Commentary: light rail, a victim of its own success

Posted: February 28, 2017 in Transport
Tags: , , , , ,

VIDEO: Sydney Metro West, Transport for NSW (13 Nov 2016)

When first proposed by the then State Opposition in 2010, the principal aim of the CSELR (CBD and South East Light Rail) was to reduce congestion by adding additional capacity to the Anzac Parade Corridor. Ironically, one of the major criticisms of the line today, in 2017 a full 2 years before it is due to open, is that it will not provide sufficent additional capacity. Instead, the argument goes, a metro line should have been built from the beginning. The recent decision to defer, in effect abandon, a planned light rail line between Parramatta and Olympic Park in favour of a metro line would appear to reinforce this argument.

(All this puts aside the shortcomings of the arguments against the CSELR from the recent Randwick Council report – click here and go to pages 32-34 for the report itself; that being it assumes express bus services are set to be scrapped and thus total capcity along the corridor will decrease. The express buses into the CBD along the Eastern Distributor are not only to be retained, but expanded. So the main shortcoming of the CSELR is not that it will reduce capacity, but rather that it will not increase capacity sufficiently to handle the projected growth in coming years.)

Route of the CBD and South East Light Rail Line. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Route of the CBD and South East Light Rail Line. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

In the case of both light rail lines, it appears that they have been a victim of their own success. Local Councils in Randwick and Parramatta pushed for the construction of light rail to improve transport capacity, often in the belief that this was a realistic improvement to lobby for. These were then taken up by the state government and soon began to appear insufficient. In the case of the CSELR, the project has matured so much that it is effectively too late to cancel and start again as a metro. In the case of the Olympic Park project, the change from light rail to metro was possible, but will push back the introduction of rail to that corridor by many years. If these plans are successful, eventually a metro line from Parramatta to Long Bay will provide heavy rail capacity along both of these corridors. Thus providing heavy rail capacity where light rail was first proposed.

Parramatta Light Rail route map. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Parramatta Light Rail route map. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

This raises a key question: why didn´t this happen from the start? There are two likely answers.

One was that the studies into these corridors began with a transport solution (light rail) for a particular corridor first, then tested whether it would be viable (yes) second. They should have identified a congested corridor first, then identified the ideal transport solution(s) second.

Another reason for this was the lack of sufficient funding. Heavy rail is much more expensive than light rail. As an imperfect comparison, the cost of the CSELR ($2.1bn) is much less than the estimated cost of a metro from Parramatta to the CBD ($11bn). Indeed, a Parramatta to CBD metro has been little more than lines on a map until NSW privatisations brought in more money than was initially expected.

Planned route of the 2008 West Metro, which may be indicative of the future Sydney Metro West. Click to enlarge. (Source: Railway Gazette)

Planned route of the 2008 West Metro, which may be indicative of the future Sydney Metro West. Click to enlarge. (Source: Railway Gazette)

The solution to all of these problems would appear to be simple: let Transport for NSW do its job. Have them identify corridors that need upgrades to transport infrastructure. Then let them decide what the best options are for those corridors, along with the cost for each option. The government of the time can then make decisions based on what they can afford at each moment. The good news is that this already happens. The last Transport Masterplan in 2012 operated in this manner.

The problem arises when politicians or interest groups have their special pet projects. It results in deciding on a mode of transport first and then looking for somewhere to build it. This is an answer in search of a question. It´s backwards and temptations to engage in such actions must be rejected by both decision makers and the pubic at large.

With an updated 5 yearly transport plan due this year, now is the time to go back to letting Transport for NSW do its job.

  1. Tony Bailey says:

    There would be no problems with light rail capacity on the CSELR if the RMS was made to provide traffic light priority which would allow two minute headways.

    In a great repeat of Sydney transport history, the mode carrying the greatest number of passengers is being made to kowtow to the far smaller number of motorists.

  2. Bob Masters says:

    Transport NSW needs to adopt the existing 100-year Vision for NSW Transport Plan, evaluate all of the alternatives and then build the best option first. The 23kn Circle Metro or Stage 1 of the NSW Fast Train Network would probably the two best options.

  3. Simon says:

    Can’t agree with the title. It’s a victim of being a poor idea.

  4. Alex says:

    @Bambul: I’m not so sure the government’s planning to abandon the Parramatta Light Rail Stage 2 Olympic Park corridor entirely because of Sydney Metro West, though as I said on my blog “It seems extraordinary that a government can release with great fanfare a proposal for light rail to be provided as a priority in a particular corridor, only to have to defer the project because of the potential conflict with a metro project the same government has subsequently announced to run in the same corridor.”

    I think that that both may still proceed, though the PLR Stage 2 route could be quite different to the previous plan. It may be that the Metro makes only a couple of stops in the whole corridor with the PLR acting as a feeder/distributor between the metro stops. Also I would be very surprised if both interchanged with the main west rail line as the PLR was originally intended to do at Strathfield. I suspect that either PLR or the Metro will interchange with the rail line, but not both.

    On the other hand a lot depends on how the funding is packaged. I think the government plans to spend most of its notional $1 billion on Stage 1 (which has limited potential for value capture) while expecting business in the Olympic Park corridor to stump up most of the costs of Stage 2. This also gives them a handy pretext to walk away from Stage 2 if that’s what they really wanted to do.

