SYDNEY (AFP) - A high-speed rail link connecting Melbourne to Brisbane via Canberra and Sydney would cost A$114 billion (S$148.6 billion) and take more than 40 years to complete, an Australian government study showed on Thursday.
Australia has debated the merits of high-speed rail connecting the main centres along its east coast since the 1980s but has never committed to such a major project.
Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, who commissioned a feasibility study in 2010, said it would transform the way people along the eastern corridor - home to about two thirds of Australia's population - live and work.
But he conceded there were technical, logistical and financial challenges as he released details of the study.
Asked by ABC radio if the government was serious about pressing on with high-speed rail despite the hefty price tag, he said: "Yes, we are.
"But there's no doubt that for a project which is 1,700 kilometres long, that would involve some 144 kilometres of tunnelling, that it would take time for construction to commence."
The study shows the total capital cost would be A$114 billion, including project development and construction funding, with limited potential to attract private investment due to poor rates of return.
Mr Albanese admitted the federal and state governments would need to pay for much of the project.
"It's pretty clear that this would require a substantial commitment by the national government," he said.
"It's also the case that you could get some state and territory government contributions. There would need to be contributions in the way of planning support." But he insisted it could deliver a positive economic benefit.
"Well the study concludes that once the high speed rail line is fully operational, it could carry some 84 million passengers each year," he said.
"And it estimates as well, in terms of the financial modelling, that it could generate sufficient revenue to cover its operating and asset renewal costs.
"So there are benefits of it. It estimates that overall there is a significant economic benefit, a return of A$2.30 to Australia's economy for every dollar that is invested."
The benefits for the commuter would be huge - a journey from Sydney to Melbourne that currently takes some 12 hours by rail would take just two hours and 44 minutes on trains travelling at an average of 300 kph.
Travel from Sydney to the capital Canberra would be reduced from four hours to 64 minutes while commuters from Sydney to Brisbane could make the trip in two hours 37 minutes instead of the current 13 hours.
The study said the 1,784 kilometre route from Melbourne to Brisbane would not be complete until 2058, with the first trains unlikely to be running on the first stretch of track until at least 2030 if the project proceeds.
The proposal will now be put out to public consultation.