NSW Govt to look at path forward for South Coast Line

Emma Alsop June 17, 2024

Upgrades to the South Coast Line would boost efficiencies for agricultural and other imports and exports passing through Port Kembla. Photo: NSW Ports

THE NEW South Wales Government has committed $10 million to begin the process of examining all rail infrastructure along the South Coast Line and develop options for upgrading sections of the line between Sydney and Wollongong.

The initiative will be announced as part of tomorrow’s 2024-25 Budget.

An investigation into the rail plan was an election commitment first announced in March 2023 by the then NSW Opposition.

However, the funding did not appear in the 2023-24 Budget, released in September 2023.

The South Coast line is key connection for grain freight from rural NSW into Port Kembla.

The 136-year-old line is acutely vulnerable to weather events and has a history of instability due to the geology and topography of the Illawarra escarpment, particularly between Waterfall, Thirroul, Wollongong and Port Kembla.

The line contains steeper terrain and , more winding track, and sees heavier rainfall than any other section of track on the Sydney Trains network.

Grain freight traffic has been heavily affected by rail line closures with several weather events over the past three years cancelling or disrupting services.

Overall, the NSW Government estimates that from February 2022 to May 2024, 285 train services – including freight and passenger – have been cancelled and a further 509 have been disrupted on the South Coast line due to weather-related impacts.

Most recently, storms in April 2024 caused a week of disruption for commuters, and hundreds of rail workers were on site around the clock to fix a large landslip at Coalcliff to restore services.

NSW Minister for Transport Jo Haylen said the South Coast Line was in dire need of a path forward.

“It’s imperative we act urgently to find strategic solutions to this line’s problems, which the community has been copping for far too long,” Ms Haylen said.

“We know work on this line will be expensive, difficult and lengthy, so the Illawarra Rail Resilience Plan will provide a path forward to ensure we make the most effective changes that deliver real results for passengers and freight operators.”

The Illawarra Rail Resilience Plan will assess the current performance of the existing network as well as alternative corridors; compare options, such as upgrades versus new infrastructure; and build on and formalise studies and assessments and deliver a unified plan for the future of Illawarra rail.

Member for Wollongong Paul Scully said Port Kembla was one of NSW’s busiest ports and it was essential to have a “reliable and resilient rail line” connecting it to the rest of the state.

“We need to get more freight off Illawarra roads and on to rails, and improving the line is the best way to do that,” Mr Scully said.

Port Kembla is one of only two bulk grain ports in NSW, with Newcastle being the other one.

Hopes for SWIRL

Several agricultural and state business organisations, including NSW Farmers, BusinessNSW, GrainCorp and Manildra, have advocated for the construction of the South West Illawarra Rail Link (SWIRL) as an alternative freight and passenger connection.

It was proposed that SWIRL would utilise the rail corridor and partially constructed Maldon-Dombarton Line that was abandoned in the 1980s.

A 2020 University of Wollongong SMART Infrastructure Facility report backed the plan, commenting that the SWIRL would have a benefit to cost ratio of 1.13-1.56 over 50 years, where it is assumed the line would be electrified and also used for passenger services.

NSW Farmers also had the SWIRL as a key priority for its Modernising Rail Infrastructure Taskforce launched in 2022.

In a release marking the creation of the taskforce, chair and Moree grain grower Matthew Madden said SWIRL would greatly improve agricultural connections to Port Kembla, helping farmers get their produce to the world”.

Current works

The NSW Government has already begun some work to improve services for South Coast rail users, with a $61 million project underway over the 2023 to 2024 financial year.

This includes improving the resilience of cuttings, embankments, cleaning out drains and culverts, and ballast cleaning to fix track drainage.

An upgrade to the Coalcliff/Scarborough rail tunnel commenced in 2023 and is expected to be completed by 2027.


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