The NSW government has decided to push ahead with tunnels on the NWRL (North West Rail Link) too steep to accommodate double deck trains, despite internal documents showing it would not result in any savings when it comes to building a future Harbour rail crossing. The same documents also show that when the Federal Government offered funding for a line between Parramatta and Epping such a line was so far off transport planners’ radars that they did not expect it to be built until after 2036, suggesting it was less of a priority than 3 or 4 other lines that would have been built first, one of which may be a long mooted rail line to the Northern Beaches.
Documents uncovered as part of a Sydney Morning Herald investigation into the NWRL shed some light on the process by which the new line’s design was decided upon. A report dated 24th May 2012 proposes 3 options for integrating the NWRL into Sydney’s rail network, named “Suburban”, “Rebuild”, and “Growth”. All options involve first building the SWRL (South West Rail Link), followed by the NWRL.
The Suburban option (cost: $9.8bn) is virtually a carbon copy of the Metropolitan Rail Expansion Plan (MREP) of 2005 that would see the building of the NWRL, SWRL, and a Second Harbour Rail Crossing that would fill the missing section to link the two via Macquarie Park and the Airport with a maximum capacity of 24 double deck TPH (trains per hour), though capacity constraints on the Airport Line tunnel would appear to initially cap this at 20TPH. This option would continue to use double deck trains and could retain direct services into the CBD from the NWRL’s opening in 2019, though capacity would likely be tight until the completion of a Second Harbour Rail Crossing in 2026 through the “Metro Pitt” alignment roughly underneath Pitt St. Until this occurred, some NWRL trains would terminate at Chatswood and Upper Northern Line trains would be re-routed via the City Circle rather than across the Harbour Bridge. Once the new line was completed, all stop trains from Revesby would operate via Sydenham and continue to feed into the City Circle, allowing 20TPH to operate on the new line to South-West Sydney (from a current capacity of 12TPH).
The Rebuild option (cost: $10.6bn-$12.1bn) involved converting the Harbour Bridge to single deck operation, and was championed by Infrastructure NSW. Under this plan, the NWRL would operate with some or all trains terminating at Chatswood with either single or double deck trains. A new CBD line would then be constructed between Redfern and Wynyard (previously referred to as the CBD Relief Line), utilising the “Metro West” alignment roughly underneath Sussex St, to be completed by 2026. This would then be followed by converting the line across the Harbour Bridge to single deck operation, a process that would take 4 years and necessitate the closing of the City Circle between Central and Wynyard. This would allow cross-Harbour capacity to be increased to 28 single deck TPH, up from an existing 20 double deck TPH, by 2031.
The Growth option (cost: $9.9bn), ultimately selected as the preferred option by the NSW Government, involves the creation of a new single deck network via the construction of a new under the Harbour Rail Crossing. Under this option, the NWRL would be built by 2019 for initial operation with either single or double deck trains where some or all would terminate at Chatswood. A Second Harbour Crossing would then be built by 2026, creating a new line which would connect the NWRL to Hurstville and Lidcombe/Cabramatta via Bankstown running single deck trains with a maximum capacity of 30TPH. The line would initially operate at a maximum of only 20TPH due to network constraints at the outer ends of the line. However, the report suggests reaching 30TPH by extending it with a new Northern Beaches Line and by incorporating the all stops portion of the East Hills Line out to Revesby. As with the Suburban option, this would also allow 20TPH to operate to South-West Sydney.
The rebuild option was rejected on the basis that it was the most expensive, provided the smallest increase in capacity, and imposed the greatest disruption of the three. Ironically, this was meant to be the option that avoided the “prohibitively expensive” under the Harbour rail crossing, yet it ended up being the most costly as the CBD Relief Line, with a price tag of $5bn, was not that much cheaper than a new line that continued through to Chatswood, which costs $8bn, but necessitated expensive upgrades elsewhere on the network (costing anywhere from $4.3bn to $5.8bn).
The other two options cost almost the same, and provide similar levels of increases in capacity (single deck trains carry fewer passengers per train, but can operate more trains per hour than double deck trains, so the number of passengers per hour is comparable).
Steep and narrow tunnels
The Growth option included the possibility of building the NWRL with tunnels that were compatible with existing double deck trains, at a cost of $200m. This would allow some trains on the NWRL to continue past Chatswood through to the CBD from the day the NWRL opens. However, currently there is only enough spare capacity into the CBD on the Harbour Bridge to allow 1 train through in the busiest hour of the morning peak without removing services from either the Upper Northern Line and the North Shore Line.
It has previously been speculated that a steeper gradient allowed by single deck trains would allow for a cheaper and easier construction of an under the Harbour rail crossing, with stations closer to the surface at either side of the Harbour. This in turn would be where the real savings would be made, and there is little point in spending $200m to add virtually no new capacity for the few years until the new under the Harbour crossing was completed.
However, this does not appear to be supported by the costings in the leaked report, the cost of building the Harbour crossing for double deck trains is listed as $7,940m whereas for single deck trains it is $8,055m (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 34). While it does also provide $200m in savings for the NWRL, Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian is on the record as saying that the cost of upgrading the Epping to Chatswood Line for single deck trains is more than $200m. This means single deck trains cost more in both the NWRL and second Harbour crossing stages.
In other words, it would appear that the steeper tunnels not only do not provide any savings, but they actually cost (slightly) more!
That means there must be another reason why the government has opted to go with the Growth option for single deck trains. One possibility could be that it allows for complete ATO (automatic train operation), otherwise known as driverless trains, along with all the benefits that come with it (see: here and here). These require an independent and segregated line to operate on, and only the Growth option initially running shuttles to Chatswood provide that opportunity.
Northern Beaches Rail Line vs Parramatta to Epping Rail Link
Also contained in the report is the assumption that transport planners were operating under for the Growth option that the next line to be built after the Second Harbour Crossing would be to the Northern Beaches. This is mentioned not just in the May 2012 report, but is also included on the maps in the report. The maps are dated 4 May 2010 and show the PERL (Parramatta to Epping Rail Link) as being built at some point after 2036, then operating as an independent shuttle.
This means that just 3 months prior to the 11 August 2010 announcement that Federal Labor would fund the PERL, the then NSW Labor government had placed it so low on its list of transport projects it planned to build that it was not only below the NWRL and second Harbour crossing, but also behind a line that has not been seriously talked about since the 1970s.
This should emphasise the importance of putting good planning first, ahead of political considerations, when it comes to creating a good transport network. Unfortunately it appears the Labor Party tends to put its ideals in the right place in supporting public transport (importantly without the rabid anti-roads ideology of The Greens), but then implements it ineffectively by doing so through the prism of politics. As seen with the proposed funding of WestConnex, it’s not a one off occurrence.