Archive for November, 2012

When Infrastructure NSW suggested the state government build a rapid bus transit (BRT) tunnel underneath the Sydney CBD, it caught most people following the issue by surprise. The idea, still embryonic, has not been looked at in detail, and lacks any form of substantial feasibility study – unlike the idea of putting light rail along George St which the BRT tunnel is meant to replace. These two projects have now been pitted against each other, with a meeting of cabinet this week expected to determine which one will be funded and built by the government.

But are these two projects mutually exclusive? A recent meeting at the Sydney Town Hall hosted by Lord Mayor Clover Moore suggested that this was an either/or situation. This meeting was almost unanimous in its support for light rail, a view shared by the Sydney Morning Herald, but not Heath Aston, the state political editor of its sister publication the Sun Herald, who decided to back the BRT tunnel.

A map of the proposed George St light rail (green) and the BRT tunnel (red). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: author.)

The two actually serve different corridors through the CBD: the BRT tunnel will link buses that enter the CBD from the Anzac and Harbour Bridges which run along the Western corridor of York and Clarence Streets, while light rail would replace buses from the Eastern Suburbs that predominantly use the Central and Eastern corridors of George and Elizabeth Streets. (It’s true that the BRT tunnel will also take buses from Broadway, via George St, but this will require them to be re-routed from Circular Quay in the East to Wynyard to the West.) So it can’t be for that reason.

The actual reason appears to have more to do with budgetary constraints. With each project estimated to cost $1bn-$2bn (depending on what assumptions are used), the government is likely to only have the cash to build one of the two, and that is the reason why this is an either/or situation.

And though I have rubbished the current plan for the BRT tunnel as one that “needs to die an unholy death”, it’s a concept that’s not entirely without merit. For example, it would greatly enhance the ability for buses to throughroute, effectively joining 2 bus lines that enter the CBD from opposite ends, halving the number of vehicles required to operate the same number of services and providing passengers with greater cross city connections. It could also provide additional space for bus interchanges, and place them closer to train stations to make multi-modal trips easier. It seems almost a no brainer to use the platforms at Wynyard Station previously used for trams crossing the Harbour Bridge and terminating in the CBD, but converted to handle buses now crossing the Bridge.

Where the BRT tunnel falls short is that Infrastructure NSW has clearly come up with this idea to convince the government to trash George St light rail, rather than because it fits into a bigger picture of transport planning, like the idea that there are multiple North-South transport spines through the CBD.

While the BRT tunnel will primarily ease congestion on the Western spine of Clarence and York (NWRL) and converting long haul M2 buses into feeder buses, followed by a second Harbour crossing to increase capacity. It should come as no surprise that Infrastructure NSW also opposes this second Harbour crossing, but given that the NWRL will be built and therefore make the Harbour crossing the bottleneck on the network, the question over a second Harbour crossing is now when, not if.

Should the BRT tunnel be built instead of light rail, then it will improve transport connections on the Western corridor, but do little for the other corridors. Meanwhile, the tunnel will also use up the metro Pitt corridor, one of two corridors through the CBD which has been preserved for a future heavy rail line, severely limiting any future expansion of Sydney’s rail network. In addition, it will also shut down Town Hall and/or Wynyard Stations while the tunnel is being built. Ironically, Infrastructure NSW seems to show great concern at the disruption that shutting down George St (one of many streets through the CBD) would cause to motor vehicle traffic, yet has few qualms with doing the same to the 2 busiest stations in the Cityrail network (or to avoid a second Harbour crossing).

Light rail is by no means perfect. It will probably be slower than many predict (albeit faster than the slow crawl of buses we currently have at peak hour). But it is the option that has been studied, and it is the option that the transport department believes best fits into the big picture of its citywide transport plan. That is why cabinet should support the light rail option, and commit the BRT tunnel idea to Transport for NSW for further feasibility study.

