Guest post: Review of the Inner West Light Rail extension

Posted: March 29, 2014 in Transport
Tags: , ,

Lachlan Drummond took a ride on the Inner West Light Rail line from Dulwich Hill to Chinatown and back on its first day of operation. Below is his account of the extended line plus his take on what was done well and what could have been done better.

PART ONE – My experience in the new line

Dulwich Hill Station

I started my journey at the Dulwich Hill end of the new line.

Sadly there is no cross-platform access from the Sydney Trains station. If you want to go from heavy rail to light rail, you have to exit the station, walk around the corner, and back down some stairs. Annoyingly, there is no footpath along the side of the road, so you have to walk down the street to get to the entrance. It’s a ridiculous situation and the council should act to fix this as soon as possible.

However, once I was on the platform, the station was well lit and covered. An electronic sign informs us when the next tram will arrive.

I didn’t have to wait long for a tram, because they come every fifteen minutes, even in the off-peak. Luckily for me, one of the brand new trams from Spain arrived right on time at 1:05PM, so I got to have a look.

The New Trams

As you can see from the video above, the new trams are very spacious. They have much fewer seats than the existing trams on the network, which means there is a larger amount of standing capacity. These Trams will be great for high capacity in peak hour.

Interestingly, the new trams have buttons on the outside of the doors, and you can actually press them to open the door from the outside.

Interior of one of the new Urbos 2 trams. Click to enlage. (Source: Lachlan Drummond.)

Interior of one of the new Urbos 2 trams. Click to enlage. (Source: Lachlan Drummond.)

The ride was very smooth on the new track. There were almost no bumps anywhere. You shouldn’t have a problem standing the whole way, it’s a very pleasant ride indeed. The drivers and the tickt inspectors were all friendly and efficient.

Seeing The Sights

From an urban geography point of view, the line is picturesque and quite interesting. It winds through cuttings, road bridges, parks, old Industrial sites (some of which have been gentrified), and over some major roads. Particularly spectacular are the old mills near the Lewisham West and Waratah Mills stations, and the huge cutting and Tunnel between Leichhardt North and Lilyfield.

In between these the train goes past back fences, parks and some very quiet suburban streets.

Unlike the Sydney Trains network, where towns and shops sprung up next to train stations, this line barely hides its origin as an old goods line. Many of the stations look like they have been put at the end of a tiny suburban street, or next to someone’s back fence. Importantly, however, the Tram does go past several potential Greenfields development sites, so this will help with patronage and other infrastructure.

(Note: If you want to “see the sights” on the new line, you will get a much better view on one of the “older” trams, because they have full floor to ceiling windows. The newer trams have smaller windows).

Stations

The new stations are bright, well lit, covered, and all of them have electronic signs that show when the next train is coming.

Some stations are very nicely decorated with pictures overlaid into the metalwork. At one of the stations (either Marion or Taverner’s Hill from memory) there’s a picture of the last tram that ran in the area in 1958, which is a nice touch. At Leichhardt North, some beautiful orange art works have been painted onto the walls.

Sydney's light rail will be extended to Dulwich Hill and feature new trams in red livery. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Dulwich Grove Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Importantly, all light rail stations on the new line are Wheelchair accessible. This includes both the new Dulwich Hill light rail station (which has an elevator) and the Lewisham West station. The heavy rail stations in these areas do not yet have disabled access, so if you need to get a train to the city, head to the tram stop.

Journey Times

From Dulwich Hill station it didn’t take very long at all before I was at some of the stations near Leichhardt. It only took ten minutes to get to Taverners Hill, and thirteen minutes to get to Leichhardt North.

After Leichhardt North, the tram snakes through a tunnel, then a spectacular old cutting, and underneath the City Westlink to Lilyfield. A new stabling facility has been built there.

Interestingly, enough space seems to have been left next to the renovated Lilyfield station for another light rail line to go down towards White Bay and Balmain. This will no doubt please many local activists and politicians.

