Archive for February, 2013

The financial collapse of Brisbane’s airport link tunnel last week adds to a growing list of failed road projects funded as a Private Public Partnership (PPP). Brisbane’s Clem7 tunnel, as well as Sydney’s Cross City and Lane Cove Tunnels have all gone into receivership following lower than predicted patronage and thus an inability for the operator to pay its debts. In each case the road continued to operate and was sold to a new owner at a discount price.

NOTE: You can also add Sydney’s Airport Line to that list of failed PPPs, but it’s a different case and so won’t be discussed here

As this is a private company, the financial burden is on the investors and lenders, rather than the government. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman commented that “one thing I’ll say about Airport Link is this is one decision…that the taxpayers won’t end up paying for, thankfully”.

There is nothing stopping the Queensland Government from being the one to buy the road, something which previous Queensland or NSW Governments have not taken up the option of doing despite the . Even if it doesn’t, the infrastructure is now built, and will eventually revert back into public ownership.

The problem appears to be with the traffic forecasting. This is roughly how it works.

First, the private company works out how much the project will cost to build. Although there can be cost blow-outs, this is still the easiest bit to estimate so let’s assume it’s 100% accurate every time. They then multiply this amount by a percentage deemed to be a sufficient return on investment (usually the going rate of interest plus a few percent) to gives the necessary revenue.

The government then provides the company with traffic forecasts, their estimate of roughly how many cars are expected to use it. The company then divides the revenue figure by the traffic forecast to get a toll amount.

EDIT: It’s been pointed out in the comments section that these estimates can sometimes come from a private consultant, rather than the government. Where it comes from isn’t really all that important, and there was a reason that the description above was “this is roughly how it works”. But it’s a valid point and is noted.

Where it all went wrong is that, for a number of reasons including poor forward planning, freeway construction in Australia has been requiring more use of tunnels (all 4 examples above were tunnels). These cost about 4 times as much as surface construction. So, 4 times the cost means 4 times the necessary revenue, and 4 times the necessary toll. This assumes static traffic forecasts.

In reality, they are not – they are sensitive to price. Higher tolls mean lower traffic. And what happens if you revise that traffic forecast downward? The required toll goes up even further! A vicious cycle if there ever was one.

There are only really 2 solutions to this.

One is to go back to having the government build roads. Michael Pascoe points out that this also has the added benefit of allowing access to cheap debt, as government loans have a lower interest rate than loans to private businesses. However, government debt is now a dirty word, and so this is an unlikely option to be chosen.

The other is to reduce the cost of construction. Good planning can do this in the long term. The M2, which is entirely on the surface thanks to the maintenance of a dedicated reservation for it decades in advance, made an after tax profit of $38 million last year (Source: page 74, Transurban Annual Report). Whereas plans for the M4 East portion of WestConnex have it slotted like the Eastern Distributor rather than tunnelled in order to cut down on costs. While there remain a number of concerns over WestConnex itself, the aim of finding ways to bring down its cost of construction is definitely a welcome one.

Sydney has been compared unfavourably to other countries through poor use of statistics. But that does raise the question: is it even fair to compare Sydney (or any Australian city) to the rest of the world? That question recently led to this exchange on Twitter:

Twitter conversation

There are many examples of Australians returning from abroad and singing the praises of the transport systems of European or Asian cities. “If only we had a system like that over here” they say. But that is like putting a square peg through a round hole. Those cities have a different history to Australian cities, and have developed differently as a result. You cannot then just overlay their transport system on a different city anymore than you can wear your cousin’s suit to a wedding when that cousin happens to be taller and skinnier than you.

European cities were built over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. In many cases, most of their footprint was set before the time of the motor vehicle. In fact, their urban layout was more likely to be shaped by long distance commuter trains and short distance trams, leading to a city and transport system that is well suited to public transport.