Opal trial

Posted: November 26, 2012 in Transport
Tags: , ,

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, announced yesterday that the trial of Sydney’s new electronic ticketing system, Opal, will begin next week on Friday 7 December on the Neutral Bay ferry route. This will be followed by the Manly ferry in the second quarter of 2013, with all ferry routes to be Opal compatible by the end of 2013. The Cityrail network will come next, starting with a trial on the City Circle in the second half of 2013, then buses and light rail. Opal will be fully rolled out by 2015. Transport for NSW has made a video outlining some of the features, which is included below.

Yesterdays announcement included a number of new details on how Opal will function. Fares will be capped at $15 per day, or $2.50 for Sundays, and all trips after the 8th are free each week. Commuters will need to “tap on” when they board and “tap off” when the disembark, and failing to do so means they will be charged the maximum possible fare for that journey (no tapping off is required on the Manly ferry as there are only 2 stops and so the second stop is assumed to be where passengers tap off). This suggests that Opal will be a point to point system for calculating fares, but it remains to be seen what the multi-modal impact will be (e.g. when you catch a bus and a train as part of one journey) and whether you will be charged a single fare for the trip or are penalised with two individual fares (resulting in a higher overall fare) for each leg of the journey. Given that Opal will be restricted only to ferries until mid-2013, it might be a while before this becomes apparent.

The black adult Opal card. Click on image for an image of the 5 different Opal cards. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Only adult Opal cards are available at the moment, with various concession Opal cards to be introduced in future, each distinguished by different colours (the adult Opals are black). There will also be non-reloadable Opal cards to allow single trips, for occassional users and tourists, which suggests that the magnetic stripe tickets will be phased out quite quickly and that Sydney might avoid the teething problems that Melbourne had with its simultaneous operation of Myki and Metcards.

Transport for NSW staff will be signing people up to Opal at ferry wharves, with no word yet on whether it costs anything to buy an Opal card. Opal credit can be added at shops (like those where you can currently buy pre-paid tickets), over the phone, the internet (once the website goes live), or an automatic top-up (similar to e-tags).

It remains to be seen whether the cautious trial approach that the government is taking is a good one or not. My gut tells me that it’s the right move, and will allow any glitches to be ironed out early without it negatively affecting commuters heavily. That’s the reasoning behind starting with ferries, and even then just the one ferry line at first. And while Opal was set in motion by the previous Labor government, this was a government that started 2 electronic ticketing systems but delivered none. It will be the delivery of Opal that this government will be judged on. If they want to be truly successful, then they will use this as an opportunity to introduced integrated fares as well as integrated ticketing.

Media Reports

Transport card ready to be rolled out in Sydney, ABC

Sydney’s new transport friend not far off, Sydney Morning Herald

Opal card trial to start on ferries after 15-year delay, Daily Telegraph

New Sydney transport ticketing – by 2015, The Australian/AAP

The State government recently announced a 4 week trial of marshals on Town Hall’s platform 3 (which handles all Northbound trains that cross the Harbour Bridge), treating each morning peak “as a major event”. The aim is maintain dwell times to a minimum by preventing passengers from boarding the train either while others are still disembarking or if the train is about to leave. The Herald reports that some commuters were annoyed to be prevented from boarding the train as it was about to leave, resulting in a wait of up to 15 minutes for the next train. Otherwise, the new system does appear to be an improvement (albeit a labour intensive and band aid solution), which the maximum capacity of 20 trains per hour to move through Town Hall’s platform 3.

The Marshal’s can be seen in action in the video below taken by byupyu on the first day of the trial (Monday 19 November). For additional details, it’s worth reading the additional notes below the video on YouTube itself.

A funny musical cartoon has been doing the rounds on the internet about passenger safety on trains. It’s by Melbourne’s train operator, Metro, and at the time of writing had over 9 million views on YouTube.

As I’ve described earlier, humour is one of the best ways of getting through to users of public transport, who generally tend to be quite dismissive and cynical about public transport. While Metro’s campaign seems to have been successful, another recent campaign by Queensland Rail in Brisbane that allowed the public to create their own etiquette posters soon turned into a meme where people would create satirical posters mocking the original concept.

Original train etiquette poster. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Queensland Rail.)