From Dulwich Hill to John Street Square and The Star is about 25 minutes. When we pulled in to the front door at Paddy’s Markets at Haymarket, at 1:39PM, I had counted 34 minutes.

I spent a short time shopping before getting on the tram again at 2:28PM at Capitol Square station (just after Central – the one next to George Street). I arrived back at Dulwich Hill at 3:03PM.

Patronage

While the majority of people on both trips seemed to be Joyriders like me who got off at Dulwich Hill, many people did seem to be already using the line for the purpose in which it was made, which is a big positive.

On the way in, one gentleman got on the Tram with his bicycle in Dulwich Hill, and got off at Lilyfield. On the way back, several people got off the tram at the new stations. Marion station in particular seemed to be popular.

Conclusion

Overall I was pretty impressed with the service. Notwithstanding some missed opportunities (see PART TWO below), the service overall it was efficient and useful. I believe that people from the Leichhardt and Haberfield areas in particular will find the new service very useful.

Perhaps most poignantly, a lot of elderly people who got on for a joyride seemed genuinely excited that Trams had finally returned to the Inner West after 55 years. Many of them would have seen the last trams leave the area in the late 1950s.

The real test will be whether they, and others, use this line every day. I hope so, because light rail has a lot of potential to solve some of Sydney’s trickiest transport problems.  In the next part below, I’ll deal with the question of whether it’s worth your time to use the new line.

PART TWO: Who is the line useful for?

Perhaps the biggest question facing the new Light Rail extension is to see how many people use it.

The O’Farrell government has been saying that it takes 40 minutes on the new line between Dulwich Hill and Central, and about 30 minutes from Lewisham West.

It was obvious from my journey that most people won’t use the line in this way, especially not in peak hour.

It takes less than twenty minutes to get to Central on the heavy rail line from Dulwich Hill. Light rail can’t beat that. Nor does light rail currently go further into the city (though that will change when the CBD – South East line is built).

However, if your destination is closer to one of the several light rail stops around Haymarket, Darling Harbour and Pyrmont, you will certainly save time when you consider walking time from Central.

Trips The Light Rail Will Be Very Useful For

1. If you live in the Leichhardt/Haberfield area, and need to travel to Pyrmont, Haymarket, South George Street or Central Station.

The light rail won’t get stuck in traffic, but the peak hour buses might (even though on paper the 438 bus is a few minutes quicker to Railway Square from the corner of Marion Street and Norton Street).

Secondly – if you live or work really close to a light rail station, you might to do a lot less walking.

2. If you need to make a north-south trip between Dulwich Hill and Leichhardt/Lilyfield, or to go further down to The Fish Markets, Pyrmont, The Star Casino or Haymarket.

There’s really no contest on these trips, in my view. The light rail takes between 10-13 minutes to go from Dulwich Hill to the Leichhardt stops. It comes every ten minutes during the peak, and every fifteen minutes during the middle of the day, which is more frequently than most of the buses (including the 412). It’s a clear winner, and if they build a spur line to Balmain and White Bay, it will be a big boon to the nightlife of that area.

If you need to go from Dulwich Hill to The Star Casino or Pyrmont (or Vice versa) the Light rail will drop you at the door in 25 minutes. From Leichhardt it’s only 15 minutes.

If you want to go to Chinatown, the light rail will drop you right next to the front door of Paddy’s Markets in 35 minutes from Dulwich Hill, or about 20-25 mins from Marion, Hawthorne or Leichhardt North.

Missed Opportunities

On the flipside, I see two main missed opportunities on the new line.

1. This line has great potential as an interchange service, but it hasn’t been fully utilised.

Given that it only takes about 15 minutes to travel to Lewisham or Dulwich Hill stations from Central on the heavy rail, many people could potentially interchange to the light rail to complete their journey to stops like Dulwich Grove, Arlington, Waratah Mills, Taverner’s Hill or Marion. This would be particularly handy for people who get the heavy rail from the city circle stations.

However without integrated fares, or direct platform to platform interchanges, this is more difficult than it should be.

