From just out of reach to just-in-time – how faster rail can change the game for intrastate commuters

If we are emerging from the decade of the ‘rush hour' where everyone sprints onto public transport, or jumps into their cars and gets into and out of the city at the same time every business day, then perhaps the next decade will be the ‘just-in-time’ phase – a totally new phase, where we can be confident that we don’t have to squeeze onto a 6.30 am service to get to our 8 am meeting.

That confidence will likely come from more efficient transport services but importantly, for those who are travelling between cities and often intrastate, such as Newcastle to Sydney, the Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast to Brisbane or Geelong to Melbourne, it will come from faster rail services.

Fast and faster rail has the potential to provide the on-time certainty for those living and working between capital cities and outer-metro hubs that is generally only felt by those who live and work in the inner suburbs. It is a certainty that governments and public transport agencies are keen to provide, not only for workers but also to open opportunities for increased tourism and to cater for population growth.

When we look ahead to the Brisbane Olympics in 2032, for example, the local and State Governments have committed to the Games being ‘car-free’, where people can easily move by public transport between events in Brisbane and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.

First, we must clarify what we mean by ‘faster’ as it is not what many people think of when they imagine high speed rail such as the Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ capable of speeds up to 320 km/h.

Upgrading the Sunshine and Gold Coast rail lines to ‘faster’ status means designing for speeds of approximately 160 km/h, while also increasing the frequency and reliability of services. It would allow significantly faster journey times and offer a far more competitive travel option to the busy Pacific M1 Motorway that connects the two cities.

By global standards, many Australian regions, such as South East Queensland where we have midsize cities that are about 100 km from each other, the traditional fast rail concept of stations 50 km apart is not a viable proposition.

Similarly, at the other end of the scale we have heard the opposite arguments about why fast rail is not a viable proposition in Australia because our capital cities are too far apart on routes like Melbourne to Brisbane, which would need 1750 km of track to cater for only 15 million people. But that presumes a very rigid concept of fast rail, and perhaps there is a ‘faster’ alternative that better suits our intrastate or regional network.

Faster, as opposed to fast or high speed, rail is deemed to be speeds less than 200 km/h, but it can achieve up to an extra 60 km/h over current all-stop services that will deliver passenger certainty and make faster rail not merely a viable option, but an essential service for intrastate city travel into the future.

Faster rail is not all about faster trains

You might assume that faster rail is all about the rolling stock itself, however, that is only one of many considerations. There are several aspects that can be addressed to remove the barriers to speed.

Everything from the rolling stock type, to the number of tracks, to the signalling, and even the infrastructure that surrounds the track itself, such as station access, can increase the overall speed of the journey.

For instance, on corridors where faster rail is being introduced alongside existing infrastructure rather than on a dedicated high-speed rail corridor, passing provisions and timetabling need to be carefully considered.

On the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane to Gold Coast corridor, large sections are currently only two tracks, which means it is challenging to run faster express services in combination with all stops services so, in some cases, additional tracks will need to be constructed to allow for train passing and increased reliability (turn up and go services).

Additional tracks provide more contingency for scheduling and maintenance, as well as other associated benefits that improve and enhance transport resilience.

Figure 1: Many factors can be addressed to increase speed

Factors addressed to increase rail speed

Removing the barriers to speed

One of the key issues when implementing faster rail in already utilised corridors, such as Geelong to Melbourne or Gold Coast to Brisbane where there is current rail and road infrastructure, is that much of this infrastructure was designed for a far slower all-stops network, at a time when trains were not as fast and our population was much lower. Such infrastructure includes level crossings, which would now need to either be removed or circumvented.

New passenger rail infrastructure such as Cross River Rail in Brisbane is being designed to ultimately facilitate 24 trains per hour (two-and-a-half minutes between trains) in each direction. It will have a significant impact on level crossings and the amount of time the boom gates will be down.

Understanding how road traffic can continue to flow at key intersections around rail infrastructure is important to ensure there are no bottlenecks for these major metro and fast rail projects, and to deliver a single, integrated transport network where all modes work together.

Options that could be considered include removal of level crossings through grade separations (road over rail or rail over road).

