Faster rail networks are the answer to delivering fast, efficient, reliable, and sustainable public transportation.


Pinpointing the regional precinct and placemaking benefits of faster rail

As we emerge from the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, where and how people live and work is being redefined. This is likely to reframe our transport networks, with faster rail in the mix as a solution giving people the choice to live in a regional centre, or outer-urban area, and travel to and from work in a nearby city. In this context, faster rail could supercharge a regional migration renaissance, as well as having flow-on economic and sustainability benefits:

  • Connecting people to the places they want to go
  • Realising opportunities for economic growth
  • Stimulating the establishment of vibrant precincts
  • Facilitating the development of regional areas

In addition, faster rail may provide existing regional centres with similar educational and employment opportunities as found in larger cities, while also delivering improved access to health services and recreational activities.

The introduction of faster rail networks may just be the answer to deliver fast, efficient, reliable and sustainable public transportation, giving passengers greater accessibility and liveability. Significantly reduced journey times could unlock the full potential of regional growth areas.

This thinking paper considers the precinct and corridor elements in Australia and New Zealand by looking at faster rail opportunities for services capable of maximum speeds greater than 200 km/h.

The establishment of faster rail networks relies on the following considerations:

  • Commercial potential: Patronage, economic return and precinct developments around stations.
  • Optimal distance between stations: The distance between stations is influenced by many factors: precinct connection, active transport radius, transport network connection, patronage demand, travel time and distance, so the system needs to service its communities but not undermine the actual higher-speed design.
  • Corridor separation from other rail systems: This is mainly the case outside of metropolitan areas where high speed trains use the standard rail network so they can connect to central rail stations.
  • Availability of land, both for terminals and faster rail corridors: The development of new faster rail stations can require the use of greenfield sites to maximise placemaking potential and interchange function.

Faced with a combined population nudging 47 million by 2060, moving people around Australia and New Zealand will undoubtedly remain one of the biggest infrastructure challenges for both countries.

Like much of the world, Australians and New Zealanders are heavily invested in their cities. According to the United Nations’ publication – World Urbanization Prospects, the 2018 Revision – the bimodal distribution of Oceania’s populations is projected to persist to 2050, at which point the median level of urbanisation for the region will have risen to 71 per cent. Australia and New Zealand are both projected to house 91 per cent of their population in urban centres.

New Zealand’s specific response to this is the Urban Growth Agenda, an ambitious and far-reaching programme designed to address the fundamentals of land supply, development capacity, and infrastructure provision.

Faster rail placemaking and precinct planning

Just as a pin is dropped in Google Maps to indicate places of interest, planning an effective faster rail network involves identifying, and ‘dropping a pin’ in each of the suitable station interchange locations.

However, these pins come packed with a great deal of complexity: location, surrounding precinct development and value capture around the station, first and last mile connection, and the unique customer requirements of that region.

Faster rail, done well, can be a powerful catalyst for successful placemaking providing equal opportunities to regional areas as awarded to metropolitan centres. In particular, faster rail can support development that is transit-oriented and better connected, enabling more sustainable patterns of land use. It may provide the transport choices that are necessary to tackle congestion, reduce emissions, build strong communities, and stimulate the economy.

Aurecon is using this approach in the design of Special Activation Precincts in New South Wales. These precincts support industries to set up and expand in regional areas, stimulating economic growth and creating jobs through improved infrastructure across major road and rail freight networks.

This focus on the economic opportunities in regional areas may make faster rail stations more attractive to the surrounding community (encouraging them to use the service), and form part of a broader precinct that offers high-amenity, business-oriented land use.

To fully unlock the benefits of faster rail, government investment needs to be aligned with future population growth predications and patronage demand analysis to enhance economic performance and guide future urban growth towards more resilient, sustainable and affordable settlement patterns (Figure 1).

