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.
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.