Archive for October, 2012

The completed second Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) was released yesterday, and it has some further details on the project.

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill (green), plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line (blue). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS – Introduction, page 1-3.)

NWRL Details

The new rail line is expected to remove 14 million cars off the road each year in 2021, rising to 20 million by 2036. This 14 million cars figure compares to an earlier figure of 9 million new passengers per year in 2021, prepared by NSW Treasury in July of last year, which suggests that the patronage forecast has been increased following the addition of 2 more stations to the line (Bella Vista and Cudgegong Road) and from higher frequency, higher speed services provided by single deck compared to double deck trains.

The estimated completion date remains 2019, with tunneling to begin in 2014, then trackwork and station construction to occur between 2016 and 2018.

Construction timeline. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL Environmental Impact Statement – Executive Summary, page 8.)

The new line will commence from the existing stub tunnels at Epping that were designed as the beginning of the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL). New stub tunnels will be built on the new line to allow for a future PERL to still be built as originally planned. This means that a future PERL will also be a single deck metro system.

No specific operating times are given, other than “early morning until late at night”, which suggests similar operating hours as the existing Cityrail network, rather than a 24/7 operation. The trains themselves are listed as having a capacity of 1,300 passengers (presumably including standing passengers), compared to the existing double deck train “crush” capacity of approximately 1,200.

The line will see an increase in maximum speeds, from the existing 80km/hour to 100km/hour, and have frequencies of 12 trains per hour during the peak and 6 trains per hour at other times, with the potential to increase frequencies to 20 trains per hour if demanded. Commuters continuing past Chatswood will need to change there for a connecting train, with peak hour frequencies increased to 20 trains an hour on the North Shore line. This means that during peak hour there will be a train every 5 minutes on the NWRL, and every 3 minutes on the North Shore Line.

Artist’s impression of the new Kellyville Station. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS – Chapter 6, p. 6-53)

4,000 new park and ride spaces will be built on selected stations, while all stations on the line (including the existing Epping to Chatswood portion) will have kiss and ride, bike storage, taxi ranks and bus interchanges. Once completed, the bus network will be redesigned to have shorter distance but frequent feeder buses into the new rail line rather than long distance buses connecting directly to the CBD or North Sydney. This had already been announced previously, and no additional specific details are available are included on what the bus network changes will be.

The new line also includes a stabling yard on the Cudgegong Road end of the line.

Unanswered Questions

The new single deck metro line from Chatswood to Rouse Hill will require a conversion of the existing line between Chatswood and Epping to be compatible with the new rolling stock. Yet missing from the EIS (or hidden away in a hard to find place) is any mention of a timetable for when this will happen. The line will presumably have to be shut down while this occurs, and this would likely happen right before the full line opens, causing a not insignificant level of disruption. So the question remains: how long will the Epping to Chatswood Line be closed?

The EIS also contains information on peak hour frequencies on the North Shore Line of 20 trains per hour. This had already been hinted at, so it is a confirmation of an open secret rather than new information. What is missing is details of what sort of off peak frequencies will exist on the North Shore Line, and how they will be organised to interface with the 6 trains per hour on the NWRL that start and end at Chatswood.

Additionally, what will happen on the Northern Line? It only has 1 track pair, yet operates both local (all stops) and express services. The inability of the express services to overtake the local services means the capacity is capped at 8 trains per hour (4 local, 4 express). In order to increase this, either the express trains must be scrapped or the tracks must be quadruplicated to allow express trains to overtake local trains. The latter is preferable, though will incur a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars, given that the Northern Line currently shares the title of highest level of overcrowding (average passenger levels equal to 150% of seats, above the recommended maximum “crush capacity” of 135%) with the Bankstown Line. Recent reports in the Herald suggest that this option is being considered by Transport for NSW, and this was further reinforced by comments made at recent Budget Estimates hearings where it was argued that these, and other costs, have already been budgeted for.

The maximum frequency for the NWRL is quoted as being 20 trains per hour, and not 28 or 30 trains per hour as had been previously suggested in media reports. One of the purported benefits of single deck over double deck trains was the higher frequencies possible given the shorter dwell times and higher acceleration/deceleration rates of single deck trains. In fact, the Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has even pointed out that improved signaling technology is expected to raise the frequency of double deck trains to 24 trains per hour.

Finally, there is still no answer to the question of whether the NWRL will be a driverless system. The government’s line thus far is that they “are planning for the trains on this important rail link to have drivers”. This new phrase: “no plans” has become the new weasel word, as Sean Nichol’s explained so well in last weekend’s Herald. That is not to say that driverless trains are a bad thing, quite the contrary. But the government knows that it would face a backlash from the union were it to publically declare it was seriously considering the option. And rather than have to wait a long 7 years to demonstrate the benefits of a driverless metro, it seems to have chosen to hold off until as late into the process as it can in order to minimise union clashes.

Media reports

Bus services to go when rail link opens, Sydney Morning Herald

New rail line to slash car trips, Daily Telegraph

Noise annoys along North West Rail Link link, Daily Telegraph

North West Rail Link: Have your say, Northern District Times

North West rail station designs released, Hills Shire Times

The ABS has released the journey to work data from the 2011 Census (it calls it “travel to work”), and it shows that public and active transport have increased their share of total trips since the previous census in 2006.

