What If: The Parramatta Rail Link had been built

Posted: April 19, 2018 in Transport
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The original plan

The 1998 Action For Transport plan proposed 4 new rail lines to be built in Sydney by 2010. These included the already under construction Airport Line (2000), a short extension of the Eastern Suburbs Line to Bondi Beach (2002), a Parramatta to Chatswood Line via Epping (2006), and an Epping to Castle Hill Line (2010).

Proposed rail lines in the 1998 Action for Transport plan. Click to enlarge. (Source:MrHaper, Wikipedia.)

The final two lines to Parramatta and Castle Hill would provide a new path through to the Lower North Shore from the West and North West without having to travel through the CBD. This would take pressure off the congested Strathfield to City corridor, where trains from the Western and Northern Lines merged, and shift it to the less congested North Shore Line.

Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link

The Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link was originally to go from Westmead to St Leonards. Only the Eastern portion, between Epping and Chatswood, was actually constructed in 2009, leaving the Western Parramatta to Epping portion unbuilt. (Source: Historical NSW Railway Timetables)

This was not the first time such a line had been put forward, with a similar line proposed all the way back in John Bradfield’s 1920s rail plan linking St Leonards to Eastwood.

What actually happened

The new line was plagued by delays and cost blowouts. In one instance, community backlash over a proposed bridge over the Lane Cove River forced the line to tunnel under the river instead. The deep tunnelling did not merely increase cost and lengthen duration of construction, but resulted in the abandonment of a station at the UTS Kuring-gai campus leading to its closure in 2015. Additionally, the steep gradients on the tunnel meant that Tangara and Millenium trains were initially not used on the line, despite these being the newest suburban trains on the network at the time. Rather the interurban OSCAR trains normally reserved for long distance train journeys would be used instead when the line eventually opened.

Due to steep gradients, some trains were unable to run on the Epping to Chatswood Line when it opened. As a result, OSCARS were used as a shuttle service instead. Click to enlarge. (Source:Wikipedia.)

In 2003, the NSW Government announced that the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) portion of the project had been deferred indefinitely. Low levels of projected patronage was given as the reason. This effectively cancelled that half of the project.

The Epping to Chatswood Line eventually opened in 2009 at a cost of $2.3bn. This compared to an initial projected opening date of 2006 and budget of $1.4bn for the entire Parramatta to Chatswood Line.

The next decade would see the PERL reannounced, cancelled, then reannounced again; most recently in 2017s Future Transport Plan 2056, placing the line on the government’s wish list. However, under the current transport strategy it may not open until the second half of the century.

Future Transport Plan 2056. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Meanwhile, urban development of the Upper North Shore and its associated population increase has since led to a rise in demand for rail travel along the North Shore Line, eating up much of the spare capacity that was previously available. So much so that the government is about to begin construction on an extension of the Epping to Chatswood Line (as part of the new Sydney Metro) South through to the CBD in order to add additional capacity.

How it might have happened

The delays and cost blowouts made building the entire line a challenge for the then NSW Government. After all, this was not a time of huge stamp duty revenue streams and zero government debts. In order for the Parramatta to Epping Line to have been built, this was the main obstacle that needed to be overcome.

Perhaps a bit more planning and greater political strength in facing down the community backlash on issues like the Lane Cove River Bridge may have been enough to achieve this. Had this happened then the UTS Kuring-gai campus would almost certainly have survived. Or the Government may have instead chosen to borrow money to complete the project.

Either of these options would have proven politically unpopular, particularly for a government well into a third term. This at least in part explains their decision to abandon the line.

What this would have meant

Had the PERL opened in full last decade it could have significantly changed the direction of passenger flows in Sydney’s rail network. More passengers from the Parramatta area would travel East via Macquarie Park rather than Strathfield, reducing the pressure on the Western Line but increasing the pressure on the North Shore Line. Perhaps the densification of the Upper North Shore may not have happened, with the Parramatta to Epping corridor seeing this densification instead. Either way, the North Shore Line would now be dealing with trains from the Upper Northern Line and Parramatta in addition to those from the Upper North Shore Line.

