A high-speed train into Canberra would travel through a tunnel under Mount Ainslie and terminate at a station to be built on the eastern fringe of Civic, according to a study commissioned by the federal government on Thursday.
Passengers on the high-speed rail network could travel from Canberra to Sydney in 64 minutes, with an expected five million trips to be made between the two cities each year.
The report, released on Thursday by Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, identifies a preferred route and says the very fast train could carry an estimated 84 million passengers each year, with express journey times of less than three hours between Melbourne and Sydney and between Sydney and Brisbane.
The link between Canberra and Sydney would be built first, with passengers riding the high-speed train as early as 2030, and the line then pushed on to Melbourne and later extended from Sydney to Brisbane.
If the go-ahead was received, a decade would be needed for planning and another five years for preconstruction and buying land for what would be one of the largest infrastructure programs undertaken in Australia.
By 2065, high-speed rail could attract more than half of the air travel market on the Canberra-Sydney, Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Brisbane routes.
Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It would run one service an hour in each direction on the Canberra-Sydney leg, and increasing to five an hour on the Sydney-Melbourne route as demand grew.
However, the proposal to run trains at speeds up to 350km/h would be a ''monumental endeavour'' with ''very real'' technical, logistical and financial challenges.
''That's why we must take a deliberate, thoughtful approach and this report provides a comprehensive analysis on which an informed public debate is now possible,'' Mr Albanese said. He will begin public consultations on the role high-speed rail could play.
The report refines demand and cost estimates from the first phase of the study and says the proposed 1738-kilometre rail network would cost $114 billion in 2012 terms.
The most significant cost element of the project would be tunneling required for access to major city centres, including a 4 kilometre tunnel to be built under Mount Ainslie in Canberra.
The majority of the cost would have to be borne by the federal, ACT, NSW, Victorian and Queensland governments.
''The potential to attract private finance is limited,'' the report says.
The passenger demand is estimated to be between 46 million and 111 million a year if the network was built by 2065 but the report settled on a forecast of 83.6 million.
Despite forecasts of high demand, the Sydney-Canberra leg is expected to be the only sector of the network to operate at a loss.
The report talks up the benefits of the project, saying it would have a ''transformative impact on how the majority of Australians live, work and travel''.
It would deliver discernible benefits along the eastern seaboard where about two thirds of Australians live.
''HSR could produce significant economic benefits - a return of $2.30 to Australia's economy for every dollar invested and will greatly improve opportunities for urban and regional development,'' it says.
The preferred route follows a coastal alignment between Brisbane and Sydney and then inland between Sydney and Melbourne, with connections to Canberra and the Gold Coast.
Stations would be at Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, as well as the Gold Coast, Casino, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Newcastle, the central coast, southern highlands, Wagga, Albury-Wodonga and Shepparton.
''HSR will offer a unique travelling experience with airline-type seating, full catering and computer facilities,'' the report says.
The project is being promoted as a way to better connect regional communities and capital cities, which would emit less carbon on a per passenger basis than car or plane transport, and would help enhance Australia as an international tourist destination and improve domestic tourism opportunities.
The report estimates that if the passenger projections were met at the fare levels proposed, the rail system could operate without ongoing public subsidy.
''HSR fares adopted for the study have been assumed to be comparable to air fares on the inter-capital routes, and it would appear HSR could sustain higher fares,'' it says. ''It is not expected that airlines would respond to HSR competition by reducing fares on a sustained basis.
''It has been assumed, in line with international experience, that airlines would quickly reduce capacity.''
with Hamish Boland-Rudder