There were 1,644,247 daily trips to work in Greater Sydney made in 2006, which increased by 9.7% to 1,803,298 in 2011. This means that if a transport mode holds on to its share of trips, then the absolute number of trips has risen.

The private car remain the most common mode of trip, with 62.6% of trips made by car drivers and 5.2% made by car passengers, down from 63.5% and 6.1% respectively in 2006 (trips made by truck drivers have been counted as car drivers). However, measured in absolute terms, the total number of trips made by car has risen from 1,144,950 to 1,222,479, and increase of 77,529 or 6.8%.

Public transport (including trips where a car is used for a portion of the journey – these trips were not counted in the car trips figure above) have seen an increase in their share of trips, from 20.7% in 2006 to 22.8% in 2011. This is an increase of 20.5% or 70,089 in absolute terms, which is quite similar to the increase in car trips of 77,529. Virtually all the increase in trips from 2006 to 2011 is attributed to either car or public transport trips, and they share this increase almost 50/50. This is in contrast to Infrastructure NSW, which has argued that cars will continue to do the heavy moving when it comes to transport and that roads should therefore receive priority funding over public transport – an argument which requires you to close one eye, tilt your head and stand on one foot to be convincing.

The next biggest share is in active transport. In 2006, 4.8% of trips were on foot, which has fallen slightly to 4.7% in 2011. The largest increase has been for bicycles, rising by 44% albeit from a low base of 0.7% in 2006 to 0.9% in 2011.

Sydney remains the major Australian city with the highest proportion of public transport trips to work, but also the lowest proportion of bicycle trips to work.

Finally there is the other (including taxis and motorbikes) and not stated categories, which taken together were 4.2% in 2006 and 3.9% in 2011.

Of interest are the gender differences in mode usage. Some modes of transport see a significant difference in use when looking at its share of use by men or by women. Car drivers tend to be men (65.6%) more than women (58.8%), while car passengers tend to be women (6.9%) rather than men (3.8%). When it comes to public transport, it is used more by women (25.5%) than by men (20.6%), particularly for buses. The biggest disparity between the genders is for bicycles, with men (1.3%) being more likely to ride a bike than women (0.4%).

The journey to work data is measured based on trips, and does not take distance into account. (Passenger km are provided separately by the NSW Bureau for Transport Statistics as part of the Household Travel Survey.) Given that the vehicle km per capita for cars has been dropping in recent years, it would not be surprising to see that, when trip distance is taken into account, car’s share of travel is actually declining even faster than the figures above indicate.

The 2011 census data on journey’s to work (JTW) is set to be released this coming Wednesday, and it will be interesting to see if there have been any changes since the 2006 data. To prepare for this, here are some links to a few recent blog posts by Chris Loader at Charting Transport and Alan Davies at The Urbanist on the topic of mode share and urban density.

Is Los Angeles really the densest city in the US? – The Urbanist (17 Oct 2012)

This post points out that if you look at average densities alone, then Los Angeles is actually more dense than New York. However, this is due to New York having an incredibly dense core surrounded by urban sprawl at very low densities. A better measure is the population weighted density, which measures density based on the population density for people, rather than for parcels of land.

Population density for New York and Los Angeles based on distance from City Hall. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: The Urbanist)

Comparing the residential densities of Australian cities (2011) – Charting Transport (19 Oct 2012)

Taking a more Australian centric look at population density shows that Sydney has the highest density of all Australian cities. In fact, Sydney’s median density of 33 people per hectare is closely followed only by Melbourne at 28, with no other city being above 22. It argues that if suburbs are defined are areas with a population density of 30 people per hectare, then Sydney’s average density doesn’t drop below 30 until you are 39km from the CBD, compared to 9km for Melbourne.

Population density for Australian cities. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Charting Transport)

Does public transport use correlate with density in Australian cities? – The Urbanist (21 Oct 2012)

The question then arises about whether there is a link between population density and public transport use. Alan Davies finds that weighted population density and public transport use have an R squared of 0.943 when a logarithmic curve is fitted along the graph below, which indicates a very strong correlation. However, he points out that high public transport use is more likely to be caused by dense employment centres (which is covered more in the subsequent Charting Transport blog post).

Public transport mode share vs population density for various Australian cities. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Charting Transport via The Urbanist.)

How did Sydney get to work in 2006? – Charting Transport (26 Oct 2012)

Something that sets Sydney apart from other cities is a large number of dense employment centres, whereas other Australian cities tend to just have their CBD. And public transport usage is higher for Sydney both in CBD travel and travel to non-CBD employment centres in other cities (e.g. the proportion of workers in Bondi Junction, North Sydney, Parramatta, Chatswood, and St Leonards who travel by public transport ranged from 34% to 53%, whereas no centre in any other Australian city was above 15%). However, this is also due to state and local governments in Sydney restricting the amount of parking available for workers, meaning many of them have no choice but to take public transport.

Employment density in Sydney. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Charting Transport.)