To go from Lewisham Heavy rail to Lewisham West Light Rail is apparently a 500 meter walk. On ABC702 radio yesterday, a transport planner revealed that a developer had proposed to place a shopping mall nearby which would have cut the journey to a mere 200 meters. This would have made interchanges much easier.

The Dulwich Hill tram and train stations are not designed for an easy interchange from one to the other. Click to enlarge. (Source: Lachlan Drummond.)

The Dulwich Hill tram and train stations (tram station shown in above image) are not designed for an easy interchange from one to the other. Click to enlarge. (Source: Lachlan Drummond.)

In the case of Dulwich Hill, they should have redesigned the stations so that a platform to platform interchange was possible. At the moment you have to walk out of one station, around the corner, and into the other. Yet I’d fancy myself to throw a tennis ball onto the platform of the Dulwich Hill heavy rail station from the light rail platform – that’s how close it is.

2. Not building the Greenway and cycle path was silly.

There is great potential for cyclists to use the line both to and from work, or for other journeys. Bringing your bicycle on the bus is usually impractical, and many heavy rail trains into the inner west are too crammed in the peak. But there is plenty of room on the new trams. Hawthorne station in particular is right next to the park and would be ideal for cyclists from the Haberfield area.

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Comments
  1. Tony Bailey says:

    Summer Hill Station is accessible

  2. Alex says:

    Hi Lachlan,

    Thanks for the article.

    You say: “Interestingly, enough space seems to have been left next to the renovated Lilyfield station for another light rail line to go down towards White Bay and Balmain. This will no doubt please many local activists and politicians.”

    I haven’t been on the LR since the extension opened and it’s a while since I travelled as far as Lilyfield on it, but are you saying that the space available could be used as the terminus for a spur line to Balmain and White Bay?

    I don’t think there would be much demand for this if you had to come from Balmain back as far as the Lilyfield stop to change to a tram to the city. In theory though you could extend it at the White Bay end via the Glebe Island Bridge back to Pyrmont – and even, if you wanted to get really fanciful, via Pyrmont Bridge to the CBD.

  3. matilsouth says:

    There’s also the issue of it running past Leichhardt Secondary school but they’re refusing to allow school kids concession passes for it. It means the school still will have a million school buses outside.

  4. Lachlan says:

    Hi Alex – yes, there seems to be enough space for a spur line to White Bay. On a casual viewing, there seems to be room for one more track and another platform to go underneath the existing bridge.

    I uploaded another video of the line between Leichhardt North and Lilyfield that shows the new stabling yard and the extra space, so you can judge it for yourself (see between 1:32 and 2:15):

  5. Lachlan says:

    Also, this short video shows the slightly clunky interchange at Dulwich Hill:

  6. Nicola says:

    I think the new trams are going to be really useful for existing city-tram users (ie myself) in peak hour because of the higher capacity. Using one last weekend, the new trams were much less crowded than the older ones usually are.
    Interesting about having to press the button to open the door – a few people on my tram were confused by this and got worried about being able to get off. Perhaps, this is because some of the newer Sydney Trains have superfluous ‘open door’ buttons that never require pressing and just open. Something people will get used to I suppose.

  7. Alex says:

    @ Lachlan,

    Thanks for the feedback. I understand though that they will also be undertaking maintenance and some stabling for the Central-Eastern Suburbs LR trams at Lilyfield, so I don’t know how much space that will take up. Anyway my more general point is that Lilyfield would be an unlikely place for a Balmain/White Bay spur line to start.

    However the conversion of almost all of the inner west rail freight line to light rail and the plans for the remainder at Central to become a pedestrian corridor all suggest that the Government should take a fresh look at reusing other corridors in the same category. Now recycling an old and disused/underused rail or tram corridor for new public transport infrastructure is not something you would do just for the sake of it, but there are corridors in useful places that could be very useful.

    The usual suspects would include the old tram tunnels at Wynyard (which if they are in the wrong place for a 2nd rail crossing could possibly be used for buses), the tunnels and turn back at St James station (possibly some sort of light rail use?) and the remaining disused platforms and tunnels at Central, but I’m sure there are others.

