More than half of Canberrans say they'd consider catching the train to Sydney if the trip was under three hours, new research from the ACT government suggests, as NSW pledges action on a fast rail network.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has promised to spend $4.6 million investigating four potential high-speed routes between Sydney and regional centres, including between Sydney and Canberra via the future Badgerys Creek Airport.
Other options include routes from Sydney to the Central Coast and Newcastle; west to Lithgow, Bathurst and Parkes; and south to Wollongong and Nowra.
Both sides of politics in NSW have now committed to matching the $5 million in funding from the ACT government to investigate faster rail links between Canberra and Sydney.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the possibility of faster rail was now "more real than it has been at any point in the last three decades", but he would push for a commitment of federal funding ahead of next year's election.
He has told Labor's cities and infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese fast rail was the ACT's number one interstate transport priority.
Mr Barr also said while high speed rail could be decades away, faster rail was within the realm of possibility.
"I understand people's passion for high speed rail, for what they see in Japan and Europe, but that's a $10 billion proposition just between Canberra and Sydney. That’s a wonderful long term aspiration for rail in Australia but in the short term, for less than $1 billion, we could get a significant improvement in the Canberra Sydney rail corridor. That's real, deliverable, tangible in the next five years, so we should push on with that," Mr Barr said.
'That doesn’t preclude there being even faster rail in the future, but let’s move out of the 18th century where we are now into something that’s faster, more efficient and would be a more pleasant journey for many people who obviously undertake that Canberra-Sydney travel on a regular basis."
Mr Barr said trains that could run at between 160km/h and 240km/h would be able to complete the Canberra to Sydney journey in less than three hours with the right track and the right prioritisation through the Sydney suburban network.
"That would be a significant improvement on what we have at the moment, and our research shows if we can get the journey time to three hours or below then it’s competitive with driving. About 57 per cent of Canberrans said they would use the service so that’s encouraging," Mr Barr said.
It's understood the most viable route for a faster train line is Sydney-Goulburn-Canberra, as a Sydney to Newcastle line would require extensive tunnels.
However Mr Barr also suggested "politicking" would be a factor in choosing the route.
"If you look at this purely from a political perspective, look at how many marginal seats each of the lines run through," Mr Barr said.
If that was the only determining factor, the Newcastle to Sydney route would likely win out.
Labor holds the NSW seat of Gosford on the Central Coast by a margin of 0.2 per cent and the seat of The Entrance by 0.4 per cent. The seat of Lake Macquarie is held by independent crossbencher Greg Piper with a margin of 10.7 per cent. The seats of Newcastle, Charlestown, Wyong, Terrigal and Wallsend are all considered safe or fairly safe seats.
On the western route, the seat of Orange - which includes Parkes - is held by a margin of 0.1 per cent by Philip Donato of the Shooters and Fishers party, although the seats of Bathurst, Parramatta, Mount Druitt and Blue Mountains are all considered safe or fairly safe seats.
Along the southern route, only the south Sydney seat of Rockdale is considered marginal - held by Labor by a 4.8 per cent margin - while the seats of Cronulla, Heathcote, Keira and Wollongong are all safe or fairly safe.
On the Canberra route, NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro's seat of Monaro is only held by a 2.5 per cent margin. Liberal Pru Goward's seat of Goulburn is considered fairly safe with a margin of 6.6 per cent.
However, any train line will likely require federal funding, which could push the ledger in favour of the Canberra line. The Coalition lost the former bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro with a 5.84 per cent swing to Labor's Mike Kelly at the last federal election.
The marginal seat of Robertson in the Gosford area replaced Eden-Monaro as Australia's new longest-running bellwether seat, after Eden-Monaro lost the title at the 2016 election. The seat of Dobell, which takes in The Entrance, Tuggerah and Wyong, is also marginal.
The Sydney to Parkes route also takes in a marginal seat - the division of Macquarie, spanning the Blue Mountains area, while the Wollongong route stops short of the marginal seat of Gilmore.