Newcastle has two transport spines.
One is the east-west spine, the traditional passageway for people and freight between the valley and the coast. Modernisation of the east-west spine has been two-fold. Rail infrastructure has enabled the valley to be the world's biggest exporter of coal. The Hunter Expressway, opened in March 2014, has enabled commuters to live in distant housing estates and drive to work in the comfort of their cars and SUVs. Sadly, public transport along the east-west spine is worse than it was back in the 1960s, when it was dreadful.
The other spine is north-south. Newcastle sits inside Australia's population and economic growth corridor, Brisbane to Melbourne, with the jewel, Sydney, in the middle. Newcastle's future will be determined by the intensity of its connections along this corridor. But Newcastle largely runs these connections on old 20th century infrastructure. The train service south to Sydney was electrified in 1984, but has had no significant betterment since. The F3 freeway was opened all the way to Beresfield in 1998, but now struggles with traffic volumes, despite extra lanes at chokepoints.
Newcastle's most significant investment along the north-south spine has been its airport. The airport singularly positions Newcastle as a player in the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne corridor. In 1996 Impulse Airlines linked Newcastle to Melbourne. In 2004, Jetstar, having acquired Impulse, and Virgin started building links north and south with regular, efficient services. The airport's contribution to Newcastle's struggle for economic adulthood is under-recognised. And government support for the airport is ridiculously insufficient.
One wishes favourable comment could also be made about the Newcastle-Sydney train service. Between 1998 and 2002, significant upgrades to the 19th century rail alignment were announced by the Carr Labor government. But nothing eventuated. Perhaps Newcastle's politicians let Sydney off the hook.
... faster rail could cut travel times between Sydney and Newcastle "from approximately 3 hours to 2 hours".
Fear of this place called Sydney is widespread in Newcastle. A fortnight ago, former prime minister Paul Keating expressed his support for a fast rail service from Sydney to Newcastle. But opponents quickly jumped on the idea. Newcastle would become a dormitory suburb of Sydney is the retort, as if sprawling dormitory suburbs weren't already marching deep into the lower Hunter.
The issue for Newcastle here is that because the fast rail idea has huge obstacles to overcome - thoroughfares and cost are the big ones - it is an idea for the distant future. But for the foreseeable future, Newcastle is left with an ancient rail service to its neighbour city, one that happens to be the most successful city in the southern hemisphere. Yet there is a proposal for a better rail service to Sydney for the here and now; although, like proposals in the recent past, disinterest in connections to Sydney looms as an opportunity killer.
The proposal is called "faster rail". In 2017 the federal government announced funding for a business case for faster rail between Newcastle and Sydney. On the Infrastructure Australia web site, a fact sheet says faster rail could cut travel times between Sydney and Newcastle "from approximately 3 hours to 2 hours." This would be an outstanding improvement.
The 2017 commitment said the business case would be completed by "mid-2019". The web site now says "late-2019". My inquiries to Infrastructure Australia reveal the business case study is nearly finalised. Of course, the business case might not be released. Then, should the proposal be proven viable federal and state governments need to commit funding. But this is a real opportunity, no? A Newcastle airport moment for rail?
I would like to think our state and federal politicians are working to ensure the business case is released, getting ready to lobby for its funding and implementation. And that Newcastle's development and lobby groups are similarly on the task. But evidence for any of this is absent.
My concern is that Newcastle's lack of enthusiasm for links to Sydney will snuff this spark of interest by government in our north-south spine. Infrastructure is always political. There are plenty of good projects on government books and the competition for funding, especially from within Australia's rapidly growing east-coast cities, is intense. Newcastle lags in this competition. Politicians and lobby groups need to up their game.