Media: By Michael Parris March 3 2023

A fast rail concept image released by the NSW government in 2019.

Key Hunter lobby groups have called on the NSW government to clarify whether it has abandoned its plans for fast rail between Newcastle and Sydney.

The Guardian reported on Friday that the government had canned a final business case for 250kmh trains which could transport passengers from Newcastle to Sydney’s Olympic Park in one hour.

The project, which would cost tens of billions of dollars, includes new sections of track and upgrading existing sections of the northern line.

The Newcastle Herald has been told early work on parts of the project have been “rescoped” and a recent tender process for work on the existing corridor had been abandoned.

The Guardian report said the state had handed over responsibility for the massive project to the federal government’s yet-to-be-formed High Speed Rail Authority.

The news organisation said it had seen confidential documents revealing that Transport for NSW considered further planning and construction of fast rail to Newcastle to be a Commonwealth responsibility.

The NSW government has spent $100 million on planning for fast rail, which is designed to eventually cut travel between the two cities to one hour while the federal government works on its high-speed rail strategy.

Committee for the Hunter chief executive Alice Thompson questioned the state government’s attitude towards the region and called on both the Coalition and Labor to commit before the March 25 election to improving the inter-city rail service.

“If the Liberal National NSW government has handed over responsibility for a project that doesn’t even cross borders to the feds, this will be one of the greatest examples of buck passing in recent memory,” she said.

“They’ve deferred to the Australian government to do the heavy lifting on priority projects of state significance in the Hunter like the M1 to Raymond Terrace, Newcastle Airport runway and terminal, Kurri Kurri gas peaking plant and GP Access After Hours.

“What’s next? Fixing ER waiting times at the new Maitland Hospital? Hunter Park? Building the toilet block they just announced at Dungog?”

A map from the NSW government’s Future Transport Strategy, published in September, showing the proposed fast rail line network.

Transport for NSW denied the government had stopped work on plans to deliver fast rail in the state.

A spokesperson told the Newcastle Herald on Friday that the department was “progressing business cases for in-corridor faster rail improvements to existing lines”.

Ms Thompson said the committee, which represents Hunter business, council and charity organisations, welcomed coordination between the state and federal governments on high-speed rail but did not want improvements to the Sydney-Newcastle line “kicked into the long grass” in the meantime.

“We have a commitment to duplicate the track at Wyong but no information from the NSW government on what other upgrades are in the pipeline and when work will be under way,” she said.

“At the same time, we are hearing that project scopes and delivery teams are being pared back.

“Given the lack of information and visible progress, it’s hard to have confidence planning is on track and communities will see the benefits of better rail between the Hunter and Sydney in the short- to medium-term.

“We call on the NSW Liberal National government to give us confidence that these outcomes are a priority and the Labor opposition to be transparent in their plans for better rail.”

The government issued a discussion paper on its “Six Cities” strategy in September which said it was “working towards delivering a fast rail network by 2056″.

Its Future Transport Strategy, also published in September, set the goal of cutting travel times from Newcastle to Sydney to one hour by 2056.

The government said at the time that it would release more details about fast rail in 2023.

It has budgeted $275 million for planning fast rail over the next four years.

Ms Thompson said the Hunter was entitled to distrust political promises made in the region.

“How can we trust anything that is committed to the Hunter’s development during this election, including for communities in the Upper Hunter, one of the state’s most marginal seats?” she said.

“Unless we start to see a state government of whatever party take responsibility for their role and powers in the Hunter, who knows, the committee might have to start arguing for constitutional reform to abolish this level of government as it feels like we are all paying for politics, not good policy or public interest.”

Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said high-speed rail continued to “fall on and off the state agenda”.

“As the nation’s largest regional economy, we must ensure that investment in faster rail and high-speed rail meets critical timeframes requisite to demand, not continually delayed or scaled back,” she said.

Ms Thompson said Labor had yet to articulate its agenda for “how fast rail, with the right approach and some imagination, can be truly region-shaping and improve the lives of Hunter communities”.

“This is an opportunity for leadership we encourage Labor to seize, and we seek transparency on their commitment to this important project.”

The UK expert who reviewed high-speed rail options for the NSW government said last year that “fixing the corridor between Sydney and the Hunter” would make the most difference to the most people.

Professor Andrew McNaughton, the chairman of England’s Network Rail High Speed agency, wrote a report for the NSW government three years ago which has never seen the light of day.

Professor McNaughton told the Sydney Morning Herald last year that 250kmh rail services to Newcastle and Wollongong would “change the face of NSW”.

Federal infrastructure Minister Catherine King reiterated this week that the Newcastle link would be the first stage of an east coast high-speed rail network and called for nominees for the HSRA authority board.

The Transport for NSW spokesperson said Infrastructure and Cities Minister Rob Stokes had written to Ms King late last year asking the HSRA to work with the Greater Cities Commission and Transport for NSW to “ensure plans for high-speed and fast rail are well coordinated between the Commonwealth and NSW governments”.

“Transport for NSW is progressing business cases for in-corridor faster rail improvements to existing lines while planning progresses with the Australian government for a national high-speed rail network,” the spokesperson said.

Ms Thompson said work on duplicating a 10-kilometre section of track on the Central Coast “does not constitute a program for fast rail as outlined in the NSW government’s own vision”.

“In 2018, the Commonwealth intervened given the lack of action on better rail services in regional NSW by providing funding for business cases and planning to get things moving,” she said.

“Five years, three prime ministers and two premiers later, and over $100 million of public funding, we would have expected shovels in the ground at this stage, not further business cases.

“While the department says work has not ceased on fast rail, we are now hearing that teams have stopped working on it and, given the lack of progress to date, it is getting harder to believe things are on track.

“We’re looking for firm confirmation that this is not the case, how enabling works at Wyong fit into a scheme for fast rail to the Hunter, and when communities can expect to see construction and improvements.”

Shadow Transport Minister Jo Haylen said Labor would release the McNaughton report if elected and “have a serious conversation with the federal government about the future of faster and high-speed rail”.

“The Liberals promised faster rail at every election for the past 12 years and never laid a single metre of track,” she said.

“This cancellation is an admission that their promises were all just stunts.”

Business Hunter chief executive Bob Hawes said it was “disappointing” that the work started by Professor McNaughton “never progressed”.

He said it made sense for the state government to take a secondary role in planning for high-speed rail given the federal Labor government’s renewed focus on the project.

“Hopefully this doesn’t deter them from making improvements to make this a faster rail,” he said.

“We’d certainly be disappointed and distressed if we thought all the ideas that currently were in play were going to be abandoned and that they were just putting all their chips on the opportunity to have the feds one day come up with a proposal or a scheme for high-speed or very fast rail. I hope that’s not the case.

“If it means we’re going to go into a period of uncertainty, I think many people across the region would think we’ve been let down.”