The dream of a high-speed train journey between Canberra and Sydney has been crushed by a think tank, saying it would be too costly for a small population and would not have the promised environmental benefits.
In an analysis by the Grattan Institute, it also questions the Morrison government's proposed more modest upgrades to existing services at a time when the full fallout from COVID-19 pandemic is not yet known and what people's future travel and work plans will look like.
Federal Labor has a plan for a bullet train linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane.
The proposed upgrades to services would cut an hour from current train travel times between Canberra and Sydney, the report said.
The institute says while a bullet train may be a "captivating idea", it says Australia's population is small and spread over vast distances, and notes similar countries like the US and Canada don't have one either.
"Even at the best of times, it's a big ask for every taxpayer in the land to stump up $10,000 primarily for the benefit of business travellers between the east-coast capitals," it says.
Nor would a bullet train be the climate saver people believe.
"Yes, once it is up and running it would emit far less than today's planes," it says.
"But construction would take nearly 50 years and be enormously emissions intensive, hindering rather than helping efforts to reach net zero emissions by 2050."
The analysis found that while the government's proposal for rail renovations and upgrades to existing regional lines may make more sense, they are unlikely to fulfil the "overblown claims" that they would take pressure off crowded capital cities and boost struggling regions.
"When the French TGV sped up connections between Paris and Lyon, it was Paris that benefited most," the report says.
"Australia's regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail, including better internet and mobile connectivity and freight links."
The report said people were generally willing to commute up to an hour a day and the notion a high-speed train would allow people to live regionally and work in major cities was only relevant in areas close to the capitals.
It noted plans to push the population to regional areas as far back as the Whitlam government hadn't worked.
"Of all the decentralisation efforts of the past century, the most successful has been Canberra, brought about in large part by a program of shifting entire government department ... but even today, Canberra's population is below the half-a-million mark," the report read.
While it is argued that with unemployment rising this is an ideal time to create jobs by building rail infrastructure, the institute says any money should be spent for the future the nation now faces rather than the one imagined before the crisis.
"When we simply don't know whether the population will be growing or what future travel and work patterns will be like, it's smart to keep our spending options open." it says.
"Every proposed rail renovation project in Australia should be reviewed in the light of the COVID crisis. The costs and benefit of each one should be rigorously assessed, and those that don't stack up should be abandoned.".