When I discussed the main problems I had with Infrastructure NSW’s First Things First report, I mentioned that there were a few other issues I had with it which I had left out for the purposes of brevity. Those two were the potential for high density development along the Parramatta Road corridor and the problems caused by trying to retrofit the Harbour Crossing into a single deck metro system.

The cut and cover slot construction method proposed for the M4 East benefits from having much lower costs than a tunnel. The concept art for this shows an increase in housing density along a rejuvenated Parramatta Road (below). Suggestions for increasing housing density along Parramatta Road have been talked about for decades, and the corridor has been spoken of as being able to house some 100,000 residents. But high density needs good quality public transport to work (a motorway is not enough), just as good quality public transport needs high density to work. And what this proposal seems to be lacking is improved public transport, either Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail, perhaps even an underground or aboveground metro, to carry large quantities of people along the corridor.

An artists impression of the M4 East portion of West Connex. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: First Things First, page 89.)

The Urban Taskforce is one group pushing for higher densities along Parramatta Road and its CEO, Chris Johnson, voiced his concerns for just this reason. This means one of two things: the opportunity for high density, walkable, sustainable housing will be squandered, or provision must be made for some kind of mass transit system to be built concurrently with the M4 East.

Infrastructure NSW’s insistence that a Second Harbour Crossing it too expensive and should be deferred until it is really needed also has its problems. One would be that the CBD rail lines could be shut down for months and access remain restricted for years as the existing Harbour Crossing is converted to single deck metro capability and then connected to lines that enter the CBD from the South. Such a conversion and link would also occur with a Second Harbour Crossing, but this would involve a new line built through the CBD which ensures that any lost capacity is made up by new capacity through this new line.

What the Infrastructure NSW report does not seem to appreciate is the complicated system of connections between different lines. Connecting trains on one line to another can often result in the use of flat junctions, which delay trains on other lines. Think of it like an intersection with traffic lights, if there is a green light for one road then there must be a red light for the other road. This is why there is a system of dives and flyovers on the rail lines between Redfern and Central, to allow trains to move from one line to another without disrupting trains on those other lines. But these connections are limited in what they can do, and to build in new ones to link up the lines the way Infrastructure NSW wants would result in the shut down mentioned earlier.

Taking the massive disruptions into account, along with the cost of retrofitting the existing crossing, and the lack of long term capacity improvements that it brings, you have to start to wonder if not building a Second Harbour Crossing really is as unaffordable as Infrastructure NSW makes it out to be.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers comparing global cities has rated Sydney’s public transport the fourth worst in a group of 27 cities. Only Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, and Johannesburg rated worse.

27 global cities, rated by transport quality. 27 is the best, 1 is the worst. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Cities of Opportunity, PwC, page 16.)

Cities were ranked from 1 to 27, with 27 being the best and 1 being the worst, in 6 different categories. Sydney rates particularly badly when it comes to cost (1), taxis (4), and coverage (7). It gets a more average rating on major construction activity (10), and something called “public transport systems” (17), while doing best on housing (27).

The problem with this report is that the definition of urban areas varies from country to country. In Australia, an urban area includes both the CBD/inner city as well as the suburban sprawl, while in most other countries the urban area includes only the CBD/inner city areas. For example, Greater Sydney has a population of around 4.6 million people in an area of 2,250 square km (Source: Wikipedia), while the San Francisco Bay Area has a population 7.2 million people in an area of 18,000 square km (Source: Wikipedia). But when you look at just the core areas of the cities of San Francisco and Sydney, they have a much smaller population (800,000 and 170,000 respectively) and much smaller area (120 and 25 square km respectively). What the report does it to compare Greater Sydney to the central core of the other global cities.

The problem with including Sydney’s outer suburbs in this calculation is that it distorts the results of the study. The cost was calculated based on “the longest mass transit rail trip within a city’s boundaries” (Cities of Opportunity, PwC, page 57), but without adjusting the cost for the distance. Coverage was calculated based on “the kilometers of mass transit track for every 100 square kilometers of developed and developable land area” (Cities of Opportunity, PwC, page 57), which is going to be much worse when you include all the low density suburban areas which cannot sustain the concentration of public transport which a dense core can. These would be fine if it was comparing like with like, but in the case of Sydney, it is not.

Also perplexing was the decision to measure public transport systems, where the report says cities are “further differentiated by the extent of multi-modal transport systems, including subway, bus/bus rapid transit, taxi, light rail, tram/trolley/streetcar, commuter rail, and bike share systems” (Cities of Opportunity, PwC, page 95). Here the report confuses having multiple transport modes as an ends, rather than a means. The point of having multiple modes of transport (e.g. catching a bus from a low density suburban area to a nearby train station, then changing onto a train into the CBD) is to improve mobility across a city. But the goal is the improved mobility, not the multiple modes of transport. The multi-modal transport system is the means to and end, which in this case is mobility. While it can often be used as a proxy for improved mobility, it could also indicate a poor transport system that duplicates or competes with itself.

Ultimately, most people in Sydney who read the results of this report are likely to agree with it. This is largely due to public transport’s poor image in the public eye, and it’s reports like this which unfortunately add to the poor image problem of Sydney’s transport system, which while in need of improvement, is not as bad as it is often made out to be.

