Archive for September, 2013

Opal will be rolled out onto buses starting on Monday, 3 months ahead of the initial “end of 2013” deadline set by the government. This follows the ferry roll-out which was recently completed 4 months ahead of schedule. The first bus route to use Opal will be the 594/594H from Hornsby to the CBD. The Herald reports that the next bus route is likely to be “an inner-city service run by the government-owned State Transit”.

Opal roll-out as of 30 August 2013. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Opal roll-out as of 30 August 2013. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Fares for buses will follow the current 3 band structure, but be calculated on a straight line point to point basis, rather than the actual distance traveled by the bus. Importantly, for the first time the fare penalty for transferring from one bus to another will be removed, with passengers paying a fare as though they had caught a single bus for the entire journey regardless of how many individual bus trips they used to reach their final destination.

Bus fares under Opal. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Bus fares under Opal. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

A source within Transport for NSW has informed Transport Sydney that light rail will be brought in under the bus network for fare calculation purposes. This will mean that passengers who currently take a bus into the CBD from South East Sydney will not pay any extra for transferring from a tram to a bus (or vice versa) once the CBD and South East Light Rail begins operating in 2020. However, it remains uncertain whether this will extend to M2 buses that are converted into feeder buses for the North West Rail Link when it opens in 2019.

Fare changes

There are three main changes to the existing fare structure with Opal: single mode integration, a fare cap, and simplification.

Currently (unless using a myMulti ticket), passengers pay a different fare in going from A to B depending on which mode of transport and how many vehicles they use. If they use a single mode of transport, such as buses, then this penalty will be removed. This represents integrated fares, but only for a single mode of transport. The main impact will be seen on buses, where taking 2 buses to get from A to B is more expensive than taking just one, even when it is both faster for the passenger and cheaper for the government from a cost perspective to do so. Trains effectively already have single mode fare integration as passengers can change trains without leaving the gated area of the station, while ferries and trams make up only a small fraction of public transport trips in Sydney. Fare penalties will remain for multi modal journeys, such as one involving both train and bus.

The fare cap is designed to replace discounts currently received for weekly and travel ten tickets. Instead of receiving these discounts directly, passengers will only be required to pay for their first 8 journeys each week, with all subsequent journeys being free. There is also a daily cap of $15 per day, or $2.50 on Sundays. This will have a similar effect to the current discounts, though not for occasional users or passengers with periodical tickets (monthly, quarterly, or yearly tickets).

That these changes disadvantage some users is because it also brings in simplification of fares. This was something that the head of ticketing in London, whose Oyster Card operates on the same system as Opal, recommended back in 2011. This decision to leave some users worse off is a tough but ultimately necessary one that needed to be made in order to simplify the dogs breakfast that Sydney’s fare structure has turned into.

Card balance and value storage

Opal cards do not work like credit cards. A credit card is basically a holder of an ID number, which the vendor then uses to find your account online in the cloud which has all of your account information. If Opal did this then it would require a lengthy connection process to a central server somewhere each time you tapped on or off, far too long considering the number of passengers who pass the Opal card readers at any one time, leading to long delays. It would also be complicated for buses and trams which, unlike the readers at train and ferry stops, do not have a fixed connection to the servers. (They could be connected via a wireless connection, but this is slow, expensive, and unreliable.)

An adult Opal smartcard. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

An adult Opal smart card. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Instead, Opal cards have value stored on the actual card itself. This allows the tapping on and off process to proceed quite quickly. The information on the card reader is then downloaded to the central server to provide the user’s online account with all of their travel information, including the fare for each journey. This information is downloaded quite quickly for fixed card readers (i.e. train stations and ferry stops) and less frequently for mobile card readers (i.e. buses and trams), probably once a day once the vehicle returns to the depot.

This also means that any value added to an Opal card has to also make its way onto the card itself. If topping up credit at a train station, for example, the card can be scanned right there and the value loaded up instantly. If, on the other hand, value is added remotely via the internet then this information needs to be pushed down to Opal readers across the network, from where the value is added to the card next time the passenger taps on or off. As with before, the fixed readers should receive this information almost instantly, while for mobile readers it might take up to 24 hours.

UPDATE (2 October 2013): @TheOpalUser has discovered that Opal card balances are updated about 20 minutes after tapping on the card reader on the bus. This suggests that the card readers are connected constantly and thus it shouldn’t take 24 hours unless the mobile network is not working.

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All of this also means that if an Opal card is lost or stolen, the owner can cancel it and still retain their balance on the card as the system would have a record of the balance as of the last time the card was tapped on or off.

The worst sort of NIMBY

Posted: September 25, 2013 in Transport
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Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) is a common view with any major piece of infrastructure. While often derided by those not negatively affected, it is not entirely without merit. The benefits of something should be weighed up against the costs that it imposes on others, and when these costs are disproportionately imposed on a small portion of the community then it should be looked into further to see if those problems can be mitigated.