Asian cities, and Middle Eastern ones to a lesser extent, are much newer, and were built during a time when most Australian households had a car in every garage. But 2 things were different. First, most Asian households were poor, and could not afford cars. They relied instead on public transport or bicycles. Secondly, Asian governments tend to have much less of an interest in due process and individual rights than Western governments. If your house is in the way of the new rail line, you are moving out and the bulldozers are moving in. This has allowed them to fast track shiny new underground metros and high speed rail in a way that would never be possible in Australia.

So that leaves the New World (leaving Africa aside): North America and Australasia  plus also South America. Countries made up predominantly of migrants, which also saw big population booms in the aftermath of World War 2. This was a time when the private motor vehicle began to really spread, when increased populations were settled in the city’s fringes leading to the beginning of urban sprawl, and when governments began building highways instead of railways in order to move people around.

When comparing Sydney to cities around the world, it is places like Auckland, Los Angeles, and Vancouver that comparisons should be made with, not London, Paris, or Tokyo. And when looking at how to improve Sydney’s transport system, it is successful New World cities which hold the answer.

Strangely enough, Los Angeles probably provides the best example of how Sydney can improve its transport system. (The link is to a piece by Jarrett Walker at Human Transit, which is well worth a read for more details). Despite being well known as a car dominated city, LA has been making an effort to improve its public transport system, and shares many similarities with Sydney. Both cities have large footprints and built a network of highways after the rise of the car following World War 2. Each is also made up of multiple urban centres with a dense core, Sydney has the Sydney CBD, Parramatta, Liverpool, Penrith, Chatswood, etc while Los Angeles has downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Westwood, Burbank, etc. However they also have their differences – Sydney has a strong heavy rail network, while Los Angeles has an well laid out grid street system.

Ask Gladys

Posted: February 23, 2013 in Transport
Tags: , , , ,

MX ran a feature yesterday called #AskGladys in which readers could tweet in questions to the Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian. Those that were forwarded to her were all answered an then posted to Twitter.

The responses give October as the date that the new 2013 timetable will be introduced, which means the date it is made public will be some time before that. They describe the new timetable as having more consistent patterns, which appears to mean a more harmonized stopping pattern. They also state that frequencies on the North Shore Line will be increased to the maximum 20 trains an hour currently possible, up from the current 18 during the morning peak.

Some highlights are included below, with the rest available by searching the hash tag #AskGladys on Twitter.

Note: It might be worth reading part 1 and part 2, which provide some context and outline the problems with the current timetable, if you haven’t yet done so.

Cityrail has been simplifying its network ever since the Clearways project was announced in 2005 around the same time as the major timetable changes were introduced that year. The idea behind Clearways was to increase capacity (via additional “turnback” platforms and/or track amplifications) around the network where pinch points caused bottlenecks and to separate the network into 5 separate sectors (which would then converge into 3 sectors in the CBD). This is known as sectorisation, and involves creating sectors that run as independently from each other as possible. As a result, delays in one sector do not spill over into other sectors.

The Cityrail network currently has 3 sectors:

  • Sector 1 – made up of the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Lines

2013-01-20 Cityrail Map Sector 1

  • Sector 2 – made up of all the lines that use the City Circle, plus the Cumberland Line (Note: the Inner West Line between Strathfield and Homebush shows up faded in error.)

2013-01-20 Cityrail Map Sector 2

  • Sector 3 – made up of all the lines that use the Harbour Bridge

2013-01-20 Cityrail Map Sector 3

(In practice, sectors 2 and 3 are not entirely separate, with trains on the Western Line and South Line sharing some track between Granville and Homebush, as well as the Western Line and Cumberland Line between Blacktown and Harris Park.)

A Herald report from 2012 revealed that one plan would involve fully separating Sectors 2 and 3. Currently the 2 track pairs between Blacktown and Homebush are used to separate local (all stops) services from express services. This allows express trains to overtake slower local ones. Separating trains on these tracks by sector rather than by stopping pattern then means that an express service could get stuck behind a slower local service. The solution to this would be to also harmonise stopping patterns – with sector 3 running only express services and sector 2 running only local services.

