When Illawarra First originally thought of commissioning a study looking at rail connections between Sydney and the Illawarra, the focus was naturally on the South Coast Line.

This existing rail link is used by 2,600 people every day, a small fraction of the 42,000 rail and passenger movements that make the same journey by road.

The report, Upgrading Rail Connectivity between the Illawarra and Sydney (full report below) was released this week, and carried with it a certain urgency since Infrastructure Australia predicted that the line would reach capacity by 2020.

But the options for increasing capacity on the South Coast Line are limited, and quickly become uneconomic.

In order to achieve a 60-minute commute to the centre of Sydney, it’s likely that a tunnel would be needed between Thirroul and Waterfall, at a mid cost of $150 million per kilometre.

So Chris Lamont, director of the Illawarra Business Chamber (of which Illawarra First is a part), is keen to promote a new rail corridor to Sydney, the South West Illawarra Rail Link.

‘The Illawarra is on the door-step of the growth and investment that’s happening in South West Sydney,’ he said.

‘Increasingly, we are seeing Illawarra people looking for employment to the west of Sydney.’

Joe Branigan, a senior research fellow at the SMART Infrastructure Facility, heads a team that specialises in public infrastructure, including road and rail.

‘We take an economic perspective and we look at how best to make our rail networks operate,’ he said.

‘We considered the South Coast Line of course, because generally you try to build incrementally on the network.

‘But there are a number of issues with that line, and the main one is the Illawarra escarpment.’

So he turned his attention to the Maldon-Dombarton line, first mooted in the 1980s as a way of transporting freight – and especially coal – from South West Sydney to Port Kembla.

It was abandoned, part-built, after lower coal prices made it uneconomic.

However, when passengers are included and the line is electrified, the modelling shows that for every $1 spent, there is $1.80 in economic benefit.

The line would more than halve the train journey from Wollongong to Campbelltown (from 131 minutes to 60 minutes) with trains travelling at 90km/h. It would create 1100 permanent jobs and $2.6 billion of regional product per annum, and would carry between 6000 and 9000 passengers per year.

Summary of the key findings of the report, ‘Upgrading rail connectivity between Illawarra and Sydney’.

‘From an economic perspective, the Illawarra has suffered from higher unemployment because it’s a smaller market,’ Branigan said.

Good transport connections create employment opportunities for both regions.

‘The Illawarra has been relatively isolated from Sydney, you have slow improvement on the road and a bad rail line,’ he said.

‘This will allow people to live in the Illawarra and work in Sydney.’

The chief operating officer at SMART, Tania Brown, said the value of the facility was the way it was able to look beyond simple economics.

‘We have a multi-disciplinary team that we can use on these challenges,’ she said.

‘We are not just looking at it through an economic lens, we were able to run simulations on the capacity of the rail line, using some of our past experience on the local network.’

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