UPDATE (27 October): Just realised that references to PwC were accidentally written out as PcW due to my fat fingers. These errors have now been corrected.

Three things came up in the news in the previous week which are worth touching on just quickly – a new Cityrail timetable, the report by Canberra Airport recommending the construction of high speed rail between Sydney and Canberra rather than building a second airport in the Sydney basin, and the NSW Budget Estimates hearings.

New Timetable

A few extra train services are being added to the timetable. (The associated Transport for NSW press release says it is 44 services per week, while the Telegraph reports 36 new services per week, but I count only 34.) It includes 4 new services each day (weekdays only) to the Illawarra/Eastern Suburbs Line as well as 2 new services each day (weekdays and weekends) to the Blue Mountains Line (all the way to Bathurst, which until recently was served by buses rather than trains). This is on top of the 63 new services per week introduced last year, bringing it up to about an extra 100 train services per week since the Coalition won the 2011 election.

However, word is that it is the next timetable change, coming at the end of 2013, that will deliver real changes to service levels on the Cityrail network and will also involve a complete re-write of the timetable from the ground up. This is when the Liverpool turnback platform and Kingsgrove to Revesby track quadruplication are set to be completed, allowing for a significant increase in the number of trains operated. This is particularly the case for trains that use the City Circle, which currently is not being used to its full capacity during either the morning or afternoon peak.

Canberra High Speed Rail

A report released by Canberra Airport suggests that High Speed Rail (HSR) could enable Canberra Airport to function as Sydney’s second airport, eliminating the need to build a second airport in the Sydney Basin. Given the $11bn price tag of HSR, compared to $9bn for a second airport, and a total travel time of 57 minutes into the Sydney CBD, the plan appears to be quite reasonable. However, Alan Davies points out that the $11bn figure comes from the federal government’s HSR feasibility study, which found that:

“the report says there’s only a 10% chance that estimate wouldn’t be exceeded. No one uses that figure – the preferred estimate is $19 billion because at least there’s a 90% chance it won’t be exceeded” – Alan Davies (10 Oct, 2012), The Urbanist

A HSR link was also quickly rejected by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who said it was “some time away” from being viable.

Hopefully one or both the state and federal government will bite the bullet and accept the conclusion of the both the Joint Study on Aviation Capacity and the Infrastructure NSW report, which recommend a second airport be built at Badgerys Creek. This location provides improved transport links and employment opportunities for the growing Western Sydney region. It’s an unpopular decision, but it’s the right one.

Budget Estimates

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, fronted the state budget estimates hearing on transport on Tuesday. Major information arising from that hearing included points below.

Heavy rail:

The portion of the hearings that made the headline news was about non-air conditioned trains being kept on, despite these being scheduled to be phased out by the end of 2014 once all the Waratah trains are delivered. It comes from the following question and answer:

“Are you planning beyond 2014 for the C and K sets and other non air-conditioned sets to have to remain on the network to meet the timetable changes…Mr Wielinga are you confident that the C, K and S sets are not going to remain on the network beyond the rollout of the Waratahs?” – Penny Sharpe (9 Oct, 2012), Shadow Transport Minister

“No. We are being as flexible as we can be. The question that needs to be asked is: How many additional services do we want to put on? If our customers are seeking additional services and we want to increase that above what is programmed at the moment, we will use whatever rolling stock is available to us to provide those customer services.” – Les Wielinga (9 Oct, 2012), Director General of Transport for NSW

Some confusion remains as to what this means, primarily due to Ms Sharpe’s questions, and whether she was asking only about non-air conditioned trains, or about the old silver sets (each given a letter classification, with C and K being air conditioned, while L, R, and S are not air conditioned). This led to the following back and forth on Twitter:

What could potentially be happening is that all non-air conditioned trains are being withdrawn from service, but kept warehoused for use in case of emergency, should a situation arise in which Cityrail was short on trains. In these cases, a non-air conditioned train is better than a cancelled train. Mr Wielinga’s response would be consistent with such a scenario. Or alternatively, it could just mean that increased numbers of services each day means that some non-air conditioned trains will be kept on in regular service in order to meet timetabling requirements.

Ms Berejiklian was asked if a second harbour crossing that is not in the form of an under-harbour tunnel was being considered, but she did not directly address the question (page 30). She instead pointed out that 15 different options had been considered for Sydney’s rail network once the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) is completed, but these were high level options (such as converting the existing harbour crossing to single deck metro, rather than building a new one, or maintaining double deck rolling stock on the entire network) that did not include specific alignments. She did, however, reaffirm that a second harbour crossing will be built (page 14).

A figure cited by the Sydney Morning Herald of $4bn of extra work which would be required to handle the NWRL once it is completed is not new money, and these costs are already budgeted for.

The narrower tunnels on the NWRL, large enough for single deck rolling stock but not double deck rolling stock, will result in cost savings. However, the cost savings are less than the cost of refitting the existing Epping to Chatswood section of the line to run the single deck trains (page 29). The real savings would occur when building new tunnels, most potentially an under-harbour tunnel, as single deck trains can handle steeper gradients than the heavier double deck trains.