Original train etiquette poster. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Queensland Rail.)


Satirical parody of the above poster. (Source: College Humour.)

Three different alignments have been proposed for the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) over the years: via Strathfield, via Chatswood, and via Parramatta.

The Options

The first (via Strathfield) involved the line from Castle Hill linking up with the Northern Line around Cheltenham on the surface, allowing trains to travel into the CBD either via Strathfield or Chatswood. This was abandoned due to the requirement that the line be quadruplicating between Epping and Cheltenham in order to prevent that portion of dual track from becoming a bottleneck. Local opposition and a cost so high that tunnelling was a cheaper option led to this alignment being abandoned in favour of the second option.

NWRL via Strathfield: The alignment goes from Castle Hill to Cheltenham and then Epping via a surface route, allowing it to get to the CBD via both Strathfield and Chatswood. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Wikipedia.)

The second (via Chatswood) is the currently planned alignment. It involves connecting the rail tunnels directly to the underground station at Epping, which means all NWRL trains must continue on to Chatswood and cannot divert to Strathfield. This reduces flexibility, but Cityrail’s Clearways program of sectorising the rail network into independent lines meant that flexibility wasn’t something Cityrail was looking for anyway.

NWRL via Chatswood: The alignment goes from Castle Hill to Epping via an underground tunnel, continuing to Chatswood via Macquarie Park. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

The third (via Parramatta) was floated by Parramatta Council as a way of getting the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) built. It involved building the NWRL through to Castle Hill, then sending it South to Parramatta, before going to Epping and continuing through to Chatswood and then St Leonards (avoiding the need for an expensive Second Harbour Crossing). Passengers heading into the CBD could change at Parramatta for express services. However, it also meant a longer trip for anyone heading to Macquarie Park or the North Shore.

NWRL via Parramatta: The alignment goes from Castle Hill to Parramatta and then Epping. The dotted line shows the via Strathfield alignment. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Channel Ten News.)

All three options see capacity constraints for CBD trips: with the Western, Northern, and North Shore Lines all highly congested and near capacity.

Where do people from The Hills want to go?

The locations that Hills residents desire to travel to is ultimately what should determine which of the 3 options should be taken. For the purpose of determining this, work commutes will be taken into account (as data is most easily available for these, though the most recent data I was able to obtain was from 2001). I’ll be using Bus Contract Region 4 (see map below) as a proxy for The Hills, however this also includes areas further South such as Westmead, Northmead, Carlingford, etc. Calculations are included at the end.

Bus contract regions map. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Most Hills residents (57% [1]) work outside of large centres. The widespread nature of where their work is located means that public transport is unlikely to compete with the private vehicle for their work commutes. Nor should it, as these are the sorts of trips which require the flexibility of a car, rather than the capacity of public transport. The remaining 43% work in large centres [A], primarily in Parramatta/Westmead – 9.9% [A], the Global Economic Arc (Macquarie Park, Chatswood, St Leonards/Crows Nest, and North Sydney) – 7.7% [B], the Sydney CBD – 7.3% [1], Castle Hill – 4.7% [A], and various other centres – 12.6% [1]. These are respectively shown in green, blue, yellow, grey, and brown in the chart below.

Note: The above diagram shows North Sydney as having a 42% jobs share. That is a typo. It should read 2.3%

Given the southern half of Region 4 includes suburbs between Parramatta and The Hills, which are likely to over represent the number of people who work in Parramatta/Westmead, the proportion of Hills residents who work in Parramatta/Westmead is likely to be less than 9.9%. That would make each of the 3 major employment zones (Parramatta/Westmead, the Global Economic Arc, and the Sydney CBD) are roughly equal in size, with Castle Hill close behind them.

How the different alignments stack up

All three options have the same alignment up to Castle Hill, at which point they begin to diverge. So it is the other 3 employment zones which differentiate the alignments.

The via Parramatta alignment is the only one that provides access to Parramatta/Westmead (the latter via a change of train at Parramatta). It also provides access to both the CBD (with a change of train at Parramatta) and the Global Economic Arc (by continuing on via the Parramatta to Epping Line). However, the former is capacity constrained and the latter would be delayed by having to travel to Parramatta before continuing to Epping.