    I think that light rail actually is a viable proposition around Parramatta, though as Parramatta Council concluded the Olympic Park corridor isn’t that high a priority. Also, while I do agree with your overall proposition regarding the role of Transport for NSW there is another reason why planning doesn’t proceed this way; the government is more interested in the value capture and deal making around major redevelopment areas than it is in responding to congestion and this helps determine location as well as mode.

    @Tony: actually 3:25-minute headways are planned in the future – supposedly in 10 years’ time though I think it will happen a lot sooner than that. And while you may be able to get down to 2-minute headways this would effectively turn George Street into a light suburban rail corridor, which wasn’t the intention.

  5. Ray says:

    I can’t see the need for both light rail AND a metro in the Olympic Park corridor. It would be overkill and a gross waste of resources when other areas of Sydney are crying out for improved public transport infrastructure.

    I personally favour the metro option, even though it might be some years off. Redevelopment along the corridor, particularly through Camellia, isn’t going to happen overnight and there’s no reason why buses couldn’t service the corridor along upgraded road links in the interim, indeed even in the longer term as a feeder service between metro stations.

    Although very little detail about the proposed metro has been released yet, I would favour the alignment of the previous West Metro with stations on the western section at Strathfield, Sydney Olympic Park, Silverwater, Camellia, Parramatta and Westmead. I’d also suggest an additional station between Silverwater and Camellia on the western side of Duck River. Possibly move the Silverwater station closer to Newington. I don’t view the metro as being an express service between Sydney and Parramatta.

  6. Andrew Roydhouse - TfNSW CSELR Community Rep - Kensington, Kingsford & Randwick says:

    @Bambul – are you not missing the elephant in the room? Extending the ESR which had all the engineering work already completed?

    BTW – the CSELR is to scrap a number of express bus services – the ones with more capacity than those that are being retained. These express services are to be scrapped: 610, 890, 891, 892, 895 as well as the L94 a quasi express service. These are in addition to the other 14 all-stop services. So outside of a 90 minute or so period twice a day there are no buses routes operating between Central/Circular Quay and Kensington/Kingsford and just one (372) between Randwick and Central – nothing to CQ.

    Back to the cost of heavy rail vs the CSELR – yes it is more costly per km but has a significantly higher carry capacity (engineering definition of heavy = high capacity, light = low capacity) than the CSELR even could. The journey times are around half or less (following the ESR plans), no interaction with above ground traffic intersections, no loss of parking nor access to the hospitals/medical centres/chemists along the route.

    Yes $11bn for the Parra to CBD around 26km length, around $425m per km with some serious engineering issues to cover. The ESR extension is a fraction of that distance and on a cost for the distance to be covered – is less than the cost of the CSELR at over $2.2bn and counting.

    The CSELR project cost/benefit attached:

    X zero cost to the public open space taken away,
    X zero value for the over 1,000 car spaces lost permanently,
    X zero cost to the loss of income for businesses along the route
    X zero cost for the time lost due to the 4 years of construction congestion,
    X zero cost to the longer journey times vs the 20 bus routes to be eliminated,
    X zero cost to the 54 bus stops in each direction that lose service from the 20 bus routes,
    X zero cost of people’s time in walking the additional distance between stops (remember the distance between the CSELR stops out of the city is as much as 2km).

    The real cost of the CSELR is many billions more than admitted to. The cost/benefit analysis done for the early 2000s proposed light rail to Cronulla did calculate the cost for the permanent traffic delays on just part of the route and that figure accounted (alone) for more than 50% of the supposed benefits.

    Looking at the costs published by BoF before he departed, the cost per km of tunneling a 3 road lane tunnel (more costly as wider than a twin rail tunnel as well as fume issues from motor vehicles) as well as the NWRL which also had the costs of tunneling AND all underground station civil works at less than $40m per km.

    The ESR from where the tunnels finish more than 500m past BJn just short of Charing Cross to the planned original finish at Kingsford is around 4km. There were to be stops at Charing Cross, Frenchmans Rd, Randwick, UNSW and Kingsford.

    Even allowing for another $300m per km for fit out provides a faster solution with many times the capacity, no traffic congestion worsening, AND could take many buses off the roads.

    Less than $1.6bn for a superior solution that could have been delivered in the same or shorter time frame for a lower ‘nameplate’ cost and significantly lower un-acknowledged costs.

    But the ESR would not provide the excuse for rezoning along Anzac Parade for 20+ storey high rise units as the CSELR has. The Dept of Planning released their map privately in July 2013 showing these rezonings BEFORE the route for the CSELR was ‘officially decided”.

    The locations for the highest buildings just happened to subsequently coincide with the CSELR stops. What a coincidence.

    Would not work for the ESR though – not putting high rise in Charing Cross – Malcolm would not be amused.

  7. On Thursday 9th March, 2017, this article appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald “Premier was sent warning over light-rail rise.” by Sean Nicholls.

    In the story, Gladys Berejiklian is quoted in a statement, “I am very proud of the CBD South East Light Rail project which will boost public transport capacity and make commuting more reliable.”

    Can anyone please prove, with simple facts, that the light rail project will be boosting public transport capacity into the CBD in the morning peak hour (8am-9am), compared to current buses? Please use crush capacity and operational capacity figures when presenting your facts. Thankyou.

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