Very fast trains are viable in densely populated countries with popular routes of 1000 kilometres or more.

Very fast trains are viable in densely populated countries with popular routes of 1000 kilometres or more.

Fast, but not very fast, on rail revitalisation

How fast is too fast for regional trains?

Transport
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Speed is what we need in the bush, but perhaps not too much of it when it comes to regional passenger rail infrastructure.

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Speed is what we need in the bush, but perhaps not too much of it when it comes to regional passenger rail infrastructure.

Tried and true passenger transport methods remain the focus of federal and state governments' future investment plans outside of the major cities.

Transformative technologies for urban transport have a long way to go when it comes to regional centres, so don't expect to see fleets of self-driving cars or autonomous buses in the bush anytime soon.

So where does that leave us?

Most likely without anything falling in the category of a very fast train, capable of more than 250 kilometres an hour.

Very fast trains are viable in densely populated countries with popular routes of 1000 kilometre or more, and feature heavily in domestic travel throughout China, Japan, and western Europe.

Very fast trains were investigated by the former Rudd-Gillard Labor and Abbott Coalition governments, and rough plans drawn to connect Brisbane to Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.

But successive governments have baulked at the cost, which is around $130 billion in today's money. And in 2017 the Turnbull, and now Morrison governments, have pursued more modest plans, which come with a regional focus.

We don't want the coastal capitals to dominate Australia's population growth. We want to see the regional centres expand and unlock their economic potential. - Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack

The fast rail agency spruiks a 20 year network plan, which is code for investigating fast (but not very fast) trains travelling at 160km/h to link regional centres to their respective capital cities.

One project, the Geelong to Melbourne fast train, has gone beyond the investigation stage and governments are now sinking cash into it.

Announced during the federal election campaign as a necessary boost to a nationally significant commuter corridor the Morrison government committed $2b to the project, and the Victorian state government matched funding.

That's the same funding model the federal government expects to roll-out for seven other projects, except the place of state government could be taken by a private investor in some instances.

The federal government is sinking $60m to develop business cases for a range of commuter and non-commuter projects across the east coast. They're expected to be finalised soon.

The Fast Rail agency outlines lists a range of goals for the various regional links - shifting commuter demand from road to rail, stimulating regional growth, and providing access to jobs, services, housing and amenity.

It will look into fast rail links from Sydney to Newcastle, Sydney to Wollongong, Sydney to Parkes (via Bathurst and Orange), Melbourne to Shepparton, Melbourne to Albury-Wodonga, Melbourne to Traralgon, Brisbane to the Gold Coast, as well as Brisbane to Moreton Bay and the Sunshine Coast.

The Government is also preparing a business case to upgrade passenger rail services between Toowoomba and Brisbane.

Deputy PM and Infrastructure Minister Michael McCormack said fast rail investment could drive regional growth by attracting city commuters to live outside of cities in some cases, boosting tourism, and "unlocking new areas" for residential development.

Transport hub towns risk cannibalising the areas around them.

Transport hub towns risk cannibalising the areas around them.

"Of course taxpayers' money has to be spent wisely. But I am passionate about regional development and I want to open up the regions through fast rail, better roads and more dams," Mr McCormack said.

"We could actually give back time to commuters and reduce their travel time. We could unlock new potential in areas with housing estates, so people can commute into towns for work.

"That could mean opening new areas like at Parkes, in my electorate."

Mr McCormack said Parkes, which is already benefiting from construction of the $10b Inland Rail heavy haul freight line from Brisbane to Melbourne, could become a "real boomtown" if a fast rail passenger train to Sydney further increased the town's amenity for residents.

"It's about decentralisation. Melbourne is about to become Australia's largest city. Sydney is bursting at the seams. And Brisbane isn't getting any smaller.

"We don't want the coastal capitals to dominate Australia's population growth. We want to see the regional centres expand and unlock their economic potential."

Read more:Ups and downs of fast rail

Grattan Institute transport and cities program director Marion Terrill said it remained to be seen if fast rail could deliver a viable return on investment and called on the government to publicly release the business case for fast rail projects ahead of any funding announcement.

"We shouldn't put the cart before the horse. We need to ask: what is the problem we are trying to solve?," Ms Terrill said.

"If you're a regional community, it could be a range of problems. Are you too far away? The internet is too slow? Flight never come to town? The young people are leaving?

"Infrastructure is a solution to a problem, but you have to work out what the problem is before you can solve it, or you risk building white elephants."

It remains to be seen if fast rail can provide a viable return on investment.

It remains to be seen if fast rail can provide a viable return on investment.

Using fast rail to turn a regional centre into a commuter hub for a capital city is not as simple as it sounds, Ms Terrill said.

"Regional cities could be more attractive than suburbs as dormitory centres. But the more the train that's coming from the regional centre has to stop on its journey, the less high speed it is. So there will always be limited stations along the way.

"You can see why towns lobby hard to get a station in their town or city because it does bring benefits. But in large part it's by cannibalising the areas around it.

"The hub town will end up attracting people to it from the nearby smaller towns and you just see a transfer of activity and jobs from one area to another."

Mr McCormack acknowledged there were risks from fast rail for regional towns, but argued rising housing costs are causing people to either stay or move to the satellite towns of regional centres.

"I know that is the concern, but I see the opposite," Mr McCormack said.

"Back in the 1980s and 90s a lot of public service jobs left small towns and they shrank. But now more people are moving back because of the high cost of housing to places like Coolamon, about half an hour's drive from Wagga.

"It's more affordable there, you can live the old-fashioned lifestyle, it's a nice community, you can get a good cup of coffee and it's only half an hour drive from work in town."

Deputy director of Sydney University's Institute of Transport and Logistics Professor Rico Merkert said people living in regional hubs that travel to capital cities for work would be the big beneficiaries from fast rail.

"In NSW we have sections of the network where the average speed is around 45-50km/h. Fast rail would be up to 160km/h and a massive improvement using existing alignment," Mr Merkert said.

"Upgrading the Sydney to Newcastle corridor would be amazing. A lot of commuters could use the service, cut their travel times well below two hours and end their journey in the CBD.

"Sydney to Canberra is another of the most promising projects, and there would be good demand on that line," he said.

"But I'm not sure if Parkes is viable, if there is enough demand to justify the investment - depending on if the Inland Rail brings a lot more business there."

Mike Foley is a National Rural Reporter for Australian Community Media, based in the Press Gallery in Parliament House.

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