The via Strathfield alignment gives no access to Parramatta/Westmead. By allowing some trains to go to the CBD via Strathfield and some via Chatswood, capacity constraints are limited. However, it also limits access to the Global Economic Arc. Eventually, construction of a Second Harbour Crossing can allow all trains to travel via Chatswood, providing good access to both the CBD and Global Economic Arc.

The via Chatswood alignment gives no access to Parramatta/Westmead. It gives the best access to the Global Economic Arc, initially with direct trains to Macquarie Park and Chatswood, but easily extended to St Leonards by quadruplicating the track between Chatswood and St Leonards. Eventually, construction of a Second Harbour Crossing can allow all trains to travel directly to the CBD, providing good access to both the CBD as well as the Global Economic Arc.

The via Parramatta option provides benefits if a Second Harbour Crossing does not happen, and is partly designed to defer the need for one. It also highlights why the government has committed to a Second Harbour Crossing – it unlocks much of the potential of the NWRL. This makes the via Parramatta option a viable one, but also one that suffers from short sighted vision, as a Second Harbour Crossing will eventually be needed, but will be less useful if there is no NWRL for it to connect to.

The via Strathfield and via Chatswood options seem roughly neck and neck, especially considering either can be upgraded with a Second Harbour Crossing to run trains directly to the CBD via Chatswood, providing good connections to both the Global Economic Arc and CBD. But there are 2 things that make the via Chatswood option superior. First, it avoids the problems of building the surface route between Epping and Cheltenham to avoid capacity constraints on that portion of track – including high cost of land acquisition, delays due to the need to start planning again from scratch on that portion of the line, and strong local opposition. Second, it goes against the concept of sectorisation, mixing different trains on the same lines – in particular this would prevent an effective private sector operation of the new line and the associated cost benefits that could come from it.


Each alignment has advantages and disadvantages, and there is no clear superior option. However, the NWRL via Chatswood alignment does appear to have a slight edge over the other options, on the assumption that a Second Harbour Crossing is built right after the NWRL is completed (as is current government policy).

However, this does not increase capacity on between the Hills to Parramatta, so improvements here should also be considered, particularly on the key Windsor Rd and Old Windsor Rd corridors. The former has a proposal for light rail linking Parramatta to Castle Hill currently undergoing a feasibility study, while the latter already has a T-Way where increased bus frequencies would easily achieve improved mobility.


[1]: Contract Region 4 (page 15)

[2]: Contract Region 7 (page 6)

[3]: Employment and Commuting in Sydney’s Centres, 1996 – 2006 (page 8)


[A]: “Of the workforce living in Region 4 approximately 43% work in major centres. Of those employed in centres, most were employed in…the centres of Parramatta (16%), Castle Hill (11%) and Westmead (7%)” [1]

Castle Hill: 11% x 43% = 4.7%

Parramatta: 16% x 43% = 6.9%

Westmead: 7% x 43% = 3.0%

Parramatta/Westmead: 6.9% + 3.0% = 9.9%

[B] 13.2% of Region 4 workers are employed in Region 7, which includes all 4 centres of the Global Economic Arc [1]

Region 7 employs 206,500 workers in total [2]

Each of the centres in the Global Economic Arc employ the following number of workers: Macquarie Park (26,814), Chatswood (19,842), St Leonards/Crows Nest (36,514), North Sydney (36,597) [3]

Macquarie Park: 13.2% x ( 26,814 / 206,500 ) = 1.7%

Chatswood: 13.2% x (19,842 / 206,500 ) = 1.3%

St Leonards/Crows Nest: 13.2% x (36,514 / 206,500 ) = 2.3%

North Sydney: 13.2% x (36,597 / 206,500 ) = 2.3%

Global Economic Arc = 1.7% + 1.3% + 2.3% + 2.3% = 7.7%

The recent Infrastructure NSW report correctly states that 93% of motorised transport is on roads (page 77), and concludes from this that funding should go primarily to roads (it includes buses in the 93%, as they travel on roads). Yet another way of looking at it is to look at the share of trips by cars (both drivers and passengers) of total trips, and in that case only 68% of trips are by private car, the remainder being mostly 11% on public transport (buses and trains) and 18% walking (Source: 2010/11 Household Travel Survey). A better way of measuring the relative importance is to look at the total distance by mode, in which case cars represent 79% of total passenger km, while public transport is 16% of passenger km.