If implemented to the fullest extent, the Richmond and Northern Lines would be separated from the Western Line. Richmond Line trains would become part of the Cumberland Line, running all stations to Campbelltown. This would eliminate a conflict that currently exists at Granville where a flat junction is used by Western Line and South Line trains (by sending Richmond Line trains on the Cumberland Line’s flyover at Merrylands and sending Western Line trains on the Northern track pair not used by the South Line, thus avoiding the flat junction). Northern Line trains would use a third track pair that begins just before Strathfield at Homebush Station and then ends at Sydney Terminal at Central Station, effectively creating a fourth sector. Inner West Line trains would be truncated to Homebush, which relieves some pressure on the heavily used Lidcombe to Homebush portion of the network, allowing South and Western Line trains to pass through there more easily.

This would allow Western Line trains to run faster (by permanently skipping many stations)  and more frequently (as they are not sharing any track with Richmond, Northern, or South Lines as is currently the case). Passengers at stations like Toongabbie, Pendle Hill, Wentworthville, and Harris Park would need to catch a Cumberland Line train and change to a Western Line train if they are going into the city. While passengers at stations like Clyde, Auburn, Lidcombe, or Flemington could change to a Western Line train for a faster journey, or stay on a slower all stations South Line train for a direct one. On the network map, this is what it could look like (again, this is purely speculation based on rumour at this point).

What the Cityrail network might look like after the 2013 timetable is implemented. Click on image for higher resolution. (Souce: Cityrail.)

What the Cityrail network might look like after the 2013 timetable is implemented. Due to an error, Auburn should be the blue South Line only, not the yellow Western Line. Click on image for higher resolution. (Souce: User created from Cityrail.)

Creating these truly independent sectors would also allow for harmonisation of stopping patterns and rolling stock. With high enough frequencies, this will also mostly do away with the need to worry about delays. After all, if a peak hour train comes every 3 minutes and all the trains on that line have the same stopping patterns, then a 3 minute delay effectively puts everything back to normal.

It also makes many commutes easier – with commuters just taking the next train rather than waiting for their train, which will help to reduce station overcrowding on congested CBD stations (by requiring commuters to transfer to another train once they are out of the CBD). Frequencies will also improve, ensuring that commuter wait times are kept to a minimum and allowing many commuters to travel without having to worry about consulting the timetable first.

Higher off-peak frequencies could also mean shorter trips by way of reduced wait times. Parramatta currently has 5 trains an hour into the CBD during the off-peak, meaning a maximum wait of 15 minutes. Increasing this to 8 trains an hour would mean a maximum 8 minute wait, or 4 minutes on average. Similarly, someone taking the train from Pendle Hill currently has to wait 30 minutes for the next train during the off peak, which often means either arriving much earlier than necessary or taking the risk of missing the train and waiting half an hour for the next one. Either way, this means a longer overall journey time. But having 10-15 minute frequencies, and then transfering to a frequent (and express) Western Line train into the CBD, could result in a faster and more reliable journey, despite the removal of direct services. Someone wishing to make a North/South trip, say from Quakers Hill to Merrylands, will now have easy all day access by rail.

The main downside is that it will force many people to transfer to another train. Many commuters on the Richmond and Northern Lines will need to transfer to another train if travelling into the CBD, as they will no longer have direct access.

There do exist alternatives, Simon blogs at Fixing Sydney Transport about how Parramatta can be made the terminus of the Cumberland Line, thus maintaining the second track pair West of Parramatta free for Richmond Line trains. Doing this would allow Richmond and Epping Line trains to keep their CBD access, while still eliminating a conflicting move (by Western and South Line trains) on the flat junction at Granville that currently exists. It would not allow a complete harmonisation of stopping patterns, but does deliver some benefits of the complete sectorisation without most of the disadvantages it would bring. There are merits to this option, and would be an improvement on the status quo.

Ultimately, the government’s decision to run the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) as a completely independent line (which could become the fifth sector), means that the existing Harbour crossing will need to be run at maximum efficiency during the decade between then NWRL’s completion and when a second Harbour Crossing is built, as this will become one of the biggest bottlenecks on the network. The easiest way to achieve that is to implement the sectorisation outlined above. So if it doesn’t happen in this year’s 2013 timetable, then expect it to happen when the NWRL opens at the end of the decade.