Improving the attractiveness of public transport is key to achieving mode shift and reducing dependency on private vehicles between regions and fast-growing cities. In many countries, it is the backbone of public transport systems, providing fast, frequent, high capacity services along corridors that are separated from general traffic and therefore unaffected by road congestion.

Figure 1: Achieving full value from faster rail projects

Achieving full value from faster rail projects – Aurecon

First mile last mile multi-mode accessibility

Urbanised city stations require rapid, direct and multi-mode accessibility to ensure effective transfers and door-to-door commutes. Faster rail between regional areas or metro satellites and the city needs to achieve the same outcomes.

Two factors prove central to realising this goal: the number and location of stations, and their integration into the rest of the transport network. A dedicated faster rail network may provide the capacity for growth in long-distance travel – but, to be successful, it needs to be planned as the strategic backbone of a wider transport system.

The first and last mile of a faster rail trip is an important component of the overall quality experienced by a passenger. It contributes heavily to whether a passenger chooses that form of transport repeatedly. To maximise the benefits of faster rail – lower emissions than cars, convenient travel, economic growth – first and last mile connections need to be seamless by integrating with road and/or other forms of active and public transport.

The first and last mile connection also depends on operating services of faster rail at convenient frequencies. The challenge at the moment is that many regional areas lack a fully functioning, connected rail network with convenient travel times.

In addition, safety is a challenge. In regional centres, there is less likelihood of well-connected footpaths, lighting and shelter amenity, for people to walk from the faster rail station to their home or place of work. A robust and active public transport system, to move people from the faster rail station to their homes is important, along with convenient and reliable integrated transport solutions and connections developed through community engagement.

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

The consistent theme in any faster rail project is community – using human-centred design to build a rail network that suits people’s lifestyles and improves liveability and accessibility. This approach to problem solving, commonly used within design and management frameworks, develops solutions to problems by considering user experience in all steps of the process.

We recently completed research for Victoria’s first human-centred design rail project that highlighted pain points facing passengers. The duplication of the South Geelong to Waurn Ponds rail line captured real-time passenger and travel pattern data to learn from current users and plan for their future mobility needs.

The technical engineering aspect of building a faster rail network is consistent from country to country, while the problem to solve can be vastly different between regions, states and locations.

Each jurisdiction must ask itself; what is the problem to solve with faster rail? Rebalancing settlements, uplifting the value of regional land, opening access where there wasn’t any before, housing supply and affordability? These are just some of the problems that faster rail can address, although each application will be unique to the communities that it serves.

Understanding the community and stakeholders by having a clear understanding of their unique needs makes this become a possibility rather than just a pipe dream.

More transit-oriented development around train stations will encourage mode shift, together with more sustainable urban or regional living. The spatial planning of inter-regional passenger rail services will play an increasingly important role in ensuring that future growth strategies for cities and regions are integrated with transport priorities.

The impacts, planned for today, will have generational benefits (second and third decades), and will be important for considering future opportunities for investment.

Moving from advice to implementation

By enhancing the connection between capital cities and regional areas, faster rail can be a catalyst for transformational economic, liveability, and social change.

To achieve this, we need to apply a step-by-step process to assess key corridors and determine future priorities (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Assessing key corridors and determining future priorities

Assessing key corridors and determining future priorities – Aurecon

Constraint assessment – Aurecon

Constraint assessment

Capacity, land availability, corridor, stakeholder requirements, existing network integration, station placement, risk mitigation.

Demand assessment – Aurecon

Demand assessment

User travel patterns (today and in the future), modal shift requirements, capacity, fare pricing.

Stations and route planning – Aurecon

Stations and route planning

Precinct priorities, total travel times, land use analysis, economic uplift opportunities, patronage (today and in the future), value for money.

Precinct and placemaking opportunities along the route – Aurecon

Precinct and placemaking opportunities along the route

Economic improvement, priorities assessment, needs-based analysis.