Light rail:

The Greenway – a pedestrian and bicycle path, which was originally part of the Dulwich Hill light rail extension before being deferred, would have costed $37m to build (page 34), compared to the cost of the light rail extension of $176m. The $176m figure includes $24m for rolling stock (page 16), and was revised upwards from $120m under the previous Labor Government, which (along with the delay in its completion) Ms Berejiklian says is because the previous government had not done any geotechnical work, considered where the rolling stock would be acquired from, etc.

A final decision on George St light rail will be made in the final transport plan (page 33), to be released by the end of the year.


Opal is on track to be rolled out on ferries in December of this year.

The Director General of Transport for NSW, Les Wielinga, was never a full director of Infrastructure NSW, he was only ever a temporary “guest” (page 9). Mr Wielinga also argued that the differing conclusions made by his organisation (Transport for NSW) and Infrastructure NSW was due to each taking a different approach, and so different solutions were inevitable but that he also did “not think this is a problem”.

Despite the conflicting views between the Transport for NSW Transport Master Plan and Infrastructure NSW First Things First report, the two reports actually agree on quite a few things. Both endorse the construction of one large rail project: the Northwest Rail Link, and both endorse the construction of one large road project: the WestConnex. Both endorse distance tolling and time of day tolling (i.e. congestion charging).

A summary of the projects recommended, along with the timetable for their construction, is included below. It is split up by transport corridors identified as having high and medium constraints by Transport for NSW, and also colour coded by which department supports each project.

Click on image for higher resolution. (Sources: Transport Master Plan, Transport for NSW, and First Things First, Infrastructure NSW.)

Probably the best bit of news is that both agree on what needs to be done in the next 5 years. Even in the medium term, there are only minor differences between the 2 plans, essentially a choice between light rail on George Street or a bus tunnel connecting Town Hall to Wynyard. It’s only in the long term, the 10-20 year window, where serious differences begin to appear.

It will be up to the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and the Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, to make the final decision on which bits of each report to go along with. In an interview with ABC’s 7.30 NSW program, Mr O’Farrell has recently repeated his promise that congestion charging will not be introduced, despite both plans recommending it, and that a Second Harbour Crossing will occur, despite opposition from Infrastructure NSW.

The ideological debate

The transport debate in Sydney seems to be building up on two sides: those who want more public transport, and those who want more roads.

On one side you have those who want funding for public transport prioritised. This includes the Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, who’s department, Transport for NSW, released a (relatively) pro public transport report: the Transport Master Plan, as well as the Sydney Morning Hearld, which released a (very) pro public transport report: the Independent Public Inquiry into Public Transport and has trashed the idea of the $10bn WestConnex plan as “an awful lot to pay for a bigger traffic jam”.

On the other side you have those who want funding for roads prioritised. This includes Nick Greiner, who’s department, Infrastructure NSW, released a pro roads infrastructure report: First Things First, as well as the Daily Telegraph, which released a (mildly) pro public transport report: The People’s Plan for Sydney (Transport and Driving), then ironically went on to seemingly only focus on the roads aspect of it, dismissing the Transport Master Plan as “vague and cobbled-together”.

The tension between the two sides erupted quietly behind the scenes two months ago when the Director-General of Transport for NSW, Les Wielinga, resigned from the board of Infrastructure NSW due to differing visions that each of the two bodies had towards how transport should be approached in Sydney. The differences of opinion, amongst other things, became so great, that Mr Wielinga no longer felt it appropriate to sit on a board that would sign off on a report that presented recommendations so different to those of his own department’s report.

Interestingly, when asked what the best way to reduce traffic congestion was at the recent Community Cabinet this past August, Roads Minister Duncan Gay said it was to get as many people out of their cars and into public transport. That puts the 2 most important members of the cabinet more or less on the side of public transport, while the biggest supporter of roads, Mr Greiner, sits as the chairman of an independent body that advices cabinet but does not make the final decisions.

Where the risk lies

The poor financial experiences of both the Lane Cove Tunnel and Cross City Tunnel, which saw the private sector take on the risk of unknown levels of traffic, have put a dent in the viability of private public partnerships. Many private infrastructure funds are now hesitant to invest in road projects, given the uncertainty of toll revenues that may come from it. However, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – both the M7 and M2 have performed well, with the latter being widened to meet higher than expected traffic levels. The difference, I think, was the higher costs of tunnels, making recouping the initial investment more difficult – if you raise the toll then you also reduce traffic, which further reduces your revenues.

The Infrastructure NSW report seeks to lessen the risk to private investors by shifting some of that risk back to the government. Presumably, if traffic forecasts, do not eventuate, then it will be the government that is left to pay the costs of the project, rather than the private investor. This will increase the number of potential investors, but at what cost?

The point of PPP projects is precisely that it shifts the risk away from the government and into private hands. And risk goes in two ways – you might get a dud (like the CCT or LCT), but you might also land what is effectively a license to print money (like the M2 and M7). It’s the basic risk vs return concept that you learn in every introductory business subject in the first year of university. If the government is now suggesting that it will accept the downside risk, while letting the private investors take all the upside risk, then it defeats the purpose of doing a PPP in the first place! You may as well get the government to build it.

