Australia considers fast rail links to ease population pressures in major cities

Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in March that the aim of the fast rail proposals was to provide "real choices" and enable people who live outside larger cities to easily commute to work.

SYDNEY - Australia is looking to build a series of fast rail lines linking the nation's biggest and most congested cities to a series of smaller regional hubs.

Ahead of the federal budget, to be unveiled Tuesday (April 2), Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the creation of the National Fast Rail Agency, which will assess the best options for future rail lines.

Five proposals are now being considered for trains that would run at about 160 kmh and take pressure off Australia's three biggest cities - Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The first is for an 80km link between Melbourne, which has a population of about 4.9 million people, and the nearby city of Geelong, which has about 250,000 people. The new rail line would cut travel time in half to just 32 minutes.

Mr Morrison said in March that the aim of the fast rail proposals was to provide "real choices" and enable people who live outside larger cities to easily commute to work.

"To take the pressure off our fast-growing cities, you need be able to improve your links with your satellite cities," he said.

"I want those who live in places like Geelong to be able to have a reasonable commute, to ensure that they can get home on time and they can get to work without having to get up well before dawn."

The plan is designed to address one of Australia's most curious features - it is one of the world's largest countries by size, yet its population is concentrated in just a handful of coastal cities.

These cities - particularly Sydney and Melbourne - have experienced growing problems with transport, roads and housing. This has led to a push to ease their population pressures.

The Government proposed an A$40 million (S$38.6 million) scoping plan that will consider detailed proposals for five new fast rail corridors over the next 20 years.

These include lines linking Sydney to Wollongong and to Parkes; Brisbane to the Gold Coast; and Melbourne to Albury-Wodonga and to Traralgon.

Mr Morrison had proposed the Federal government fork out half the A$4 billion needed for the Melbourne-Geelong line, with the Victorian state government providing the remaining funds. Victoria has, however, dismissed the proposal as a "thought bubble".

Critics say the line would cost much more than A$4 billion, denouncing the proposal as primarily designed to win votes in tightly-held seats in Melbourne and Geelong ahead of a Federal Election due in May.

"It's precisely the sort of breathtakingly cynical political manoeuvre that voters are now so exhausted by," wrote reporter Clay Lucas in The Age.

The New South Wales (NSW) state government has separately proposed a series of lines to population hubs within 300km of Sydney.

These include links to Newcastle, Goulburn, Canberra and Wollongong. The trains would travel at speeds of up to 200kmh, cutting travel times by about 75 per cent.

The NSW Government last month pledged an initial A$295 million and has appointed a panel to consider the options for possible lines by the end of this year.

The states of Victoria and Queensland are also exploring their own links between regional hubs and their respective state capitals of Melbourne and Brisbane.

But these plans are far less ambitious than the long-mooted idea for a so-called "very fast train" to link Australia's main cities on the east coast, including Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane. For almost 40 years, successive Federal governments have considered such a train, which would travel at speeds of up to 350kmh.

But the proposals have repeatedly been shelved because of the high cost involved. The project would cost an estimated A$114 billion or more.

University of Sydney's Professor Rico Merkert, an expert on developing efficient transport, believes the recent proposals by the Federal and state governments for train links to regional hubs are more feasible than a very fast train.

He said the distances between the major cities and nearby hubs are too short for flights, so rail systems would not have to compete with aviation.

However, Prof Merkert added that the rail lines connecting cities to hubs would help take cars off the road and could potentially one day form the basis for a more ambitious very fast train.

"If they ensure that there is interoperability around these things, then you at some point in the future connect these three systems, then you have what was initially proposed," he told ABC News.

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