In Victoria, a programme is currently underway to remove 85 level crossings on its network, which will improve safety, reduce travel times and connect communities. Aurecon has worked closely with VicRoads, the Level Crossing Removal Project, local councils and Alliance and construction partners to manage State Government approvals to facilitate the removal of level crossings, as well as delivery of new stations and public open space at 19 of the 39 sites to date (December 2021).

Part of the Victorian programme includes rail over road such as the award-winning Caulfield to Dandenong project. Known colloquially as ‘sky rail’, the project challenged the road over rail norm by building an elevated structure that connected communities by removing the ‘barrier’ created by the rail corridor and, as a result, made available a huge swathe of public land the size of 11 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

The land was converted into parks, activity nodes, basketball courts, off-leash dog parks, walking and bike paths, and open space.

This elevated rail design did not require the compulsory acquisition of houses, businesses or parks, and it reduced the number of mature trees that needed to be removed.

A survey of more than 2600 residents, train users and local businesses found that reduction of road congestion and improvements in road and pedestrian safety were the two greatest benefits associated with the project.

Faster rail can therefore not only upgrade the rail infrastructure itself, but also further develop the community infrastructure around it.

Case study
Level Crossing Removal Project

Leaving a legacy for communities

The work-from-home (WFH) revolution that has taken place during the pandemic has resulted in many people relocating to smaller regional centres, particularly along the coast, such as Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, and Gosford on the Central Coast between Sydney and Newcastle in New South Wales (NSW).

By shedding the shackles of rush hour, people have greater flexibility to travel into the larger cities for work and leisure when needed. As we begin to exit the pandemic, these trips may become more frequent. A 90-minute drive may deter commuters who need to do this journey regularly, but faster rail could turn it from just too far, to just-in-time, particularly when you factor in the unreliability of some major road networks between cities that can often become peak-hour bottlenecks, or come to a standstill when there is an accident or emergency.

Faster rail can help to build greater trust in our transport network through the reliability and time savings that can be achieved.

Faster rail is an opportunity to provide access to larger precincts and higher density living in what is often described as ‘ribbon development’ along the rail corridor; allowing for more equitable and affordable lifestyle options that still allow people to travel to the more expensive CBDs when needed.

An example of this would be the Meadowbrook Masterplan, which aims to create a health and well-being precinct close to the Gold Coast rail line that connects Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

A Federal government-commissioned survey of just over 6000 people undertaken for the National Faster Rail Agency, found that almost half of the respondents (48 per cent of Sydneysiders, 45 per cent of those from Brisbane and 44 per cent from Melbourne) said they would move away from the city if the transport infrastructure was there.

It was more compelling when offered at secondary cities, with Wollongong and Newcastle being the top locations for NSW, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast for Queensland and Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat for Victoria being the top destinations for people looking to be able to commute from these areas.

This will be key to the planning for major events like the Brisbane Olympics. In fact, to achieve the ‘car-free’ Olympics target, and with events spread from the Sunshine Coast to the North of Brisbane, down to the Gold Coast on the Southern side, faster rail will be essential and will be one of the legacy projects that the Olympics leave for Queenslanders.

Queensland is a lifestyle region, and faster rail would make that lifestyle of city and coastal commuting for work or leisure much more accessible. It could form a ‘golden strip’ connecting the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast into one large accessible metropolitan area unlike anything in Australia, although common throughout some Asian and European metro areas.

Build it and they will come – but only if you make it easy for them

Nevertheless, because you build it doesn’t mean people will come. The trip itself must be designed for the users who will travel that route. Faster rail serves a specific purpose in the context of connecting intrastate cities that are almost, but not quite, close enough to commute by road or an all-stops slower train service.

It is about turning just out of reach to just-in-time: everything from the stations, including park and ride facilities, to the rolling stock, to the timetabling must be designed to serve the needs of those people who would choose to use this service instead of other travel options.

Each type of fast or faster rail approach must be unique to the community it serves; there is not a one size fits all model. For Newcastle to Sydney, it could be people who are regularly travelling to Sydney for work. They will want to have the space to be able to work on the train, the charging ports for their phones and laptops, and even screens to check connecting rail, bus and ferry services once they get to the city.

