The announcement of a stand alone Northwest Rail Link, followed up with a Second Harbour Crossing, has been criticised as a broken promise by the O’Farrell Government. What has received less attention is the unanswered questions that this announcement leaves. It’s important to remember that the main reason why Infrastructure Australia refused to back funding for the NWRL was a number of unanswered questions in the submission by the NSW government.

  • Will the NWRL use driverless trains?
This question was raised earlier and hosed down by Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, who said she planned for trains on the NWRL “to have drivers”. But given the recent back flips this question deserves to be asked again, particularly considering the NSW Auditor General recently found drivers spend only one third of their time actually driving trains. Perhaps the government only intends to introduce ATO (Automatic Train Operation) and ATP (Automatic Train Protection), then running trains on “auto-pilot” but with a staffed train so that someone can take over if need be (as is the case on all commercial airlines these day). This could allow one person to act as driver and guard, as is the case in London or Singapore (which have automatically operated trains, but maintain someone on board to open/close doors and take over for manual operation if needed).
  • Will the NWRL tunnels be big enough for double deck trains, or only big enough for single deck trains?
Smaller tunnels would probably end up being cheaper, but would also further isolate the new metro portion of the network by preventing double deck trains from using it.
  • What happened to the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link?
Previous reports suggested that this had been deferred to 2036, but would still eventually be built. This new announcement makes no mention of the PERL. Perhaps it has been abandoned altogether due to the high price of a Second Harbour Crossing (costed at $10bn by industry experts). If it has, then will there be an alternative transport connection built to connect Parramatta to Macquarie Park (such as light rail or bus rapid transit).
  • Why isn’t the Inner West Line being 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 line, along with stations spaced quite close to each other and the potential to separate this line from the rest of the network made it a good candidate for conversion to metro.
  • How will the Northern Line operate?
It is clear that trains will no longer go from Hornsby to the City via Macquarie Park anymore, and there have also been reports that Northern Line trains will go to Sydney Terminal at Central Station rather than going through the City and then across the Harbour. But the Northern Line is mostly dual track, meaning express trains have trouble overtaking slower local trains that stop all stations. This makes it difficult to increase services on the Northern Line. Yet increasing capacity on this line would alleviate much of the pressure from passengers on the NWRL, who would then have the option of changing either at Epping or Chatswood for CBD journeys.
  • Will there be a reduction in M2 buses before a Second Harbour Crossing is built?
The government had previously planned for a 66% reduction in M2 buses from the Northwest into the CBD once the NWRL opened, but that was when the NWRL would connect directly into the CBD itself. This seems to boil down to a question of where to put the congestion: trains from the North Shore into the City (which are at 110% of capacity) or buses from the M2 in the Sydney CBD (which is currently overflowing with buses coming across the Harbour Bridge).
  • Will the Richmond Line be attached to the Cumberland Line?
This has also been raised in the media as a possibility, yet speculation was not confirmed nor denied in the government’s recent announcement. Will trains from Richmond now run South towards Liverpool rather than East into the City?
  • Will quadruplication of track between St Leonards and Chatswood be fast tracked?

Of the proposed link between Chatswood and the CBD, this portion is the quickest, cheapest and easiest to complete given that it is short, above ground and requires little or no land acquisitions. It also connects directly to the terminus of the proposed metro line, extending it to St Leonards, which should also go some way to reducing the strain on capacity that will be caused on city bound North Shore Line trains.

Gladys fixing the trains

Unanswered questions remain for the Transport Minister. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

None of this takes into account the Second Harbour Crossing. Ms Berejiklian has refused to discuss details on that, saying that not enough work has been done on it to comment on the timetable or cost. Yet one thing that does seem to be clear is that this crossing will be under the Harbour, and thus result in a very expensive crossing. So there is one more question that must be asked:
  • Will all options for a Second Harbour Crossing be explored?

New track could be hung underneath the Bridge. Alternatively, the Easternmost lanes on the Bridge could be converted to rail, as they were when the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened, and a new road tunnel built under the Harbour (more cheaply than a rail one) to maintain roadspace for private vehicles. A new underground rail tunnel is surely not the only option, although it probably is the most expensive one and therefore most likely to either be cancelled/deferred or to suck the oxygen out for many other infrastructure projects.

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  1. […] Metro and Harbour Crossing (part 3): Unanswered Questions […]

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