NWRL vs buses

Posted: September 4, 2012 in Transport
Tags: , , ,

A story by Nine News on Sunday reports that the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) will result in longer trips into the city for some commuters. In particular, it singles out Baulkham Hills, which will see journey lengths increase by 20 minutes. This is because bus services into the city will cease once the NWRL is completed, instead becoming feeder routes that direct commuters to the new rail line. In the case of Baulkham Hills, this means catching a bus away from the city in order to catch a train into the city, resulting in the 20 minute delay quoted.

When taken in isolation, this seems highly illogical. It’s a step backwards, and an expensive one at that considering the $8.5bn price tag of the NWRL. But a bit of digging deeper, and some looking at the bigger picture, shows that there’s more to it than what was reported in the story.

SIDENOTE: Ordinarily, a lot of transport enthusiasts tend to actually be a technology enthusiast (light rail and bicycles in particular) who will push their preferred mode of transport, regardless of whether it is appropriate or not. I have previously said that BRT or light rail could be a sufficient solution to the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link corridor (here and here), given that heavy rail appears to have dropped off the radar. In this case, I am going to do the opposite: argue that buses are not enough, and that this transport corridor really does require rail. Jarrett Walker wrote an excellent piece on modal bias, which I encourage you to read if you want to know more about this concept.

North West Rail Link Map

Map of the Northwest Rail Link. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: http://www.northwestrail.com.au)

Firstly, direct buses into the city are planned to be scrapped. Transport for NSW announced in December 2011 that this would remove almost 160 buses from the CBD each morning peak. The CBD is already so heavily congested with buses so slow that it is literally faster to get out and walk. Population growth over the next decade means this problem will only get worse. Back in 2009, when I used to live in Northwest Sydney and get the M2 bus into the city, it wasn’t uncommon to spend 10 minutes waiting for the bus to get from the Southern end of the Harbour Bridge to the bus stop at Wynyard before you could get off. This is an important point, and one I will return to.

The other major problem with the story is that it appears to have gone out looking for a route from a specific origin to a specific destination, that would result in the biggest disruption. A different trip could have shown a significant time saving. Not only that, but it is also very CBD centric, and while half of all NWRL trips have the CBD as a destination, the other half do not. Many commuters will be getting off before North Sydney, at Macquarie Park, St Leonards, or even go in the other direction towards Norwest Business Park. For example, a one way Rouse Hill to St Leonards journey would be cut from 87 minutes down to 45 minutes. This is because for most non-CBD trips, the NWRL will provide a much better connection than buses currently do.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the one major benefit that rail has over buses: capacity. While frequency and speed may indeed be better for commuters if they are served by buses rather than rail, at some point buses can only take so much capacity before the entire system becomes so congested that travel times skyrocket and delays become regular occurences. This point has already been reached, which is why the NWRL is needed. And if the NWRL isn’t built, then the delays caused by bus traffic congestion will mean that for those few routes that are predicted to have “faster bus trips”, it will never happen anyway.

  1. Jono says:

    In the media release, it also states “Ms Berejiklian said Transport for NSW data showed the line would see the number of M2 buses coming into the centre of Sydney fall by 66 per cent.”

    So that would suggest that there will still be some M2 buses going into the city, since the M61 is part of the strategic bus corridor network and it would be a big waste of infrastructure that is the M2 busway.

    But if they aren’t going into the city, then now without the Epping Bus Ramp (unless they rebuild something similar in the future), these buses will terminate in Macquarie and passengers will need to backtrack to Epping for non-all stops services.

    Hopefully the Master Plan will have more to say.

  2. I would imagine that the buses they get rid of are ones that link up with a station on the NWRL (e.g. buses from Rouse Hill or Castle Hill) or are in close proximity to a station and are converted into feeder buses. The ones retained are probably the ones that are far from a NWRL station (such as the mega bus stops on the M2 itself, and potentially even the Baulkham Hills buses mentioned in the post).

  3. Jono says:

    That’s what I hope it means =) Because on the modal bias topic, I’d think the M61 bus would complement the NWRL (and continue to serve as a semi-BRT) rather than compete with it, since it helps to cover a larger area

  4. Matt says:

    Rather than simply eliminating the buses in one go, perhaps the service should progressively be withdrawn to allow people to compare what mode they would rather use?

  5. If the idea is to move the bulk of people to trains, then a progressive withdrawal would probably cause more problems than it would solve. My guess is that if a progressive withdrawal does happen then it will be due to CBD capacity not coming online until a Second Harbour Crossing is completed towards the end of the next decade, rather than to give commuters a chance to try out both options.

  6. Simon says:

    I can’t take any suggestion that there would be less buses into the CBD seriously. There are currently 10/hr 620X running directly against the upper northern line. These people should be encouraged to use the under utilised upper northern line trains from Pennant Hills. Similar for the 642, 650 and 652 at Beecroft. The NWRL does nothing to give these people an incentive to use rail, but bet your bottom dollar that these bus trips are counted in the business case of the NWRL!

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