Are there alternatives to the metro plan?

Posted: October 11, 2011 in Transport
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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 Sydney. My opinion is that Sydney does need metros, but not this one. The metro proposal seems to be less about operation efficiency and more about transferring the rail system away from Cityrail and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union that have been holding the system back.

However, given that the capacity constraints problem that this proposal seeks to remedy is a valid one, you can’t just oppose a proposal to increase capacity without putting forward an alternative. So here are some alternatives to ease capacity on the Cityrail network. (Images come from the Herald’s Public Transport Inquiry.)

Double deck trains with 6 doors per carriage

The current Cityrail rolling stock is made up of double deck trains with 4 doors per carriage (one pair on each side). Single deck trains, with their 8 doors per carriage, are therefore able to get passengers on and off more quickly and thus have lower dwell times at stations. One possible compromise to this would be to retain double deck trains, but increase the number of doors to 6. The suburban rail network in Paris (RER) uses such trains, and its network is roughly the same size as the Cityrail suburban network (as opposed to Paris’ metro network, which services the CBD and inner city areas). There would be a slight reduction in the number of seats per train, but still significantly more than would be the case with single deck trains.

RER Double Deck Train

A double deck train from the Paris suburban rail network (RER). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Public Transport Inquiry, page 236)

Like the metro proposal, this would require new rolling stock. However, unlike the metro proposal, it would not cause a large transition problem in switching over from double deck to single deck trains whereby you would be forced to run trains at the lower frequency AND lower capacity of both single and double deck due to having to run both types of trains on the same line (until sufficient single deck rolling stock were acquired to run them exclusively).

Articulated trains

Hong Kong Metro

An example of an articulated train. There are no doors between carriages, providing additional space for passengers. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Public Transport Inquiry, page 234)

Cityrail trains were once made up of individual carriages which were combined together to form 3, 4, 6 or 8 car trains. They would be coupled and decoupled in order to form the right number of cars. From Tangaras onward, they would come only in 4 car sets, with two of these joined together to form an 8 car set. The Waratah train comes exclusively as an 8 car set. Despite this, they retain the connection between each carriage in which passengers cannot travel. This is some 6 square metres of wasted space between each carriage, or 42 square metres per 8 car train. At 4 passengers per square metre, this represents an unused capacity of 168 passengers per train, equivalent to almost 20% of the seating capacity of each train.

As above, this would also require new rolling stock, but would also not cause any transitional problems that the metro solution causes.

Upgrading of city platforms

There are a few stations which currently act as choke points, Town Hall and Wynyard in particular. These stations were designed for a much lower number of passengers than they get today. There are two factors that cause this: they are too short and they are too narrow.

Town Hall vs Hong Kong

Town Hall Station (top) and a station in the Hong Kong Metro (bottom). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Public Transport Inquiry, page 238)

Short platforms restrict the maximum length of trains that can stop at them. For example, the V-Set interurban trains that come in from the Blue Mountains and Central Coast are too long for the city platforms, and all terminate at Central. The short length of these platforms also prevents 10 car trains from operating on them (an improvement that would instantly yield a 25% boost to maximum capacity).

The width of platforms is also an issue, particularly in Town Hall (see photos on the left for comparison). The underground CBD stations are ones which not only see a lot of passenger traffic getting on and off trains, but also in changing over from one train to another. As the platforms aren’t very wide, this process can take a long time and also prove uncomfortable for passengers as they try to navigate through the narrow space available.

Widening of platforms is quite difficult, almost nigh on impossible. The one thing you could do is to have platforms on both sides of the train and for both doors to open. One platform could be designated for boarding while the other for alighting. This is the system in place at Olympic Park station, which has to deal with tens of thousands of people coming in for big events.

Upgraded signalling

This was mentioned as one of the requirements for the metro proposal in order to allow for an increase in the number of trains per hour on each track. However, an improvement to the signalling system should also theoretically allow additional double deck trains per hour too, albeit not as big an improvement as for single deck trains. However, if you could increase the current maximum of 20 up to 24 trains per hour (compared to the 28 trains per hour touted in the metro proposal), then that is still a 20% increase in capacity. Together with the RER style double deck trains mentioned above and the lower station dwell times that they would allow, I can’t see why upgrading the signalling system couldn’t lead to some sort of an improvement on the current ceiling of 20 trains per hour.

A second Harbour crossing

The point of the metro proposal was to avoid the expensive cost of a second Harbour crossing. However, a metro wouldn’t eliminate the need for a second Harbour crossing, only postpone it. There are many options for such a crossing, either on the Harbour Bridge (hanging off the underdeck or on the 2 Eastern Lanes in conjunction with a second Harbour Tunnel for motorists) or alternatively one that follows the Victoria Road alignment (which could quite easily be in the form of a metro). The Herald’s Public Transport Inquiry offered up the proposal to hang the new crossing under the Harbour Bridge, something which it claims can be done mostly within the existing structure. Before and after images are included, and if they are accurate, then I certainly can’t tell the difference.

Second Harbour Crossing

Before and after images of what a second Harbour rail crossing could look like if hung under the Harbour Bridge, and a cross section of how it would work. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Public Transport Inquiry, pages 258-259)


If increasing capacity is the aim, there are better ways to achieve this outcome than through the expensive and risky metro proposal. It would therefore appear to me that the real motive behind this proposal is an attack on Cityrail and the train union. Whilst I am sympathetic to this view, and think it would lead to better processes within the rail system, I personally think a better approach here would be to finish improving the heavy rail system in Sydney’s under serviced outer suburbs, then eliminate the bottlenecks in Sydney’s CBD, then begin creating an entirely new metro system (separate to Cityrail) from the ground up.

  1. […] 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 upgrading its […]

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