The idea for a Parramatta to Chatswood rail link dates back to the days of Dr John Bradfield almost 100 years ago when he recommended building a line from St Leonards to Eastwood as part of his rail expansion program. While Dr Bradfield did see the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, completion of the underground CBD subway, and electrification of much of the network, much of the rest of his plans were shelved due to the onset of the Great Depression, followed shortly by the Second World War, and then the car and freeway boom of the post-war era.
It was not until the Carr government’s Action for Transport plan in 1998 when s plan to build a rail line between Parramatta and Chatswood was seriously raised once more. The line would go from Westmead to St Leonards, using an upgraded Carlingford Line and then a tunnel between Carlingford and Chatswood. One of the major benefits of the new line would be that it would allow residents of Western Sydney to access the Lower North Shore without having to build an expensive second Harbour Crossing. In effect, it was a second Harbour Crossing, but it crossed the Harbour near Parramatta, where deep tunnels or long bridges would not be needed.
Overall, the 1998 plan was, like the more recent metro plan from 2007, to be funded by the sale of NSW’s electricity assets. When this sale was blocked by the ruling Labor Party’s state conference, many of the planned infrastructure projects were shelved with it (though not the road projects, as these were to be funded via private tolls, and were not reliant on government funding).
UPDATE: The M5 East was completed despite being funded by the government, rather than tolls. As construction on this had already started in 1998, it may have been too late to abandon it once the planned privatisations were blocked.
The Parramatta to Chatswood line was not entirely abandoned, but it was truncated to the Epping to Chatswood Rail Link, with the unbuilt portion: the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) having been deemed to not provide sufficient patronage to justify its construction. Additionally, opposition from local residents and environmental groups meant the alignment was re-routed deeper underground so as to bypass parts of a national park. This resulted in delays, a blowout in construction costs, and the abandonment of a previously planned train station at the UTS Kuringai campus.
By the time this new line had been completed in 2009, the state government had announced plans to build a new metro out to Rouse Hill in Northwest Sydney, then truncated it to Rozelle in Sydney’s Inner West (due to the ALP conference again preventing the sale of electricity assets which were to fund it), and would soon abandoning the metro project altogether in favour of the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) and Southwest Rail Link.
Missing from all of these plans was the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link, until it was revived in 2010 by the Prime Minister Julia Gillard as part of an election promise to fund its construction. The Commonwealth government would contribute $2.1bn, with the state government required to fund the remainder, which was then estimated at a mere $500m. Problems soon emerged, with the cost estimated blowing out from $2.6bn to $4.4bn, meaning the NSW contribution would now be a far less affordable $2.3bn, and a change in government resulting in NSW prioritizing the NWRL over the PERL, which was quietly dumped entirely soon after.
Ironically, the NWRL vs PERL debate comes back to the question of a second Harbour Crossing. A NWRL will necessitate a second Harbour Crossing in order to meet the increased demand on the North Shore Line, while the PERL provides an alternate approach into the North Shore. However, a decade’s worth of densification of housing on the North Shore and the resulting increase in train frequencies along the North Shore Line to meet the increased demand means that the spare capacity that existed in the late 1990s no longer exists. This means that the dream of the PERL providing that second Harbour Crossing on the cheap has disappeared along with that spare capacity.
Instead the debate has moved on to providing some other sort of public transport improvement for the Parramatta to Macquarie Park corridor. Most recently the Parramatta Council has proposed light rail as a possible solution. Thus far the state government’s response has been that it will investigate the idea, but has not committed to anything further.