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.

2011 proposed metro plan

The proposed metro would cover the Bankstown Line (truncated to from Liverpool to Cabramatta), Inner West Line, part of the Illawarra Line to Hurstville, the North Shore Line and the Northwest Rail Link (via Macquarie). Existing Double Deck trains would be replaced with more frequent Single Deck trains, to improve frequency and capacity without having to build a costly second Harbour Crossing. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

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”.

2010 proposed metro plan

The metro plan as proposed in 2010. Click on the image to zoom in and read the details. (Source: Public Transport Inquiry, page 207)

Were this change to go ahead, there would need to be a few requirements to be met:

  1. 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.
  2. Changes to signaling in order to increase the number of trains per hour from the existing 20 to 30 required by a metro system.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
Advantages of the proposed metro solution
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
Vancouver SkyTrain

Sydney could potentially put in place a driverless metro like the Vancouver SkyTrain. (Source: Wikipedia)

Disadvantages of the proposed metro solution
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
For me, it is the last point in disadvantages that decides it for me. If signaling changes (required for the metro proposal) can allow for an increase to 24 trains per hour using the existing rolling stock, then the entire proposal should be junked. Instead, effort should be focused on completing the Northwest and Southwest Rail Links, followed by lines already proposed and waiting for action: Parramatta to Epping and a new connection between Refern and Chatswood (the City Relief Line, a Second Harbour Crossing and Chatswood to St Leonards Quadruplication).
That, along with the mandatory complaint of “another plan?”, makes me hesitant to support the metro proposal. I can only hope one of the other 6 proposals does more to increase capacity, frequency and/or speed on the network than the one seen on the news today.
  1. Jim says:

    Another problem I see with the plan, which by the way surfaces every few years, is that it is city-centric. This ignores the fact that many people want to get across Sydney to regional centres like Parramatta, Chatswood, Penrith etc and not into the city. I think I read a few years ago that more than half the people who travel through the city each day aren’t going to or from the city. More emphasis on cross Sydney travel is needed and is one reason many people still need to use cars.

  2. […] Sydney, Trains by Bambul Shakibaei — Leave a comment October 8, 2011 Following on from news that the government is considering converting part of the Cityrail network to metro, it’s appropriate to question whether metros actually have a place in Sydney. The short […]

  3. […] Bambul Shakibaei — Leave a comment October 11, 2011 I’ve already spoken about the proposal to convert part of the Cityrail network to metro which is being considered by the government as well as what sort of metro system is appropriate for […]

  4. […] single deck trains on some of Cityrail’s lines as part of a metro proposal (discussed by me here, here and here) are somewhat ironic when you consider that Cityrail spent much of the 70s and 80s […]

  5. […] a portion of the Cityrail nework into a single deck metro style rail system (I wrote about it here, here and here). However, seeing that the new plan in effect locks in what was in the previous plan […]

  6. […] Single deck metro style trains and a second harbour crossing are also discussed, almost to the point where it seems like a certainty that these change will be occurring and that the only question is when, not if (p. 45). The SWRL, NWRL and City Relief Lines appear to be the next 3 major expansions to the Cityrail network. After that it's a question of which order a second harbour crossing or metro conversion will occur, not whether either or both will occur. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan Discussion Paper, page 45.) […]

  7. […] Leonards? Will capacity into the CBD be increased, either via a second Harbour Crossing or by a conversion to single deck metro? Realistically, these are the only 4 options on the table, and the NSW government must pick […]

  8. […] included in the future metro network South of the Harbour? Previous incarnations of this plan (here and here) did include the Inner West Line as a metro line. The high density housing along this […]

  9. Grahame says:

    Introduction of single deck metro trains will not solve Sydney’s problems. We need EXPERIENCE and UNDERSTANDING of true Australians who have the knowledge to do the job. Not what it appears like. We need to look at the traffic that needs to be carried. Where from and to needs to be understood. Years ago we “The Fish, The Chips, The Heron “. I have had a look at the timetables and nothing looks like them. I saw first hand the loading issue on the Illawarra line. In peak period travellers wanted to travel from Town Hall etc to Hurstville ASAP. They caught the Port Kembla express in preference to the all stations to Hurstville. You need services to look after the peaks such as above. Common every 5 minute trains DO NOT HELP.

    As far as infrastructure is concern we need to look at the total picture for Sydney. Look at all the unused platforms, tunnels etc. We have spare platforms at Redfern, Central, St James. We have also at least tunnels at St.James station ( the former end of line before the Quay came into use in the 50’s ) that may assist the issue we have. Use of the extra platforms at St James would assist loading of the trains at this station.

    Trams down Castlereagh street to the quay and back along Pitt street as they used to operate. At Central they could terminate on the higher level only a very short distance to platforms 1-15.
    This would take these passengers away from Town Hall and Wynyard and give them a quick access to the trains at Central. The trams would be a lot cheaper than more tunnels under the city. In the streets trams would only take up one lane so traffic could still travel along them as they used to when trams operated. It would also give more use to the platforms 1-15 at Central.

  10. […] inside the Transport for NSW, a new plan was designed to convert part of the existing network to single deck metro trains, including the existing Harbour Crossing in an attempt to avoid building a Second Harbour Crossing. […]

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