However, in some cases the cry of the NIMBY becomes so entrenched that they go on to oppose something that will actually alleviate their concerns.

Take the case of the residents living adjacent to the Northern Sydney Freight Line. The ABC’s 730 NSW program reported on this last week, and rightly pointed out that some residents suffer from freight trains passing by that are as loud as aircraft. But unlike aircraft noise, which is prevented by a curfew from occurring at night time, many of these freight trains pass by at night because of restrictions that prevent them from using the Northern Line during the morning and evening peak when the line is full of passenger trains. This is a legitimate concern, and given the push to transfer freight off trucks on the road and onto rail, one that deserves to be investigated as this problem will only become more intensified in years to come.

“Residents are presently considering a class action against extant freight train pollution, noting that we are facing 24-hour a day exposure to noise in the range of 90-108db; respiratory disease from asbestosis from freight train brake pads and diesel loco emissions; and, psychological damage because of the savageness, intrusiveness and frequency of the freight train movements.”Alex Sell, Northern Rail Noise Committee (10 May 2012)

But this opposition to additional freight trains has now extended to an opposition to the expansion of the Northern Sydney Freight Line. The current plan, to separate freight trains between Strathfield and Hornsby from passenger trains, would allow freight trains to pass through this busy portion of the railway during the peak commuter hour. This would end the ironic reality that noisy freight trains have a day time curfew, while noisy aircraft have a night time curfew. Yet what should be an improvement has instead been rejected in what seems to be a knee jerk reaction.

Moorebank Intermodal

The Northern Sydney Freight Line is shown in yellow. Click to enlarge. (Source: Department of Infrastructure and Transport)

Ideally no loud freight trains would pass through residential areas. But if they must pass through, it is madness to not build a piece of infrastructure that would allow as many of them to pass by during the day time when the least number of residents are at home, rather than night time when virtually all of them are home asleep.

Roads Minister Duncan Gay has hosed down rumours that the government might eliminate the toll on the Cross City Tunnel following earlier news of it entering voluntary administration for the second time in a decade. Mr Gay told the Sydney Morning Herald (link unavailable) that buying back the road and then not charging a toll was “just an urban myth; that’s not happening”. However, he did not rule out the possibility of buying it back and reducing the toll or paying the new owner a concession to cut the toll.

The motivation for this comes from the 5 to 6 years of construction through the CBD for light rail on George Street and the desire to divert as much traffic away from the city centre in order to minimise disruptions. Such a buyback could also fit in neatly with the introduction of a congestion charge, which could provide offsetting revenue to eliminate the Cross City Tunnel’s toll, thus incentivising surface traffic to re-route underground. However, this is not the current government’s policy, and something it has rejected despite the concept of a congestion charge being raised by both Transport for NSW and Infrastructure NSW.

Video: Gatepass could be removed at Airport stations, Seven News

Meanwhile, the NSW opposition has succeeded in establishing a Legislative Council inquiry into the removal of the airport station access fee. The $2.60 access fee was lifted for Mascot and Green Square stations in 2010, resulting in an estimated 50% increase in patronage. Removing or reducing the much higher $12.30 fee at the airport stations would be expected to also raise patronage. The possibility of this occurring has grown due to the rising proportion of access fee revenue going to the government, which is set to receive close $50m from it next year alone.

A stations access fee of $12.30 is currently payable for anyone travelling to or from the airport stations. Click to enlarge. (Source: Sydney Trains)

A stations access fee of $12.30 is currently payable for anyone travelling to or from the airport stations. Click to enlarge. (Source: Sydney Trains)

However, this remains an opposition and cross bench led inquiry, and the reduction or removal of the access fee is not currently supported by the government, who point out that any money raised goes into general revenue and has already been accounted for in the budget. Despite this, construction of the M5 East expansion as part of WestConnex in the latter part of this decade would be assisted by even a temporary cut in the access fee in order to reduce the already high congestion around Sydney Airport when construction of WestConnex makes it even worse.

I’m pretty sure she doesn’t read this blog, but happy birthday to the Transport Minister. Now please hurry up and build that Second Harbour Crossing!


WestConnex plan finalised

Posted: September 19, 2013 in Transport
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Video: Biggest transport project in Australia to begin, NSW Government

The 33km WestConnex freeway will be completed by 2023 and cost between $11bn and $11.5bn, many billions of dollars less than the previously cited figure of $13-$15bn. The project will be completed in stages, starting with the existing M4 freeway between Parramatta and Strathfield (2017), followed by the M4 East to the City West Link at Haberfield (2019), then the M5 East widening (2020), and finally the M4 South linking up the two (2023).