For those going from Brisbane to the Gold Coast at a weekend, they may be going for a morning surf or a night out at a sporting event or a concert. They will want the space to be able to stack their surfboards and any luggage, as well as a seating layout where they can chat in groups on the way.

Similarly, faster rail is not purely about the speed of the train itself; it is also about how efficient and convenient it is to get to the station, through the station and onto the train.

Part of an integrated transport network

If it takes 20 minutes by car to get to the station to take your faster rail journey, then time savings have already been lost. People want convenience and accordingly, each part of the faster rail journey must be convenient and smart ensuring that connections to the stations by either road, rail or other mobility solutions such as cycles, scooters or for those on foot, are enjoyable and convenient, and that the whole trip is digitally connected in order that you are not stopping to make several different payments.

Such an integrated network must include efficient ‘last-mile’ connectivity to the faster rail stations. This is particularly the case in areas like the Gold Coast where the current heavy rail line is 10 kilometres inland from the high-density areas at the coast. All modes need to work together, whether it is light rail connecting to heavy rail, or smart stations that have easy access for new mobility, or active transport solutions such as scooters and bicycles.

An integrated transport network with faster rail at its centre must balance the internal technical rail factors of faster rail with external equity factors and planning that tie the whole network and community of users together.

For instance, on the Sunshine Coast, where the heavy rail line is currently only serviced by bus and car to take commuters to the higher density coastal areas, the Sunshine Coast Mass Transit Project that will provide the missing connection will be as important as the faster rail itself. Just because you build faster rail does not mean people will use it; at least not unless they can easily use it. Increasing connections to the heavy rail line will make faster rail a much easier proposition for commuters.

Figure 2: You can buy many things, but you can’t buy more hours in a day

Looking at time

Time has a value

Whether we realise it or not, and whether we work in an industry that charges by the minute, or in one where we try to get as much done in the time allocated to a task as we can, we always put a value on time.

It is fair to say that any travel time over an hour comes at a personal cost to well-being and that time can be quantified and valued – you simply cannot buy more hours in a day. Consequently, getting back 50 per cent of that time on a trip using faster rail that would normally take 60 to 90 minutes on other transport modes, gives back the value of that time.

To many people who could use it to do something more productive, that time has a much greater value than the cost of the trip itself. Whether it is business to business, people meeting for leisure, or tourists travelling for the day, the less time we spend travelling has both an economic and a social benefit.

Time is a great equaliser. You can buy many things but you can’t buy more hours in the day, so ensuring that intrastate travel from city to city is a daily possibility for those who by choice or by necessity live out of current reach of the State capital, equalises communities through faster rail.

Once the value of time has been calculated, a faster rail network will effectively deliver a system that is well-used because it responds to people’s need for moveability, accessibility and liveability.

About the authors

Justin Riley is Aurecon’s Transport Industry Leader in Queensland with extensive experience across the full rail project lifecycle. Justin has more than 25 years of experience leading multi-disciplinary teams to deliver large-scale infrastructure studies and projects. With a broad technical pedigree covering rail, roads, earthworks, flooding and drainage, Justin understands the challenges associated with major projects and uses this to lead teams to identify innovations that offer real value to the end user.

Stephen Vig is Aurecon’s Principal for Rail & Mass Transit. He has a comprehensive and demonstrated capability to deliver major rail infrastructure. This has come from a career of varied leading roles on large scale projects across Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Asia. Stephen has a deep knowledge of the essential design considerations and innovations needed to develop solutions that provide rail operators with the forward-looking flexibility and reliability demanded by modern transportation networks.

Luke Smith is Aurecon’s Rail & Mass Transit Capability Leader overseeing this technical expertise internationally. Luke has extensive experience in the management, verification and planning, and design of major infrastructure projects in the rail industry.

Catherine Leschkau is an Associate in Aurecon’s Integrated Transport & Mobility team. She has more than 15 years of experience in both the public and private sectors and has been involved in a wide range of strategic and development-specific projects, with experience in rail, road, active and public transport.

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