The reason this is important is that Infrastructure NSW argues that roads do the main heavy lifting, and so deserve the bulk of the funding. Yet by doing so it perpetuates the dominance of the car over public transport, something which is unsustainable from both an environmental and economic point of view given the direction in which oil prices are headed in coming decades. Quentin Dempster’s interview with the CEO of Infrastructure NSW, Paul Broad, on 7.30 NSW highlights this perfectly:

Dempster: You’ve surrendered to our dependency on the car. There’s no attempt by Infrastructure NSW to facilitate a paradigm shift to double public transport usage to decongest this city.

Broad: 93% of movements are on roads today. I don’t see that changing a lot given the nature of our city.

Dempster: You’re not even going to try to change it.

Broad: And secondly, I’ll make the point, I’ll make the point we’re very pro-buses. As many people get on a bus, which runs on a road, as get on a train. Buses are a very effective means of public transport, often the poor relation to much of the public transport debate.

Mr Broad’s report does support buses, but buses cannot handle the sorts of capacities that rail can, particularly over longer distances. That’s why the total passenger km for rail in Sydney is over double what it is for buses, despite the number of trips for buses and trains being about the same. This is because the average train trip is 16.7km, while the average bus trip is only 6.7km, so to compare just the number of trips does not show the full load carried by each mode.

In addition, transport is something where building supply creates its own demand. By building more roads, it also builds demand for them. This is illustrated by the graph below taken from the Herald Independent Transport Inquiry, which shows how the completion of the M4 between Mays Hill and Prospect created what’s known as induced demand – demand for driving that was not previously there.

The Infrastructure NSW report provides the counter argument (page 80-81) that new roads are in fact needed to keep up with growing demand, and that building these new roads is merely unlocking that demand which was already there, but being held back by congestion and slow travel speeds. They are not, it argues, designed to reduce congestion or increase speeds. But given the higher capacity of public transport, a better way of providing this additional capacity would be to entice a modal switch from car to public transport, thus freeing up existing capacity.

Nor is it guaranteed that demand for roads will continue to grow. Infrastructure NSW points out that it is currently forecast that 4 million additional trips per year will be made in 2031 compared to 2011 (age 81). Of these, 73% are from cars (drivers and passengers) while 7% are from trains and 3% from buses. It uses these figures to argue that a Second Harbour Crossing is not needed, and so should not be built.

However, looking at number of km travelled, rather than trips, then the proportion by cars drops to 64% of the increase, while public transport’s share of the increase jumps from 10% to one 32%. Not only that, but these assume that no Second Harbour Crossing will be built! Infrastructure NSW is therefore merely peddling a self fulfilling prophecy.

Despite this, the government’s marquee road project: the West Connex, is on balance a good idea. It has been designed in a way that minimises the cost (by using a slot rather than a tunnel for the M4 East), while maximising the contributions to the project’s cost (through the collection of tolls and potentially value capture of the increase in land values along the corridor). As a result, the road can be constructed with an estimated $2.5bn contribution by the government, despite the $10bn price tag. It also provides capacity for the sort of trips which are best made by cars: to non-activity centre destinations (West Connex does not connect up directly to the CBD and parking spaces there will remain unchanged, so car drivers will not be encouraged to drive in) and off-peak trips (both the M4 and M5 remain congested during the off-peak hours, as well as peak).

The real problem with West Connex is if the government is forced to take on the traffic risk, away from the private sector. If this is the case, and traffic volumes are not as high as predicted, then the cost to the government will blow out beyond $2.5bn, and put other projects at risk, particularly public transport projects.