THE impact of a high-speed rail line on Sydney Airport's capacity will be considered soon by a government feasibility study.
The study's terms of reference, released yesterday, will see the federal transport department put a cost on a Sydney-to-Newcastle line, but also consider options for high-speed rail links north to Brisbane, and south to Canberra and Melbourne.
The Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, said fast rail could potentially offer a significant cut to commuting times for people travelling between Sydney, Newcastle and Gosford.
The $20 million study aims to answer the question of whether a fast train is economically viable, given Australia's large distances and small population compared with European and Asian countries which are increasingly embracing high-speed rail.
A route, station options and high-level costing will be identified by next July.
More detailed studies of public and private financing options, patronage forecasts, and the implications for airline traffic will be considered in a second phase, and a report to the government will be completed by mid-2012.
A formal reference group will include representatives from state governments.
Earlier advice to the department had suggested high-speed rail was not viable in Australia. A spokesman for Mr Albanese said yesterday previous studies had not put a real cost on building a network.
If high-speed rail was found to be uneconomical now, the study would look at when it might become financially viable, he said.
Ex-Liberal government minister Helen Coonan is also calling for high speed rail (with some added partisan spin about other government programs which can be ignored) - Give us high-speed trains.
The Japanese did it first with the bullet train in 1964. Saudi Arabia is spending $15 billion expanding its high-speed rail network, and close behind are Qatar and Kuwait, which are spending $10 billion each. Europeans have an enviable high-speed connection; it was Spain's network that captured the attention of the US president.
When told more people used fast trains between Seville and Madrid than those driving and flying put together, Barack Obama announced high-speed rail would be a key part of his $US8 billion fiscal Recovery Act.
"Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system - and everybody stands to benefit," he said.
Perhaps most impressive of all are the Chinese. In the previous five years they spent more on rail, roads and other fixed assets than they spent in the past 50. Next China plans to link 20,000 kilometres with high-speed rail networks before 2015.
Australian commuters, meanwhile, are left behind, frustrated on overcrowded city platforms or choking to death in peak-hour meltdown because we still don't have high-speed rail as a transport alternative.
Of course we should. It's madness that on a car journey from Wollongong to Newcastle, drivers grind to a halt because of traffic in Wahroonga. This otherwise beautiful suburb has become an inescapable quagmire. No one contemplates taking the trip by train simply because without fast rail it isn't viable.
Transport Minister Anthony Albanese has finally announced a study will begin into high-speed rail, but let's not get excited. If his pre-election announcement was anything to go by, we will not see the report's findings until just days before the 2013 election.