The federal government has wasted decades, millions of dollars, and countless man-hours trying to replace air travel between Sydney and Melbourne with trains when its main goal should be connecting Australia’s most populous cities with regional hubs, argues Chris Kohler, national business editor for the Domain Group.

“The Melbourne and Sydney housing affordability story has become a transport story, because as prices have risen so have commute times – and that severely limits options for those trying to buy on a budget,” Kohler said.  

Connecting Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane via high-speed rail is not only expensive, but would benefit a privileged and affluent minority. In contrast, connecting places like Geelong and Ballarat to Melbourne, Newcastle and Wollongong to Sydney, and Toowoomba to Brisbane would benefit more Australians.

The train journey from Newcastle and Penrith to Sydney’s central business district is slower now than it was three decades ago, according to PwC’s transport expert Robert Williams. It’s a similar story with Melbourne’s nearest towns and cities.

Bringing down commute times to an average of 45 minutes would benefit large numbers of Australians currently locked out of pricey major city property markets.

“They could move to regional hubs and keep their city jobs without sacrificing three hours or more to the daily commute,” Kohler said. “That’s how you ease capital city house prices without having to tamper with negative gearing or capital gains tax exemptions. It’d also help decongest city roads and boost regional development.”

The current federal high-speed rail plan is expected to cost $114bn and would take another five decades to complete. Kohler said there’s a strong chance the project could run over budget because it’s “a proud Australian tradition”.

“Spending [$114bn] on east coast high-speed rail, which largely benefits wealthy business travellers … who are currently catching airplanes between those two capital cities… it’s not great politics if you live in western Sydney or Adelaide or Perth, or everywhere else,” Williams said. “Is that a good use of the nation’s resources given it’s going to need a lot of taxpayer funding?”

“Rather than wasting more time and money promising to send trains hurtling up and down the entire east coast, the Department of Infrastructure should strip back its high-speed rail plans and focus only on the area it’d have the biggest impact – everyday commuting,” Kohler said.