The transport bureaucracy underwent a war of ideas last decade between supporters of single deck and double deck trains, according to one of the author’s of the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2010 Independent Public Inquiry into a Long-Term Public Transport Plan for Sydney, Sandy Thomas, in a 13 page article called ‘Fixing’ the trains in Sydney: 1855 revisited. The metro advocates would come out victorious, according to Mr Thomas, and their advice has been accepted without question by Transport Ministers since, despite only representing one side of the debate. He further laments that this could lead to a repeat of the year 1855, when different rail gauges in different parts of Australia prevented a unified rail network, but this time with narrower and steeper tunnels preventing double deck trains from ever using big chunks of the current Cityrail network.
Mr Thomas outlines the history that led up to this point, starting with the Metropolitan Rail Expansion Program of 2005, which would see the construction of the North West Rail Link (NWRL), South West Rail Link (SWRL), and a Second Harbour Crossing, as well as track amplifications from Chatswood to St Leonards and Redfern to Campbelltown. Together with some existing lines, these would form an entirely new fast and frequent line in the network comprised of longer ten-carriage trains for long distance trips through to the North West and South West Growth Centres, operating independently from the rest of the network. It would increase CBD capacity by almost a third.
Once built, all future lines would also be entirely separate, running independently, most likely with single deck metro rolling stock.
Critics of this plan included some within the Transport Department who saw Railcorp as inefficient, led on by the Rail, Tram, and Bus Union, as well as those who were motivated by what Mr Thomas describes as “playing with new train sets”. These critics found support in the NSW Treasury – from which many staff of Infrastructure NSW would be drawn from later on – who also wanted an independent line that could be operated privately instead of by Railcorp.
“the infighting, largely but not wholly hidden from public view, was by all accounts long and bitter. To this day many of the personalities involved scarcely talk to each other” – Sandy Thomas, ‘Fixing’ the trains in Sydney: 1855 revisited, page 3 (February 2013)
Together, these public servants convinced the politicians to dump the MREP and instead immediately build a new series of metro lines. Mr Thomas explains that this was done by the presenting of selective details of each plan, rather than painting the full picture, and that politicians with little to no background in transport planning accepted these half truths as fact.
“the reports of public servants and consultants whose findings turn out to be “inconvenient” can be and have been ruthlessly suppressed” – Sandy Thomas, ‘Fixing’ the trains in Sydney: 1855 revisited, page 13 (February 2013)
The first of these would be the North West Metro, which would take the existing NWRL and connect it to the CBD via Victoria Road, rather than the then still under construction Epping to Chatswood Line, in part to avoid an expensive Second Harbour Crossing. Mr Thomas points out that while this new line provided Victoria Road with a rail line, it bypassed the jobs rich corridor of Macquarie Park, Chatswood, St Leonards, and North Sydney.
This was planned to be only the first of a number of new metros, including metros to the Northern Beaches as well as under Parramatta Road and Anzac Parade. However, a lack of funds resulted in it being contracted to “CBD Metro”, going out as far as Rozelle, only to be abandoned altogether in 2009.
The government returned to something broadly resembling the MREP: the NWRL and SWRL, but replacing the Second Harbour Crossing with a “Western Express”, which would allow fast trains from Sydney’s West to continue through to Wynyard via a “City Relief Line” under the CBD. A promise of funding from the federal government also added the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) to that list of projects. A change of government in 2011 saw the incoming O’Farrell government keep and prioritise the NWRL and SWRL, while deferring and eventually dumping the Western Express and PERL.
Meanwhile, inside the Transport for NSW, a new plan was designed to convert part of the existing network to single deck metro trains, including the existing Harbour Crossing in an attempt to avoid building a Second Harbour Crossing. This plan was leaked to the media, and consisted of the NWRL and North Shore Line to the North as well as the Inner West Line, Bankstown Line, and part of the Illawarra Line through to Hurstville (utilising a second pair of tracks between Sydenham and Hurstville).
Mr Thomas explains that this plan was prevented from getting the green light because it would be unable to handle 28 to 30 trains per hour, as previously believed, and therefore not provide the additional cross Harbour capacity that it promised. It too, would be abandoned (though while still in the planning stages), and plans for a Second Harbour Crossing were once again put back on the table.
Uncertainty remained. Mr Thomas points out that while Transport for NSW opposition to a new double deck line integrated into the Cityrail network was shared by Treasury, and now also Infrastructure NSW, that this did not extend to large scale expansion of the rail network. Instead these were “advocates of greater spending on motorways rather than public transport, including Infrastructure NSW supremos Nick Greiner and Paul Broad, [who] were actively ramping up their efforts to kill off any form of the North West Rail Link project” (Sandy Thomas, ‘Fixing’ the trains in Sydney: 1855 revisited, page 4).
As it were, Infrastructure NSW did endorse the NWRL, most likely due to pressure from the government, but opposed the construction of a Second Harbour Crossing, instead suggesting the government opt for the previously rejected metro conversion. Transport for NSW instead suggested a Second Harbour Crossing in addition to, rather than in lieu of, a metro conversion. The government sided with Transport for NSW.
This plan, known as Sydney’s Rail Future, included a modified version of the NWRL with narrower and steeper tunnels, too small to fit existing double deck trains and too steep for them to run through even if they did fit. It is here that Mr Thomas makes not so much his main criticism, but almost a plea to the Transport Minister. His concluding remarks are replicated below in full.
“But there’s one simple step that NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian can and should take immediately: veto the lunatic attempt by her bureaucrats to quietly create a multiple “loading gauge” rail network in Sydney through the specification of unnecessarily small and steep tunnels on the North West Rail Link.
If Ms Berejiklian does this, she’ll be rightly remembered as the politician who took less than a year to unravel the loomingmess ofmultiple gauges in Sydney. In comparison, that first “expert” multiple gauge decision in Sydney, in 1855, is still creating problems around the nation 158 years on.
If she does intervene in this way, even if realpolitiks forces her in the short term to persist with Sydney’s Rail Future’s cobbled together “vision” for second-best services on the North West Rail Link, in the longer term sanity can be restored and everyone wanting to keep open a real possibility of much-needed, cost-effective improvements in all of Sydney’s rail services, instead of the cannibalisation and quiet dismantling that is now proposed, will have cause to thank her forever.” – Sandy Thomas, ‘Fixing’ the trains in Sydney: 1855 revisited, page 13 (February 2013)