance on either a single funding mechanism or a narrow range of funding mechanisms.

In particular, the report says opportunities for value capture should be considered. This will involve identifying who is likely to will benefit from specific investments in fast rail, how they are likely to benefit, how value can be created and therefore how some of this value can be captured in an equitable manner.

Finally, it suggests a staged and targeted investment in rail.

This should aim to bring Australia’s regional rail network up to global standards and to be competitive with road transport.

This involves:

  • immediately addressing deficiencies with existing infrastructure to increase the speed, frequency and reliability of existing networks.
  • delivering fast or faster rail over the next five to ten years.
  • Longer term preparations for high speed rail through measures to preserve rail corridors.


Fast Rail opportunities in NSW (source: Faster Rail report, Australasian Railways Association)

The report was launched on the same day as the ARA released results of a survey of 600 regional and metropolitan residents across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland which it commissioned.

That report found that faster rail connections would make people more likely to consider a move to the regions after COVID-19 as work patterns changed.

Fast Rail opportunities in Queesnsland (source: Faster Rail report, Australasian Railways Association)

Wilkie said the importance of rail should not be underestimated.

“For too long rail investment has lagged behind road funding and the regional rail network is now below global standards,” Wilkie said.

“It is time to bring Australia up to standard and tap into the new demand for regional development resulting from COVID-19.”