Jacob Saulwick reports in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that consideration is being given to converting a third of the Cityrail network to a single deck metro style system. This proposal is one of seven being prepared for the update to Sydney’s transport plan due for completion next year, and is reportedly the one being pushed by Transport Department bureaucrats.
The plan is not new, and an almost identical version was published in the Herald’s Public Transport Inquiry earlier last year, which also suggested a conversion to single deck trains (which I will now refer to as “metro”). The inquiry attacked the proposal for being costly and that similar benefits could be obtained much more cheaply by maintaining the existing double deck trains (which I will now on refer to as “heavy rail”). More on this later under “Disadvantages of the proposed metro solution”.
Were this change to go ahead, there would need to be a few requirements to be met:
- Many single deck trains must be acquired. This is likely to take a number of years, based on the Waratah train rollout, and these trains could only be used during the off-peak until a critical mass are acquired to run them exclusively on certain lines. Using them during peak hour would reduce capacity without any improvement to frequency or speed.
- Changes to signaling in order to increase the number of trains per hour from the existing 20 to 30 required by a metro system.
- New dives and flyovers to shift trains from Bankstown and Hurstville onto the tracks that cross the Harbour Bridge (currently used by Western/Northern/North Shore Line trains).
- Construction of the City Relief Line, to allow Western Line and Northern Line trains from Parramatta and Epping respectively to continue through into the city.
- Shorter dwell times – Metros are able to have 4 doors each side per carriage, compared to the 2 doors that the current heavy rail trains have. This means passengers are able to board and alight the train more quickly, reducing the amount of time trains must spend waiting at each station. This is a particular problem at the moment at many CBD stations (Town Hall being particularly bad), where large numbers of passengers both board and alight from trains. Shorter dwell times also translate into faster journeys, as more time is spent moving between stations, rather than waiting at stations.
- Shorter headways – Lighter metro trains are able to accelerate/brake more quickly, meaning that you don’t need as much space between two trains (known as “headways”). Current headways of 3 minutes per train mean the system is limited to 20 trains per hour on each track. If this could be reduced to 2 minutes, then it means you could run 30 trains per hour, a 50% increase.
- Cheaper than a second Harbour Crossing – This plan aims to increase capacity through the highly constrained existing crossing over the Harbour Bridge, but without having to either build a new tunnel under the Harbour (estimated to cost $3bn to $4bn) or converting 2 traffic lanes to rail (which would be hugely unpopular with motorists). Transport for NSW points out that with the Southwest Rail Link and Northwest Rail Link soaking up construction resources until 2019, an alternative to large scale infrastructure construction is needed to increase the cross-Harbour capacity before then.
- Cheaper rolling stock – Few other countries use double deck trains like Sydney does. By using single deck rolling stock, trains could be purchased off the shelf for a much cheaper price, rather than the over-engineered cost blowouts that we are used to (see the Waratah train as a case in point).
- No net loss of seats – While metro trains have fewer seats than heavy rail (about 600 vs 900), the increased frequency means that there is no net loss of seats. Based on the current 18 trains an hour that cross the Harbour and proposed 28 per hour under the metro proposal, there would actually be an increase in total seats per hour of 600 (from 15,200 to 15,800), while standing capacity would double from 5,400 to 10,800 per hour. All up this is an increase of 6,000 passengers per hour, or 29% of the current capacity.
- Reduced operational costs – A new metro system would avoid the legacy labour costs of the current Cityrail system under Railcorp. Things like requiring both a driver AND a guard to operate each train. We no longer have drivers and conductors on buses (even Melbourne did away with conductors on its trams in the 90s). The Waratah trains are designed so that one person can operate both the driver and guard function, and there’s few reasons why they couldn’t, short of a strong union presence insisting guards be maintained. Ideally, it would be completely driverless, like in Vancouver. Those concerned about safety should remember that the incident at Waterfall was caused by the driver having a heart attack while the guard was asleep, and that the incident at Glenbrook occurred due to informal communication and not obeying rules. In other words, both tragedies (which resulted in a combined 14 deaths) may have been avoided had they been automated.
- Allows privatisation of metro system – Depending on your views, this is either an advantage or disadvantage. The current Liberal government would see this as an easy way to privatise a portion of the Cityrail network (likely by shifting operational responsibility to a private operator, as is done in Melbourne, rather than to sell the actual assets). A private operator, motivated by higher profits and without having the pressure of the electorate, would take a harder line against unions, achieving the previous advantage – reduced operational costs.
- More trains, staff and stabling required – A metro system would require 50% more trains that the current heavy rail system, and each of those trains need to be staffed by a driver and guard (unless union resistance can be overcome to reduce these) and the extra trains need to be stabled somewhere, necessitating construction of new stabling yards on top of the existing ones in place. This will lead to both additional capital and operational costs.
- Increased capacity comes from standing, not seated passengers – This is particularly a problem for long distance passengers (such as on the Northwest/Macquarie Line). For example, Epping to Central via Macquarie is currently a 40 minute trip, and with Northwest Rail Link passengers getting on at Castle Hill or Cherrybrook potentially taking all the seats, this means a 40 minute standing room only commute into the city. Cityrail policy is that no commuter should have to stand for more than 20 minutes, and while this is unlikely to be a problem at the extreme ends of the network (the trains here are empty and seats are plentiful), it makes metro style trains unsuitable for long distance routes.
- Significant infrastructure still needed – In order to get Western Line passengers into the city, an additional City Relief Line must be built through the city. This is at considerable cost ($4.5bn at last count). This is in addition to changes to the signaling system and dives/flyovers required to get trains onto the appropriate track.
- A second Harbour Crossing would increase capacity more – There are currently 4 tracks approaching Chatswood (from Epping and Gordon) and 4 approaching Central (on the East Hills and Airport Lines) that truncate to 2 tracks. By constructing a new set of 2 tracks through the city (the City Relief Line), across the harbour (a Second Harbour Crossing) and up to Chatswood (the Chatswood to St Leonards Quadruplication) then it would allow an additional 20 trains in each direction across the harbour and through the city. That means an increase in capacity of around 24,000 passengers an hour (most of them seated), compared to only 6,000 under the metro plan (virtually all standing).
- Loss of flexibility – Mixing single and double deck trains on the same track will significantly reduce capacity, either due to fewer trains an hour or fewer seats per train. As a result, the metro and heavy rail systems must be entirely segregated during peak hour, leading to a loss of flexibility.
- Deferral of the Parramatta to Epping Line – Under the proposal, the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link would be deferred until 2036. And even then, the line would operate only as a shuttle service, running between Parramatta and Epping. Previous proposals had trains going through to St Leonards (with a quadruplicated line between Chatwood and St Leonards), before turning around and returning to Parramatta. This would link the key centres of Parramatta, Macquarie, Chatswood and St Leonards, with existing lines allowing for direct travel into the CBD.
- Signaling improvements can apply to heavy rail too – Something often overlooked is that the improvements to signaling required to increase frequency to 30 metro trains per hour could probably also increase heavy rail train frequency too. 24 double decker trains per hour would be a 33% increase in on the current 18 per hour, greater than the 29% mentioned earlier, without most of the other problems associated with a shift to a metro.