The Herald reports that changes to the STA will allow Sydney Buses to maintain existing services with fewer buses and drivers via a more efficient allocation of buses between depots. Currently, many buses must travel long distances to the starting point of the bus route and then do the same to return at the end of their run, a process known as dead running because the bus is unable to carry any passengers.

Dead running bus

The changes will see buses spend less time showing “not in service” displays and more time transporting passengers around. (Source: Author.)

While commuters will not notice any differences with service levels, the reduced number of buses needed to maintain the same service levels means the STA will be able to retire some of its older buses, particularly non-accessible and non-air conditioned buses. No bus drivers will lose their jobs directly, though the STA plans to reduce staffing levels via natural attrition.

These changes were made possible by the reorganisation of the Transport Department into Transport for NSW, which also involved putting all government transport agencies directly underneath it and transferred responsibility for planning to Transport for NSW. This meant that rather than assigning buses to routes at a depot level, it is now done at a Sydney-wide level, allowing for efficiencies like these to emerge.

What is disappointing is that the savings that arise from these changes will be going into general government revenue rather than back into public transport. The same is true of the government’s share of station access fees on the Airport Line.

Finding savings in public transport (or raising extra revenue) should be encouraged as a way of expanding services without having to increase its budget. After all, public transport costs the state government billions each year in operational subsidies. But this cannot be done if these same savings are then used for other purposes.

With reliability on the Cityrail network sagging and extra capacity needed to handle the growing transport demand, the solution that the NSW government is seeking has been to reduce network flexibility (see the previous post on the 2013 timetable for an explanation of how reliability, capacity, and flexibility are interrelated).

Greater flexibility, the ability to get a direct train to the CBD from any station on the network, can reduce capacity and hurt reliability for a number of reasons. These include the need to have flexible (i.e. different) stopping patterns on the same track, the need to run separate lines on the same track, and the need to use flat junctions (see below). All of these things mean that increased flexibility also adds complexity to the network. Meanwhile, a simple system would require many passengers to change to a second or even third train in order to reach the CBD. This is a potentially unpopular option and is why Cityrail has opted for flexibility up until now.

Flexible stopping patterns

Some trains are express services, while others are all stations or limited stops services (which will collectively be called local services).

Often there are two pairs of tracks running side by side (such as from Central through to Hurstville or Parramatta), then one is generally designated for express trains and the other for all stops trains. This allows the express services to overtake the slower local services.

In other cases there is only a single track pair (such as much of the Northern Line between Hornsby and Strathfield), meaning that express services can get stuck behind local services. Here you must make a choice between flexibility (i.e. running both express and local services) or capacity (i.e. running just one type of service, generally local, at higher frequencies).

Independent lines

The Cityrail network operates 3 different “sectors”, effectively independent lines. However in some parts of the network (the section between Granville and Homebush in particular) it is necessary for trains from different sectors to mix in order to maintain flexible stopping patterns. This means that delays on one line can often spillover onto another line.

Take the huge delays that occurred 2 weeks ago that originated on the North Shore Line due to overhead wiring issues. This had immediate impact on the North Shore Line, and soon spread to the Northern and Western Lines whose trains feed into the North Shore Line. However, as Western Line trains also share track with the Inner West, South, and Bankstown Lines, these too soon began to suffer delays, which later flowed on further onto the Airport and East Hills Line. Only the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Lines, which is the only one of the 3 sectors to be completely separate, did not suffer delays.

Independent lines would not have prevented the delays, but it would have quarantined them and stopped them from flowing onto others.

Flat Junctions

Where two roads intersect at traffic lights the signals alternate so that only traffic on one road can move. For every minute that one road has a green signal, the other road loses a minute of green. This is effectively what happens in the world of railroads when a train crosses from one track to another that are separated by a third track in between them going in the opposite direction. These are referred to as “flat junctions” (see diagram below for an example), and every train that crosses one prevents another train from using the other track at that moment. You can avoid the use of flat junctions through the use of dives and flyovers (the best example of which can be found between Redfern and Central Stations), but these are not always available nor feasible to build.

