The Epping to Chatswood Line began its planning stages as the Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link, part of the Carr Government’s 1998 Action for Transport. The line would actually run from Westmead, going to Parramatta, then joining up to a duplicated Carlingford Line, followed by a tunnel to Chatswood via Epping and Macquarie Park. By the year 2000 the project was so certain to happen that we even saw it on the maps in every train station and in every train carriage (see below). For anyone who forgot to turn their sarcasm detectors on, that last sentence is not to be taken seriously.
Originally to be up and running by 2006, the line was truncated in 2003 to just Epping to Chatswood due to concerns over the cost (a mere 3 months after Carr’s 3rd election victory, I’m sure the timing was purely co-incidental). Even then it was not completed until 2009, longer, more expensive and without one station originally planned for. More on this further down, first I’d like to focus on the Westmead to Epping portion, what is now termed the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL).
A Department of Planning report on the Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link from 2002 outlines what the line from Westmead to Epping would have looked like. The line would join up to the existing track at Westmead before going underground, necessitating an additional set of dives which would require space either from the Parramatta Golf Course or Parramatta Park, both of which were adjacent to the line between Westmead and Parramatta. At Parramatta, an additional underground platform would be built just North of the existing station (underneath Darcy Street). This would then continue underground, going East until they reach the Carlingford Line at Rosehill Racecourse, where the tunnel would follow the Carlingford Line alignment North until it reached a new station underneath the Grand Avenue bridge. This new station would be an amalgamation of the nearby Rosehill and Camellia stations and also link up with the Parramatta to Strathfield bus transitway (which was never built either). Between the old Camellia Station and Carlingford, the line would continue mostly unchanged other than with the addition of a second track. At Carlingford a new station would be built underground, with a tunnel connecting Carlingford up to the underground platforms at Epping.
Though this plan was scrapped, a plan was later announced to build a passing loop on the Carlingford Line, which would allow 2 trains an hour, rather than the current limit of 1 train per hour. However, this too would also be scrapped.
One thing that was done right was future-proofing, and both ends of the Epping to Chatswood Line have been left ready for expansion. On the Chatswood end, there is space for an additional track pair between Chatswood Station and St Leonards Station. Both stations either have 4 platforms (Chatswood) or have space to run additional track along them to become a 4 platform station (St Leonards). This leaves open a potential Chatswood to St Leonards quadruplication, which is one step in an eventual new line through the CBD.
The Epping end of the line has stub tunnels on the Northern end of the underground track at Epping Station. This would allow for a future PERL to be built with minimal disruption when it was connected to the existing network. Almost ironically, it appears that these stub tunnels will instead be used to connect the network to the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL), which will also have a set of stub tunnels for a line to Parramatta.
As a side note: the decision to have the NWRL join up at these stub tunnels, rather than further North above ground, has been seen as a controversial decision as it limits the options for trains from the Northwest (i.e. they must go via Chatswood and do not have the option to go via Strathfield). However the O’Farrell government has defended this decision, pointing out that using the tunnels is cheaper than going above ground as it avoids expensive land acquisition and that to do otherwise would delay the project by requiring new plans, investigations and impact studies to be carried out.
The truncated line, from Epping to Chatswood, was initially meant to have 4 stations – 3 at Macquarie Park and one at UTS Ku-rin-gai. However, protests from the public meant that the line was re-routed underground, rather than crossing over the Lane Cove River. This meant that the line would be too deep underground for the Ku-ring-gai Station, while also increasing the cost of building it and lengthening the journey time. Many of those opposed to the bridge option did so on environmental grounds, an ironic argument seeing as improved public transport would have done far more for the environment than preventing the construction of the rail line on the original alignment.
The changes also meant that the gradient were now too steep for Tangara trains to run on the line. As a result, the line was initially serviced by OSCARS. This was done as a shuttle service at first, running between Epping and Chatswood, but was later integrated into the Northern Line.
The benefits of the new line were not limited just to increased network coverage, it also added capacity to the network by allowing trains from Epping to approach the CBD either via Strathfield or via Chatswood. Up until recently, there was ample spare capacity Southbound over the Harbour Bridge into the city. However this spare capacity has been mostly used up by a combination of new trains from Epping via Chatswood and an increase in trains from the North Shore due to increased population densities in that area. Today the morning peak sees 18 trains cross the Harbour Bridge into the city during its busiest hour, just shy of the maximum capacity of 20 trains per hour. (It should be noted that Northbound trains through the CBD that cross the harbour are already at the maximum of 20 during the morning peak.)
The long term solution to this capacity problem is to build a second harbour crossing. This would join up to a City Relief Line which, as mentioned earlier, would result in a new line running through the city, the first new line through the city since the Eastern Suburbs Line opened in 1979. Doing so would mean a 33% increase in capacity through the CBD. Alternatively, a metro conversion proposal has also been floated as a cheaper alternative to increasing capacity across Sydney Harbour.