High Speed Rail and the Northwest Rail Link

Posted: August 29, 2012 in Transport
Tags: , , , , ,

Many issues have been raised over plans for the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL), that it’s single deck, that it wil require more transfers, that it will require an expensive second harbour crossing. These are legitimate issues that are raised, which in my opinion when considered as part of the big picture of long term transport planning will still result in the conclusion that what the government is currently planning is the right approach to take. But the most recent complaint: that it will shut out high speed rail (HSR), raised by the NSW Business Chamber earlier this week, is just plain hard to swallow.

The full report is available from their website, and I’d encourage you to read it if you’d like a better idea of how transport planning works (even if, like me, you disagree with the conclusions).

Here are some key points from the report:

“International experience shows that in almost every highspeed rail case study, existing urban rail infrastructure has initially been used through major cities. Dedicated highspeed rail urban infrastructure has followed the growth of patronage and hence, the economic and financial case.” – How Would High-Speed Rail  Change Sydney and NSW, page 3

This is an excellent point. It would indeed be much cheaper to use existing rail infrastructure within the city limits, as doing so could bring the cost down from as high as $100bn to just a few billion dollars for a shorter Canberra-Sydney-Newcastle link. The problem occurs when the report then insists that the best connection between Sydney and Newcastle is via Chatswood and Macquarie Park. A quick look at the timetable shows that a train takes about 60 minutes to get from Central to Hornsby via Macquarie Park, compared to 51 minutes via Gordon, and only 36 minutes via Strathfield. The reason for this is that only the via Strathfield route has additional track pairs, which allow faster trains to overtake slower ones. Sending HSR trains via the slower route (as this report suggests), would cause them to be stuck behind slow trains that stop at every station.

This strategy is followed on the Southern approach to Sydney, where trains would come in via the East Hills Line, which also express tracks. See map below.

HSR routes

Long term HSR routes are shown in red, completely separated from the suburban rail network. Until then, the NSW Business Chamber is recommending using existing rail lines, shown in brown. These would make use of fast express tracks on the Southern approach (East Hills Line), but not on the Northern approach (Macquarie Park Line). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NSW Business Chamber)

“To integrate a high-speed rail service with the Sydney suburban rail network, a second harbour crossing will be needed.” – How Would High-Speed Rail  Change Sydney and NSW, page 5

Ideally a HSR network would not be integrated with suburban trains (and the report acknowledges that this is the long term aim), and only in the short term it would it use existing infrastructure (to keep initial costs down). However, no reason is given for why a second harbour crossing is needed, other than the existing capacity constraints. But if that’s the case, then why not just share the existing crossing on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for HSR and suburban trains, leaving the new crossing exclusively for single deck metro trains? Why does the new crossing have to be built to HSR specifications when the current one already is?

Not that this should matter anyway, as it would be faster to use the via Strathfield route. If HSR users want to reach Macquarie Park, Chatswood or North Sydney, then there will be frequent and fast suburban trains from a number of connecting stations that they could use.

However, the recently announced plan by the NSW Government, Sydney’s Rail Future, does not allow for the integration of high-speed rail with the suburban network. This is because it is generally unviable for high-speed rail services to share with the rapid transit trains proposed to travel the second harbour crossing. In effect, the NSW Government’s recent proposal has planned high-speed rail out of the current network” – How Would High-Speed Rail  Change Sydney and NSW, page 5

This statement just makes no sense. Only the NWRL past Epping (which would not be used by HSR anyway) and the second harbour crossing would be incompatible with HSR. And there’s nothing stopping HSR from using the existing harbour crossing, so it’s hard to see how HSR has been “planned…out of the current network”.

“The North West Rail Link is an important piece of infrastructure to Sydney, but it should be designed to permit both a link to North Western Sydney and the operation of high-speed rail through Sydney’s CBD.” – How Would High-Speed Rail  Change Sydney and NSW, page 6

As mentioned, the existing portion of the future NWRL already built (between Epping and Chatswood) is already capable of taking HSR. While the second harbour crossing may not be, HSR could easily shift to the existing harbour crossing once they reach Chatswood in order to reach the CBD. Yet building the second harbour crossing at HSR specifications would increase the cost of such a project, reducing (or perhaps eclipsing) the proposed cost savings of having HSR use that crossing.

“Recommendation: A single transport vision for Sydney out to 2061 should be developed by the NSW and Federal Governments.” – How Would High-Speed Rail  Change Sydney and NSW, page 9

With the Federal Government taking a more active involvement in funding infrastructure that was traditionally the responsibility of the states, this is an excellent suggestion. Both levels of government need to be on the same page and moving in the right direction in order to overcome the infrastructure deficit that Sydney suffers from.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the undelying argument that this report is trying to give: that using existing infrastructure initially and planning between state and federal governments to make sure that these options are maintained, is a very good one. Doing so would allow the sorts of cost savings that would make high speed rail (or even just medium speed rail) more likely to actually get off the ground. And if there’s one thing to take from this report, it’s definitely that. Unfortunately, the bit about the NWRL (a red herring, in my opinion) has garnered most of the media attention.

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