A leaked email from Railcorp has revealed that the estimated operating costs of the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) will be $30 or $80 per trip (depending on the assumptions used). The $80/trip headline figure is based only on the 9 million new trips from the line and excludes the 19 million other trips on it that are diverted from other lines. Counting all 28 million trips on the NWRL brings this amount down to $30/trip. This is significantly higher than the $11/trip average across the Cityrail network, and represents a significant subsidy by the government to commuters who will be paying around $6/trip (depending on the type of ticket and destination).
The figure you need to focus on is the $30 one, not the $80 one. That is because those commuters who are moving from one line to another are mostly going to be residents in the Northwest who are currently heading South to stations like Blacktown or Seven Hills and catching Western Line trains. These are some of the most crowded trains on the network with an average of 1,236 passengers per train (Public Transport Inquiry, page 243), and additional capacity on these trains will easily be filled. Therefore, the loss of passengers to the NWRL should easily be replaced by new passengers.
The Herald article reporting this story suggests that each new passenger would cost $80 (or $30) to operate. The reality is that the operating costs are mostly fixed (you pay the same for running a train, track maintenance, stations, etc whether 100 people use them or 10 people use them), so increasing the number of passengers has the effect of reducing that cost per trip. This will help with cost recovery.
The main obstacle to getting sufficient patronage is being able to run enough trains on the NWRL. Currently it is restricted by the Harbour crossing, which has space for only 2 additional trains per hour into the CBD during the morning peak without removing trains from the upper North Shore Line. In the short term, a quadruplication of track between Chatswood and St Leonards will allow trains to turn around at St Leonards (currently tricky at Chatswood at higher frequencies) and go back to Rouse Hill while also linking commuters with the job rich areas at Norwest, Macquarie, Chatswood and St Leonards. Commuters wanting to go into the CBD can either change at St Leonards or wait for a direct CBD service (which should run at 15 minute intervals). In the long term, a second Harbour crossing should be built, separating the 2 lines entirely and allowing significant increases to the capacity of trains running through the CBD.
Also in the news on the NWRL: the NSW O’Farrell government is set to submit costings and a timeline to Infrastructure Australia by the end of the year (possibly as soon as November). This is part of its attempt to have the $2.1 billion promised by the federal Labor government for the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link applied instead to the NWRL. Federal Transport and Infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese has thus far ruled out requests by the NSW government as no submission had been made to Infrastructure Australia. The O’Farrell government’s submission is an attempt to move one step closer to getting that money from the feds.
I think the federal government has a 50-50 chance of giving NSW the $2.1 billion. On one hand, they don’t want to be seen as holding back money from transport in Sydney and know that there are a lot of marginal electorates in Sydney that they need if the want to win the next election. On the other hand, the NWRL route goes right through safe Liberal seats, and the federal government desperately wants to keep the budget in surplus, so ditching the $2.1 billion pledge could also work in their favour.