In reality, the way to lure more private investors is to find ways of building new roads more cheaply. Tunnels are expensive, building on open land is not. This where the WestConnex plan of digging a slot under Parramatta Road came from – it’s cheaper than building a tunnel, thus making it a more viable project. It can then be tolled and given over almost entirely to private investors, who will then take on the risk of what the actual traffic volumes will be. But if the government takes on the downside risk, then that estimated $2.5bn government contribution could balloon. Suddenly that Second Harbour Crossing won’t seem so expensive after all.

The cost of priorities

Barry O’Farrell’s landslide victory in 2011 was based in large part on a promise to build new infrastructure. His biggest promise was to build the Northwest Rail Link, which is progressing and will be built by the end of the decade. (The Second Harbour Crossing is not quite guaranteed to happen, no matter how many times the government wants to reassure the people of Sydney that it will also complete it.) He also promised to build a new motorway, but declined to specify which one, instead choosing to commission Infrastructure NSW to decide which one. The release of its report this week meant the government will now get started on building the WestConnex. The price tag for these 3 projects is $29bn, or over $6,000 per person in Sydney. Excluding the Second Harbour Crossing, and assuming that three quarters of the WestConnex will be paid for by tolls still leaves the government with a cost of $11.5bn.

This has to be paid for. And it would be difficult to pay for under normal conditions. But this government doesn’t have normal conditions. It is facing a revenue black hole, led by a slow NSW economy and lower than expected GST receipts. This is why the government has been cutting spending so much: $1.7bn cut from education, $3bn cut from health, $2.2bn from capping salary increases to 2.5%, amongst others. It has also put privatisation on the table: the power generators, Port Botany, the desalination plant, everything except the poles and wires might be sold off by the government. Many of these are unpopular, but the government has made the decision that its priorities lie in funding infrastructure investment and that this means other areas must have their priorities reduced in order to achieve that goal.

The government has not considered deficit spending to build new infrastructure, and this is a shame. A budget deficit now means spending tomorrow’s money today. If spending that money today results in a stronger economy tomorrow, one that creates greater tax revenues tomorrow, then deficit spending makes sense. Spending on infrastructure or education, things that create a more productive workforce and/or economy, are different to spending on social programs or handing out tax cuts. But don’t expect that to happen if it puts our AAA credit rating at risk.

There were a lot of things in Infrastructure NSW’s First Things First report that I didn’t like. Whereas the Transport for NSW Transport Master Plan tried to look at each transport corridor objectively, considered how it fit into the bigger picture, and then suggested the best possible solution for it, Infrastructure NSW almost seemed like it just wanted to build more roads and approached each transport corridor with that vision in every case.

CBD Bus Rapid Transit Tunnel

This idea needs to die an unholy death. I almost hate that I need to explain why this is such a bad idea, but here goes.

A very early proposed map for the CBD BRT would see a tunnel between Wynyard and Town Hall, removing many buses from the surface streets. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: First Things First, Infrastructure NSW, page 99.)

The idea behind the underground bus tunnel is that light rail on George Street between Central and Circular Quay is flawed, and that a better option would be to link up buses that normally travel through the city and send them under the CBD instead. Light rail, the report argues on pages 97 and 98, would be incompatible with a pedestrian boulevard on George Street, and the presence of large numbers of pedestrians on the relatively narrow stretch of road would require light rail to run at slow speeds. Light rail would also require people to interchange from buses to light rail to travel through the city, and make trips that originate and end outside the city but are on buses that travel through the city require 2 interchanges (one at each end of the city). The report also argues that the bus tunnel would have a maximum capacity of 20,000 passengers per hour, compared to only 9,000 for light rail.

While the report generally does a good job of prioritising projects based on cost, this is the one exception where it has opted for a $2bn bus tunnel, rather than a $1bn surface light rail. To put that into perspective, for $2bn you could build light rail along George Street, extend the Northwest Rail Link to St Leonards to reduce interchanging problems at Chatswood Station, and build the Northern Beaches BRT through to Mona Vale.

This plan also eliminates one major benefit that buses currently have, which is frequent bus stops that connect passengers with the streetscape. Instead, they will be required to get off at one of two super interchanges, then struggle to find a way to their ultimate destination.

The last point appears to be the most dubious, the figures just look fudged. Brisbane’s extensive busways network (one of the largest BRT networks in the world) and underground CBD bus stations are cited almost as inspiration for this bus tunnel, yet the peak load for Brisbane is 9,000 passengers per hour (source: Harkness, 2003, page 4). Meanwhile, Melbourne’s tram network (one of the largest light rail networks in the world) sees 1 tram per minute travel along Swanston St during the peak hour (source: City of Melbourne, 2009, page 19), which at 300 passengers per tram (the same figure used in the report) gives 18,000 passengers per hour. That’s twice the capacity of BRT. In practice, the gap in the realistic capacity of BRT vs light rail is likely to be narrower, but the idea that BRT has a higher passenger carrying capacity than light rail in practice is fanciful.