Flat junctions cause conflicting moves, preventing another train from using the track that is being crossed over. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Sydney Rail Future Report, page 7.)

Flat junctions cause conflicting moves, preventing another train from using the track that is being crossed over. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Sydney Rail Future Report, page 7.)

The diagram above shows a section of rail near Macdonaldtown, right before the Western and Illawarra Lines merge. The maximum capacity of each track is 20 trains per hour, and each train that crosses a track via a flat junction effectively uses up one of those 20 hourly “slots” on the track that it crosses. So the 7 trains that move from the “Up Main” track to the “Up Suburban” track use up 7 slots on the “Down Main” track, restricting that third track to 13 trains per hour rather than the maximum of 20.

More importantly, conflicts due to flat junctions hinder reliability. When a train runs late across a flat junction, it delays not just the trains on its line, but also the line that uses the track that it crosses. The 7 trains that used the flat junction above can be timetabled in,  but if one of them runs late and stops following the timetable then the delays flow on to the trains on the “Down Main” track, even though. These delays further constrain capacity, because for every 3 minutes of delay you effectively reduce the maximum capacity on a line by 1 train per hour. The line across the Harbour Bridge is a great example – here you often only see 17 trains crossing the Bridge during the busiest hour of the day even though 19 trains are timetabled, so actual capacity is 10% lower than timetabled.

A second airport in Sydney’s West should be built at Badgerys Creek, according to a panel of experts who addressed a forum at Parramatta earlier today. The forum, organised by the Western Sydney Community Forum and Western Sydney Business Chamber, included academics, social workers, and consultants as speakers who unanimous backed the proposed airport, arguing it would bring significant economic benefits with only minor noise pollution. The panel also rejected Wilton as an alternative, with a co-author of the recent Joint Study on Aviation Capacity saying that the study did not conclude that the options were “Badgerys or Wilton – the options were Badgerys, Badgerys, Badgerys, Badgerys, Badgerys, or Wilton”.

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Google Maps)

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Google Maps)

This is despite the there still technically being bipartisan opposition to an airport at the Badgerys Creek site. This opposition can be traced back to the construction of the third runway at Mascot’s Kingsford-Smith Airport (KSA) in 1994. Chris Brown, a member of the steering committee of the Joint Study on Aviation Capacity, described the campaign against a third runway as a grassroots movement that was responding to huge noise impacts on a large population. Meanwhile, the opposition to Badgerys Creek was led by those at the top, according to Mr Brown. It was argued at the time that Western Sydney should not be the dumping ground for Inner Sydney’s aircraft noise. In addition, the extra capacity provided by this third runway at KSA made politicians complacent on the issue of an airport at Badgerys Creek, according to the former Federal Airports Corporation and Australian Rail and Track Corporation head, Barry Murphy.

The opposition to Badgerys Creek has begun to wane recently, particularly when the issue of the economic benefits that an airport could bring to Western Sydney was raised. Mr Murphy points to cities like Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta, which leveraged a large airport to huge economic benefit. Director of Planning with Cox Richardson, Bob Meyer, argues that Western Sydney’s jobs shortfall of 163,000 jobs is putting a huge strain on the transport network, and that this will only get worse by mid century when that jobs shortfall is projected to rise to 406,000 jobs. He believes Western Sydney has abundant supplies of industrial zoned land that could be used for employment, but that it needs a catalyst such as a new airport in order for this to happen. This would then stem the jobs shortfall afflicting Western Sydney.

The panel also dismissed the impact of aircraft noise on Western Sydney. An A380 makes only half the noise of a 747 jumbo jet on take off, according to Mr Murphy, while the smaller A320 makes 75% less noise than a 747. Mr Meyer showed attendees a map of the hypothetical flight paths from Badgerys Creek, which showed that most of the noise would occur over industrial lands rather than residential. This, along with lower urban densities, means that slightly over 300 homes would be affected by high levels of aircraft noise from Badgerys Creek, compared to almost 30,000 from KSA.