Unlike the actual present, there would be less talk of the need for a new rail line linking the CBD to Parramatta (in the form of Sydney Metro West) as such a line would have already been built, albeit less directly, via Macquarie Park. However, like the present, there would still be a focus on building additional capacity into the CBD from the North, given the additional pressure on the North Shore Line and its single pair of tracks into the CBD.

So even though the Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Line was designed in part to avoid the need for it, additional rail capacity into the CBD looks to be the one constant that could not be avoided.

Alignment for the 2008 North West Metro. Click to enlarge. (Source: North West Metro Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p. 1.5)

One response would have been to build the 2008 Northwest Metro (see map above) from Castle Hill, but with a Victoria Road approach into the CBD rather than connecting it up to the existing line via Macquarie Park. This would provide additional capacity and act as a relief on the North Shore Line without requiring a deep tunnel under the Harbour, as the line would cross the Parramatta River further West at Hunters Hill.

Alternatively, the Metropolitan Rail Expansion Plan (see map below) would have seen a new line built between Sydenham and Chatswood, connecting the Epping to Chatswood Line in the North through to the East Hills Line in the South. Surface tracks would be built in the existing alignments from Chatswood to St Leonards in the North and Erskineville to Sydenham in the South, with tunnels required between St Leonards and Erskineville. This would create a completely new line from the North West and South West of Sydney through the CBD.

The 2005 Metropolitan Rail Expansion Plan. Click to enlarge. (Source:‘Fixing’ the trains in Sydney: 1855 revisited.)

In the North, UTS would not have closed down its Kuring-gai campus, given that it would now be served by a heavy rail line. However, train frequencies between Macquarie Park and the CBD would be limited without a new harbour rail crossing, leaving Macquarie Park more dependent on road based transport and constraining its potential growth.

Meanwhile, in the West, the Carlingford Line would now be part of the Parramatta to Epping Line. Therefore, the current plans for a light rail network around Parramatta by converting the Carlingford Line to light rail would not be possible. Perhaps Parramatta light rail would still occur, but as a direct line between Parramatta and Sydney Olympic Park to make up for the lack of a West Metro through those location.

Of course, all of this is hypothetical. The Parramatta to Epping Rail Line was never built as originally planned and we will never know what would have happened if it did. If you have your own take on what might have happened, feel free to leave a comment below explaining what you think would have happened or why you think things went the way they did.

  1. Peter says:

    If Parramatta Chatswood and NWRL had been built as planned, there would likely be now more emphasis on secondary links rather than the need to rapidly expand capacity via the Metros.

    We’d clearly still need the Second Harbour Crossing.

    But rather than Parramatta Light Rail, which is addressing the legacy Carlingford line issues, we’d be more likely to be looking at Parramatta to Hurstville and Bella Vista, or Bankstown to Macquarie Park.

  2. Ray says:

    I agree that if the Chatswood to Parramatta Line had been completed as planned, then it would have had a profound effect on future rail planning. One of its principal justifications was to relieve pressure on the existing Western Line corridor through Inner Sydney by diverting Upper Northern Line services to the CBD via the North Shore Line as well as a faster link for Western commuters bound for Macquarie Park and some North Shore destinations. However, I doubt if it would have been a viable alternative for Western commuters bound for CBD or even North Sydney destinations because of its meandering route from Parramatta to Chatswood via Carlingford and Epping.

    I have always maintained that they should have opted for the more direct and faster route from Macquarie University to Parramatta via Eastwood, linking with the Carlingford Line at Dundas, although it was more expensive because of extra tunnelling. It still provided for the now completed link to the Northern Line at Epping from Macquarie University and in addition, a “Y” link from Epping to Eastwood to allow for direct services from Hornsby and the Central Coast to Parramatta via the new line.