Now in theory, buses have an hourly capacity of close to 100,000 passengers, assuming one full bus every 3 seconds. This works on a freeway with no traffic impediments, but runs into trouble as soon as you start to need enormous amounts of kerbside space for passengers to get on and off the bus. This problem currently exists, particularly along York Street in the morning, where 600 buses enter the CBD via the Harbour Bridge each morning peak. The lack of kerbside space dedicated to bus stops (it’s about 200m at Wynyard and Town Hall) means you get a conga line of buses waiting for their turn to turn into the kerb and open their doors. That is the biggest capacity contraint at the moment, and is one reason why the government is trialling double decker buses (which have longer dwell times, but use up less kerbside space than the longer bendy buses). Yet somehow the bus tunnel plan would handle this better with 2 platforms, each 55m in length at each of Town Hall and Wynyard. In other words, it would halve the kerbside space available at the moment. This will not end well.

The one good part of this proposal is the overhaul of Town Hall and Wynyard Stations that it also recommends. This part of the proposal should definitely happen, whatever ends up happening to the rest of it.

Roads, Roads, Roads

The report provides a lot of statistics about transport use, and then uses these to support its conclusion that more roads are the answer. But we all know the old saying: “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Here is an example of 2 statistics that paint starkly different pictures

  1. 93% of all motorised transport each day is on roads.
  2. 81% of all CBD journeys to work each day are made on modes other than cars.

The first makes it look like everyone drives everywhere. But motorised trips excludes active modes of transport like cycling (2% of trips) and walking (18% of trips), while also counting bus trips (6% of total) as road trips. The second, on the other hand, looks only at peak hour into the very dense core of the city, the part of Sydney with the best public transport links at the time of day when they are most plentiful.

A better question would be, what is the problem we have with transport? The top two answers to that would be:

  1. there is too much congestion, which is slowing down my journeys, and
  2. there is no public transport (or it is infrequent) to where I need to go so it is easier to drive

The first occurs mainly during the peaks, and mainly heading into dense activity centres. In these cases, the best way to reduce congestion, is to get more people out of cars and into high capacity transport. This is where public transport shines – predictable, twice daily large scale migrations of people to and from dense activity centres. You would need 10 lanes of road traffic for every track of rail to move the same number of people, so it just doesn’t make sense to make more roads the answer to this problem.

The second occurs mainly during the off peak and for journey that start and end in low density suburban areas. Both of these tend to occur in areas and road corridors that have spare capacity, so not only is congestion less of an issue, but additional road capacity is not needed.

Unfortunately, the Infrastructure NSW report does not make this nuanced differentiation, and instead lumps it all together, sees that there is congestion in the peak to dense activity centres on one hand and that car trips dominate travel in the off peak and to non-activity centre locations, then suggests that the answer is more roads. But in reality, in many cases, more roads are not the answer.

The pro roads agenda can be seen best when any mention of public transport is almost immediately assumed to be buses. The report sees little to no role for rail to play in Sydney’s transport future. This should not be a road vs rail debate, each mode has its place and people who constantly argue for a metro or light rail even where a road based transport solution is a better fit are as much of a problem as those who advocate for roads.

No Second Harbour Crossing

Had the O’Farrell Government not made the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) its signature infrastructure project, then this report would probably have told the government not to build it. In fact, the NWRL barely even rated a mention in the report, potentially because it was originally only mentioned in the context that it should not go ahead, and when you got rid of all of that then there was nothing left to say. But what the report was able to say was that a Second Harbour Crossing is not needed, and won’t be needed for a number of decades. This puts is directly at odds with the Transport Minister Galdys Berejiklian and Transport for NSW, which argue that a Second Harbour Crossing should be the next project to commence once the NWRL is complete.

The report points to the cost of a Second Harbour Crossing, which is estimated at $10bn, and argues that improved efficiency can increase the capacity of the existing crossing sufficiently to warrant deferring a second one. Strangely, it cites the large number of buses crossing the Habour Bridge (so many that more passengers cross the bridge by bus than do by train) as a success for buses, when the same fact could be used to argue that the rail bridge crossing is currently capacity constrained and that lack of capacity is flowing over onto buses, which have now also reached saturation point (as discussed earlier).

This is a more complicated issue that it initially seems. For example, about half of the passengers who will use the NWRL are expected to travel to a destination North of the Harbour (i.e. North Sydney, St Leonards, Chatswood, Macquarie Park, Norwest). This does lessen the apparent need for a Second Harbour Crossing, and is why the government is able to build the NWRL first and the Second Harbour Crossing second, rather than the other way around. At the same time, that still leaves half of the passengers staying on through to the city. A Second harbour Crossing also has the benefit of increasing capacity into the CBD not just from the North, but from the South.

A new rail line has been built through the CBD roughly every 25 years: the Harbour Bridge (1932), Circular Quay (1956), the Eastern Suburbs Line (1979). It’s now been 33 years since the last expansion of CBD heavy rail capacity, and probably another 2 decades before another one can be built.

Postscript: It’s getting late and this post is getting quite long. There are other areas that probably deserve mention, but they are not as important, so in the interest of not turning this into a novel and I’m going to leave it here for now.

Infrastructure NSW released its 20 year infrastructure strategy, titled First Things First. Most of it was dedicated to transport, which I will be focusing on, though there were also sections on energy, education, water, etc. The recommendations of the report were summarised in this video below, which is a good 4 minute version of the 200+ page report.