  8. @Alex –

    As I understand it, the Lilyfield facility will be for maintenance and only hold 4 trams at any one time. Given that the current fleet is being expanded by 4 trams and the CSELR trams will be stabled at Randwick Racecourse, I don’t see a lack of space as an impediment.

    What seems more likely to prevent light rail to Balmain is that buses via Anzac Bridge are more likely to be a faster journey into the city. Should bus capacity become a bottleneck, then that would be different. I don’t know enough about the Victoria Rd corridor to confidently conclude that off the top of my head, though I do note that this corridor is being considered for either BRT or light rail. So time will tell, I guess.

  9. Alex says:

    @Bambul,

    Thanks for the response. Again my main point is that if you are building a spur line to connect Balmain to the inner west light rail, then Lilyfield is too far west to be a useful interchange.

    However it would make a lot more sense if the plan was to connect at the White Bay end to the city via the Glebe Island and, possibly, Pyrmont Bridge. This route could also provide a corridor into the city for any proposed light rail along Victoria Road.

  10. Gareth says:

    Council won’t have to add a footpath at Dulwich Hill, as TfNSW will do it themselves (see http://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/b2b/projects/IWLRE_Dulwich%20Hill_Streetscapes_March_14.PDF). Given that construction of the light rail itself has taken over a year and moved along at a snail’s pace, it isn’t clear why this work wasn’t completed in time for the opening.

    With the slow speeds on the extension (which noticeably increase on the existing section), unfinished streetscape works, no Opal card support and six new trams still to enter service, the extension very much has the feel of a beta service. Hopefully the speeds increase, which – when combined with fixes for the other issues – will improve the line’s appeal significantly.

  11. Jeremy says:

    The original plan under Labor was for the IWLR extension to connect directly with Dulwich Hill in a cross-platform arrangement. When the Liberals took over, they delayed the project to cut costs. Along with the removal of the Greenway, the Dulwich Hill interchange was adjusted to the current arrangement, to avoid significant renovation of the Cityrail/Sydney Trains station that would have been required in the original plan. That doesn’t really explain why they couldn’t at least have built a proper footpath in time though.

  12. QPP says:

    I believe the other problem at Dulwich Hill is that the line between the light rail and the heavy rail station is the metropolitan goods line between Enfield/Flemington and Port Botany – operated by ARTC

    Therefore it’s not completely under the control of one of TNSW’s various agencies, so getting across it went in the “too hard” basket. Certainly this was the case when the IWE was a private sector operation under MTS. When TNSW bought them out in 2012 they just took on the project without changing very much about its configuration.

  13. michblogs says:

    “. If you need to make a north-south trip between Dulwich Hill and Leichhardt/Lilyfield, or to go further down to The Fish Markets, Pyrmont, The Star Casino or Haymarket.

    There’s really no contest on these trips, in my view.”

    There’s quite a lot of contest, actually, when you take into account how far all of the trams stops are, from Norton Street.

  14. Daniel says:

    Yep I think they really missed a big opportunity with interchanges. Having a better integration at Dulwich Hill and Lewisham could’ve made the line a much more useful link. Lewisham is especially annoying as there is not much near “Lewisham west” and you have to cross a busy intersect to get to Lewisham station.
    And I can’t help but suspect that there’s potential for the LRT trams to run the route at a higher speed.
    Bit annoyed at the opportunity missed. But I suppose at least it’s finally been extended.

  15. Anthony says:

    The light rail was a mistake. It doesn’t go directly to the city and when it gets there it only goes to Central. As the reviewer said it is quicker on the timetable to get the bus down Parramatta Rd.
    What they should have done was build a T-way for buses. At Lilyfield buses could have gone onto the Citywest Link and across the Anzac Bridge straight into the centre of the CBD near the Town Hall. Instead light rail weaves through Glebe, Pyrmnt and back of Darling Harbour and Haymarket until getting to Central.
    Buses on Parra Rd, Canterbury Rd and other buses could have used the Tway to go express into the City..

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