Delivery timeline for WestConnex. Click to enlarge. (Source: RMS)

Delivery timeline for WestConnex. Click to enlarge. (Source: RMS)

Once completed, it will link up the M4 and M5 via the airport, but not provide a direct link to the Sydney CBD. This link had been made a requirement of both major parties for federal funding of WestConnex prior to the previous election, and it remains to be seen whether the incoming Abbott Government will provide its promised $1.5bn of funding without a direct link to the CBD (it may decide that the City West Link provides such a link – something that the previous government did not). This lack of such a link has been supported in the past by this blog, as roads are a poor way of providing access to the CBD but do provide good access for dispersed trips, which will account for 60% of trips made on the M4 East according to Roads Minister Duncan Gay.

Map of the WestConnex freeway. Click to enlarge. (Source: RMS)

Map of the WestConnex freeway. Click to enlarge. (Source: RMS)

Another major benefit of WestConnex will be the urban renewal that its construction will facilitate. By removing car traffic from surface streets, traffic can be calmed through lower speed limits, wider footpaths, bus lanes, bike paths, etc. This in turn can be the catalyst for higher housing densities and active streets, with shops, cafes, and restaurants.

Before and after of Parramatta Rd at Five Dock. WestConnex will allow for wider footpaths, more bus lanes, and more active surface streets. Click to enlarge. (Source: RMS).

Before (right) and after (left) of Parramatta Rd at Five Dock. WestConnex will allow for wider footpaths, more bus lanes, and more active surface streets. Click to enlarge. (Source: RMS, modified by author)

WestConnex has been opposed by groups like The Greens, who have called on the $3.3bn of government funding to instead be spent on light rail, and Eco Transit, who have put forward their own proposed public transport alternative to reduce congestion.

2013 timetable finalised

Posted: September 17, 2013 in Transport
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The government announced today the final version of the October 2013 timetable. Much has been written on this topic in this blog so far this year, so links to that have been included below rather than just repeating it all over again.

Draft 2013 timetable (part 1): Introduction

Draft 2013 timetable (part 2): AM Peak

Draft 2013 timetable (part 3): Off Peak

Draft 2013 timetable (part 4): PM Peak

What the 2013 timetable might look like

2013 timetable re-write (part 1): The context

2013 timetable re-write (part 2): The problems

2013 timetable re-write (part 3): Untangling the network

When the October 2013 timetable comes online, a significant portion of the inner Sydney rail network will have 10 minute frequencies all day during the week. Click to enlarge. (Source: Cityrail, modified by author)

When the October 2013 timetable comes online, a significant portion of the inner Sydney rail network will have 10 minute frequencies all day during the week. Click to enlarge. (Source: Cityrail, modified by author)

One of the less publicised improvements is the extension of the 10 minute frequency network. Currently, trains on the Eastern Suburbs Line between Bondi Junction and Sydenham run every 10 minutes between 5AM and 9PM on weekdays. This will now be extended through to midnight. Meanwhile, trains on the North Shore Line between Central and Chatswood will run every 9 minutes (Southbound trains) and 11 minutes (Northbound trains) between 5AM and 9PM, while trains on the Airport Line between the City Circle and Wolli Creek will also run every 9 minutes between 6AM and 10PM.

The financial collapse of the Cross City Tunnel, likely resulting in it entering into receivership for the second time since it was opened in 2005, has started a debate over the role of private public partnerships (PPP) in delivering transport infrastructure. The Greens have used the collapse to call on the state government to scrap its plans for the WestConnex freeway, which will be delivered and operated as a PPP.

Despite going into receivership, the Cross City Tunnel will remain open to the driving public. Click to enlarge. (Source: Ben Harris-Roxas)

Despite probably going into receivership for a second time, the Cross City Tunnel will remain open to the driving public. Click to enlarge. (Source: Ben Harris-Roxas)

This is rather ironic, as the financial collapse of the Cross City Tunnel actually represents a benefit, not a disadvantage of the PPP model. Despite the financial collapse, for the driving public the tunnel will continue to operate as though nothing had changed. Meanwhile, the cost of the financial collapse will be felt by the private owners, just as any financial benefit would be received by the owners had traffic on the tunnel boomed. The government and driving public benefit from improved transport infrastructure regardless of the financial success or failure of the company that owns the tunnel. That the private sector ended up paying for it, and not the taxpayer, puts the taxpayer ahead.

In fact, the government should use this opportunity to consider whether they could buy back the Cross City Tunnel, at a fraction of its construction cost. If it can do so, it should seriously think about doing so. This would make it much easier at some point in the future to introduce a congestion charge on the CBD surface streets by making the tunnel free and giving drivers an alternative route if not travelling into the CBD itself.