Feasibility planning – Aurecon

Feasibility planning

Access to services, employment and leisure, investment opportunities, infrastructure resilience, economic and population conditions, affordable housing, value for money, stakeholder engagement, optimisation.

Engineering design – Aurecon

Engineering design

Place connectivity, optimal asset management, environmental considerations, systems integration, implementation of future technology, managing passenger/ freight rail service conflict, corridor alignment design, network interfaces.

Implement and commission – Aurecon

Implement and commission

Maximising average speed, asset maintenance, amenity, value for money, network connection.

Faster rail can bring transformational improvements, fundamentally changing the dynamics of entire regions. An example of this will be the connectivity within south-east Queensland, the host of the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The opportunity exists to give locals and visitors in the region an injection of sustainable transport infrastructure that will last for generations, with the connectivity of faster rail between Brisbane, and the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.

In New Zealand, the Hamilton-Auckland Corridor is an initial priority area for the spatial planning pillar of the previously mentioned Urban Growth Agenda. It recognises that greater intercity connections will be key to improving access to jobs and opportunities, reducing transport’s contribution to climate change and avoiding unnecessary urban sprawl.

The corridor would connect two of New Zealand’s largest and fastest growing urban areas (Hamilton and Auckland) along a corridor with high natural and cultural importance and value. Further business case work will involve building a better understanding of the economic case, timing of land-use and transport changes, and operation of faster rail.

Further work will also identify the extent of the benefits that it would bring to New Zealand’s productivity, housing market, and emissions reduction targets.

Shrinking the geography

Introducing a faster rail network is essentially shrinking geography, to serve the purpose of connecting people to jobs, health, education, family, and tourism or leisure activities. Internationally, faster rail has been shown to transform the geography of a country, bringing regions and cities closer to each other by improving accessibility and creating regional economic development.

If planned and built for the communities it serves, faster rail in Australia and New Zealand could meaningfully improve liveability.

Geelong Fast Rail in Victoria is a great example, as its population is expected to grow by almost 50 per cent in the next 30 years and its proximity to Melbourne benefits the movement of people between the two cities.

In New South Wales, a faster rail corridor between Sydney and inter-regional areas such as the Central Coast, Newcastle, the South Coast or Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory could create a connected mega-region where geographical distance is not a constraint to employment or educational opportunities.

Faster rail also attracts businesses and industry to these metro satellites and regional areas, supporting greater investment in towns for a more integrated and borderless approach to transport and economic development.

It creates opportunities for regional towns that would not exist if they were not as well connected. It means that people can take the space and time and the quiet they might need away from a dense urban centre.

Precincts: Place Reimagined - Aurecon

Precincts: Place Reimagined

How does a place-based approach stimulate economic growth, create jobs and support liveable, sustainable communities?

At the heart of all precinct and placemaking projects are the people, communities and businesses they serve. Learn more about Aurecon's approach to precinct design.

Learn more ›

About the authors

Shane O’Neill is Technical Director, Rail & Mass Transit at Aurecon based in Australia. He has more than 25 years of experience leading and delivering major multidisciplinary rail infrastructure projects. These projects have spanned the entire project lifecycle from studies and concept designs, through to detailed design, construction management and maintenance planning.

Sandi Robertson is an Associate, Rail & Mass Transit at Aurecon based in New Zealand. She is experienced in delivering large transport infrastructure projects across New Zealand and internationally, with a focus on projects in complex environments that bring together sustainable transport solutions, coupled with broader urban revitalisation.

Sarah Zhang is Technical Director – Integrated Transport and Mobility, NSW & ACT at Aurecon. She is experienced in leading multidisciplinary teams in the rail and transport sector and developing successful outcomes on state significant and city-shaping projects. She received the 2018 Institution of Transportation Engineer’s Emerging Professional Award for ANZ.

Unfortunately, you are using a web browser that Aurecon does not support.

Please change your browser to one of the options below to improve your experience.

Supported browsers:

To top