With the chances of a Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) being built anytime soon fading rapidly (not likely to happen until 2036), Parramatta Council has begun to search for alternatives in order to meet its transport needs. The most recent proposal is a light rail network centred on Parramatta.
Stage 1 of this network is 44km of light rail – consisting of a line from Castle Hill to Bankstown via Parramatta (1a), a second line from Westmead to Carlingford using the Carlingord heavy rail line (1b), and a third line from Dundas to Macquarie Park (1c). Stage 1 has been estimated to cost $3 billion, based on the cost of the Lilyfield-Dulwich Hill and Gold Coast light rail projects.
Stage 2 involves a further 44km extension of this network along the Northwest and Liverpool T-Ways, as well as a loop between Parramatta and Olympic Park, a link between Castle Hill and Cabramatta via Blacktown, and linking Carlingford through to Epping. Stage 2 would cost an additional $6.5 billion.
Parramatta Council’s strategy, to realise that the writing’s on the wall for the PERL and to push for something else instead, is a good one. But their tactic of pushing for this particular project seems questionable. It’s all about choosing the right mode for each area, and while I think light rail would be very well suited to some of the routes suggested, in other routes it would be like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole.
Recently most new transport infrastructure in Western Sydney has been Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the form of T-Ways between Parramatta and Liverpool, Parramatta and Rouse Hill and Blacktown and Parklea (linking up to the Rouse Hill T-Way). There is also a significant BRT route on the M2 between Windsor Road and Epping, including 2 bus stations. The advantage of BRT is that it is cheaper than light rail (the T-Ways cost less than half per km than this proposed light rail network) and more flexible (buses aren’t locked in by where the rails go, so they can divert into suburban areas or overtake other vehicles). Where BRT falls down is on capacity and operating costs, light rail can carry more people at a lower ongoing cost. There are other benefits to light rail, people seem more willing to ride light rail than buses and they like the certainty of knowing that they go where the rails take them or that a tram will eventually come by when they see rails.
But the key thing here about BRT is that when built as a fully segregated busway, as the T-Ways are, BRT is also quite easy to upgrade to light rail in future. It’s no surprise, therefore, to see the Parramatta Council proposal suggest doing just this. And it makes sense, these T-Ways should be upgraded to light rail when they start to run into capacity constraints.
However, the proposal only includes this conversion in stage two. Stage one is basically two major connections: Westmead to Macquarie Park and Castle Hill to Bankstown. The former has a much better case for light rail than the latter.
Westmead to Macquarie Park uses an existing rail line on its Western end, which is fully segregated, and has a reservation between Eastwood and Macquarie Park on its Eastern end, which would also be fully segregated. This would leave some on-road running, but this would usually involve replacing bus lanes, resulting in no net loss of road space for private vehicles. Buses would then be re-routed to act as feeder buses to connect commuters to the light rail or heavy rail lines.
Castle Hill to Bankstown has very little of this. Most of it is along 4 lane roads which would involve either reducing them to 2 lanes of private vehicle traffic or sharing tram and car lanes. Bus lanes are limited, so are not an option as was the case with the previous route. There are few options to build light rail on new land without expensive land acquisitions as there are no reservations left along this alignment.
My knowledge of the route between Parramatta and Bankstown is sketchy, but there is does seem like the roads are less congested and that light rail could feasibly be run on-road shared with private vehicles.
So personally, I think a better option for stage one would be to merge the three lines into one line that goes from Bankstown to Parramatta and then goes through to Macquarie Park. The connections through to Carlingford and Westmead could also be built, but are not central to the core part of the line. This could then be followed up by converting the T-Ways to light rail and linking them to the existing system.