    Obviously budgetary considerations swayed them to adopt the cheaper route via Epping and Carlingford by maximising the use of the existing Carlingford Line corridor, although in my view, it’s inferior. Now that the Carlingford Line is to be converted to light rail, I would hope that whichever party is in power when planning commences for the proposed Parramatta to Epping Metro, that the faster alternative route from Parramatta to Macquarie University via Eastwood is also considered. It doesn’t have to go via Epping, as there will still be interchange with the Northern Line at Eastwood and the Metro Northwest at Macquarie University. The major commuter flow will be to and from Parramatta and Macquarie Park/North Shore destinations and the faster the better.

    With regard to the NWRL, the Labor government made a major error of judgement in the route choice, after vociferous opposition from the Cheltenham/Beecroft NIMBYs, by abandoning the proposed original tunnel connection with the Northern Line between Cheltenham and Beecroft and instead substituted a direct tunnel connection with the ECRL at Epping. The original proposal would have allowed for NWRL services to run to the CBD on the Northern Line via Strathfield and also via Chatswood on the North Shore Line. This would have allowed for up to 8tph, split between the two lines to the CBD. In the case of the Northern Line, the NW services could have taken over the paths of the Epping starters, without adding to congestion on the Western Line corridor into the CBD. However, in the Labor government’s dying days before the State Election in 2011, after cancelling the North West Metro and Central to Rozelle Metro proposals, it revived its original scheme for the NWRL including a reappraisal of the direct connection to the Northern Line north of Epping. But it was all too late.

    Similarly with the ECRL, they botched the crossing of the Lane Cove River through Lane Cove National Park by acquiescing to the demands of environmental groups which opposed a bridge crossing and favoured a tunnel instead, which severely compromised the operation of the rail link and potential patronage as Bambul has already pointed out. What still perplexes me to this day, is why the Labor government gave in so easily to the demands of these respective groups when they were unlikely to vote for them anyway. They had nothing to lose if they had persisted with their original proposals, which IMO they should have and we’d have a better system than what’s eventuated.

    In some respects, without getting involved in the SD metro v DD debate, it’s a shame that the original Metropolitan Rail Expansion Program (MREP) was never realised. It would have provided a seamless link between the North West and South West via the CBD, providing extra capacity through the CBD, without the need for major interchange. It could have been constructed in stages, starting from the CBD, rather than from the outer reaches of the network. It wouldn’t preclude the introduction of compatible SD trains (with DD) and ultimately Automatic Train Operation at higher frequencies. Alas that opportunity has now passed.

    As for future rail links if the original Chatswood to Parramatta Rail link had been completed and the NWRL had been integrated with the current network, I agree that the Metro West would have a low priority and I’m sceptical of whether it will provide any relief to the existing Western Line into the CBD. In fact, I believe that the whole metro strategy would be postponed for some years until the deficiencies of the current network, of which there are many, are addressed, not that I disagree with this. Conversion of the Bankstown Line to metro would also be unlikely to occur as a possible MREP would free up extra capacity on the City Circle allowing an increase in service frequency and capacity on the Bankstown Line. It’s possible that the CBD Relief Line proposal from Eveleigh to Wynyard/Barangaroo could also be revived to address congestion on the Western Line and avoid interchange at Central for northern CBD destinations.

    With regard to future rail links in Western Sydney, particularly with respect to Badgerys Creek Airport, I believe that a seamless link from the NWRL to the SWRL and the South Line at Macarthur via the new airport as part of the existing network would have been a better option than the current proposal for extension of the metro system with interchange between the two systems being required. With a single integrated system it would have provided a continuous orbital route from the North West to the South West via both the CBD and Badgerys Creek. It’s ridiculous that the proposed low priority extension of the SWRL to the airport will require interchange to reach it. This is just not high frequency, high density metro territory in the outer suburbs of Sydney.

    Having said that, I do support a future separate metro system along the lines of Ron Christie’s original proposals, with some modifications, primarily servicing higher density inner city regions with multiple stations, which is what metros typically do. I don’t subscribe to the view that expansion of the metro system alone can resolve all of the deficiencies of the current Sydney Trains’ network.