The report agreed with some recommendations of the Transport Master Plan, but disagreed with others. And these weren’t just alternate views, it actually took the time to highlight its points of disagreement and explain why it disagreed with Transport for NSW. The Infrastructure NSW report feels very much like it comes from Treasury, and has what I would classify as a pro-road and anti-rail bias. Even when discussing public transport, the report almost universally discounts rail projects in favour of a bus one. But I’ll save those comments for a later post. For now, I’m just going to focus on some of the things that I thought were good about this report.

Prioritisation of projects

No one likes being the fun police, and when it comes to funding that means being the department that tells you that you can’t afford something. This report does that well, which you could argue that the Transport Master Plan did not. While the Master Plan was a bit of a wish list, this report did a good job of emphasising the limited nature of funding available and promoted projects which it believed give most bang for the government’s buck.

Maximising efficiency

Building entirely new projects – another road or a new rail line – is incredibly expensive. Maximising use of existing infrastructure, on the other hand, does not give the impression to the voters that you are doing much to improve the situation much, but is actually a very effective way of increasing overall capacity.

The Clearways project for Cityrail is a great example, which has helped to increase rail capacity via track amplifications, more turnback platforms and additional stabling yards, none of which make the headlines quite like a new rail line or freeway do, but have increased rail capacity by similar amounts for a fraction of the cost. Time of day tolling on the Harbour Bridge/Tunnel is another example, which used pricing to encourage some people to drive during off peak hours (as you only need a small change in traffic to provide a big improvement in congestion).

Infrastructure NSW is encouraging further use of time of day tolling on the remainder of the road network in order to improve efficient use of Sydney’s freeways. In regards to public transport, it looks at ways that portions of the rail network that are currently under utilised, such as the City Circle, can be better used. It also proposed that off peak travel on public transport be given deeper discounts once Opal is rolled out in order to encourage more off-peak travel where possible, rather than peak hour travel.

Funding new infrastructure at minimal or no cost to the government

Where possible, the report has attempted to minimise how much funding the government itself will have to contribute to projects, usually by emphasising private toll roads. The WestConnex (a combination of the M4 East, M5 East, and the Inner West Bypass), for example, has a price tag of $10bn, of which $7.5bn is expected to be paid by the private sector. A cheaper way of building the M4 East, by digging up Parramatta Road itself, rather than a very expensive tunnel, to bring down the cost was also welcomed. The M2-F3 link would be built if a current private sector proposal to build it entirely with private money were to go ahead. These are achieved through a user pays system, in some cases with some government funding where necessary. But if the government can get new infrastructure built for free, paid for by the user, rather than the taxpayer, then it should get as many of these projects built as possible.

Construction costs would be cut by building the M4 East as a “slotted road”, similarly to how the Eastern Distributor was built. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: First Things First, page 89.)

A second Sydney airport

The report recommends a new airport be built in Badgerys Creek. Right now this is at odds with the O’Farrell Government, which opposes any second airport in the Sydney basin, and also the federal Liberal and Labor Parties, which support a second airport at Wilton, which is a less optimal site than Badgerys Creek is.

XPT and High Speed Rail

Both regional rail links and high speed rail are played down by the report. Both are on the expensive ends of the scale, with limited benefits. Many XPT routes in regional NSW would probably be better served by buses, which would allow better connections with the limited budget, while high speed rail is just too expensive with its $60bn-$108bn price tag for the improved connectivity that it would provide.

Faster rail to Wollongong and Central Coast

The report calls for an improvement in rail lines to allow for an average 80km/hour link to both Gosford on the Central Coast and Wollongong, which would put them within 1 hour of the Sydney CBD. That trip currently takes 60km/hour on rail. Improvements like this are incremental and affordable, and are what would be required if high speed rail is eventually to be introduced to Australia’s East Coast.

Media Coverage

O’Farrell sets aside $1.8b for new motorway, Sydney Morning Herald

Transport report draws mixed reactions, Sydney Morning Herald

And finally there was movement in Sydney, Daily Telegraph

New roads a fast track to the future, Daily Telegraph

Roads a priority in $30bn plan for NSW, ABC News

NSW unveils 20-year infrastructure plan, ABC Radio

Public transport’s image problem

Posted: October 3, 2012 in Transport
Tags: ,

Public transport has an image problem. This is the case where ever you go. One of the most bizarre things is when you travel to another city where you find the transport system to be vastly superior to your own city’s , and yet the locals still complain that it is not good enough. And boy do people like complaining about it. Below are all the tweets that used the hastag #Cityfail in the last 6 hours (at the time of writing this post):

While I don’t think Sydney’s public transport system is fantastic, constant negativity does make it seem worse than it really is. Which is why I was so impressed by this Danish ad for a local bus transport agency which has been doing the rounds on the internet. It makes public transport something to be desired, rather than something to be scoffed at. (This version has been dubbed into English. Click here for the original Danish version with subtitles.)


Some searching on YouTube resulted in the discovery of these gems. They are videos of bus drivers with what could only be described as massive balls. Number 4 remains my favorite, but all of them are entertaining. Enjoy!







And if the song in those clips is alien to you, then I recommend watching the original: “Like a boss” by The Lonely Island in its entirety. It’s included below for your convenience.