Hunter Business Chamber chief Bob Hawes says the NSW government's pursuit of a detailed study into faster passenger rail services between Sydney and Newcastle is not a "thought bubble" and could be a genuine "stepping stone" to improvements.
The government recently called for a project manager to complete a scoping study and final business case as part of its fast rail program.
The work will build on a $10 million strategic business case Transport for NSW completed last year that considered track straightening, deviations and the separation of passenger and freight trains.
That study, which Mr Hawes described as "pre-feasibility", was part of the federal government's Faster Rail Prospectus and submitted to the National Faster Rail Agency upon completion.
The new work will consider "wider economic and social impacts, alongside traditional transport benefits", according to the online tender advertisement.
It follows a study by Professor Andrew McNaughton, who was engaged in late 2018 to examine potential fast rail routes from Sydney to Newcastle, Canberra, the South Coast and Parkes to launch the state's fast rail program.
While the available tender details are brief, Mr Hawes said the work would likely closely examine "using a lot of the existing infrastructure" rather than "trying to stack up the case for building something completely new".
"It will be very detailed, specialist work," he said.
"It's involving Infrastructure NSW, and I take that as a good thing because that sort of indicates the anticipated expenditure would be quite significant.
"To have project management, normally they only come into the reckoning when they're spending north of $50 million.
"Even though McNaughton's report hasn't been [released], which we're keen to have a look at, I suspect what they did in this pre-feasibility has been reasonably positive and they haven't canned it."
A similar tender call is advertised to examine fast rail between Sydney and Canberra, potentially suggesting the two routes have firmed from the four in the program.
Mr Hawes said the two routes were probably easier to upgrade than the others as a "significant part" of the existing lines were "outside the metropolitan network"
"We only hit the metropolitan network at Hornsby, so there is an enormous amount they can do [north of Hornsby]," he said.
Reducing the travel time between Newcastle and Hornsby to 90 minutes by upgrading the existing line would be a desirable "first step" outcome, Mr Hawes said.
The trip currently takes between 116 and 140 minutes.
"We believe it's a realistic stepping stone [and] that they can really do this," he said.
"They can achieve something here in a short time frame, subject to getting all their approvals and funding. Five years is not unrealistic.
"When you consider the amount of money they've been spending on the M1 [Pacific Motorway], expenditure on the rail line of this nature is long overdue."
Transport for NSW did not answer specific questions about the tender work and whether Mr McNaughton's study would be publicly released, but a spokesperson pointed to an $80 million government commitment to develop a new alignment between Woy Woy and Sydney's north.
"The NSW government's commitment to develop a blueprint for the delivery of a fast rail network is a major piece of state-shaping work," the spokesperson said.
"The government is taking the time to get this vision right [and] will continue updating the community as plans develop."
The story Newcastle to Sydney fast rail study labelled a 'stepping stone', not a 'thought bubble' first appeared on Newcastle Herald.