  3. Paul Maynard says:

    I hope the Metro trains can handle the gradient of the rail line to Chatswood. That be an expensive mistake if not.

  4. Tandem Train Rider says:

    > it’s a shame that the original Metropolitan Rail Expansion Program (MREP) was never realised.
    > It would have provided a seamless link between the North West and South West via the CBD,
    > providing extra capacity through the CBD, without the need for major interchange

    Agreed. Of all the plans over the past three decades IMHO the MREP was best in terms of efficacy.

    Back in 1998 I worked a job that had two locations, partially in Sydney CBD and partially in Parramatta. I was appalled at how long it took to get between offices, over 60min.

    The PRL would not have fixed this issue, just re-created the same issues over a different even more convoluted route. Any new western metro will have the same issues.

    If the 2056 transport plan is to have any chance of success, the there needs to be a high speed, high capacity link between the two main urban.

    IMHO the investment we need is to “fix” the main line between Parramatta and Central to achieve a predominant 130kph speed boards. Remove most of the points, ETCS level 2 signalling, and no stops. Perhaps integrate the mains into the flying junctions, but this is not really necessary and potential overkill. The 24km from Parra to Central should be 12 minutes (not 32), every 3 min during peak, every 5 min outside.

  5. Anthony says:

    In hindsight, it is a blessing that the Parramatta to Chatswood railway line wasn’t built. The Sydney Metro currently being built is a much better option.
    It connects a much larger population in the Hills and north west, which is currently unserved by rail, directly to the CBD (which was never to be served by Parramatta to Chatswood line) and other important centres. It connects the City to North Sydney, Chatswood and Macquarie Park with frequent metro services and adds much needed additional capacity to the CBD and North Sydney with new stations.

  6. Ray says:

    @Anthony. Even if the Parramatta to Chatswood Line had been completed, it wouldn’t have precluded a line branching to the North West from Epping or preferably from the quadruplicated Northern Line at Beecroft, which was the original proposal for the North West Rail Link. The latter proposal would have allowed for North West trains to travel to the CBD via both Strathfield and Chatswood.

    The Government’s spin would have you believe that the current Epping to Chatswood Rail Link can’t provide any more than 4 tph, whereas the metro can provide 15 tph, but that’s a complete myth. The existing frequency is limited by the available paths continuing from Chatswood into the CBD on the North Shore Line. The Metro Northwest frequency can be increased, because these services will terminate at Chatswood and won’t continue into the CBD until the metro line is extended. This would equally apply in the case of an extension of the existing network to the CBD via a second harbour crossing. The ECRL in itself is not the limiting factor in the frequency of existing services. There could be more services if they terminated at Chatswood.

    The potential patronage on the Metro Northwest is never going to warrant any more than 15 tph, which could also be achieved using DD trains on the extended existing network and with double the number of seats.

  7. Martin James says:

    If I recall correctly, when the Parramatta to Epping rail link was first announced, the idea was that there would be a direct rail link between Parramatta and Hornsby. The proposal included a new section (presumably underground) from Parramatta to Camelia, then duplication of the line between Camelia and Carlingford, then another new underground section connecting to Epping FROM THE SOUTH SIDE. This would mean the train would continue to travel northwards towards Hornsby. The strategy was consistent with improving rail links to the increasing importance of Parramatta as a business district. I also remember one commentator remarking that a direct rail link between Hornsby and Parramatta was already possibly by taking advantage of the Y link between North Strathfield and Homebush, although this would have made for a longer journey. In any case, I don’t think expected patronage on a direct line between Hornsby and Parramatta via Carlingford would have justified the cost, and agree an underground line between Epping and Chatswood was a higher priority.

  8. Lara says:

    Is it the PERL in the 2056 plan or the Parramatta Light Rail? I wasn’t sure the map was particularly specific about the mode of transport.

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