Why Sydney Light Rail (L2) is slow and how to fix it

Posted: December 16, 2019 in Transport
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VIDEO: Heads up! Play it safe around Sydney’s new light rail (Transport for NSW)

Sydney’s new light rail line, L2 between Randwick and Circular Quay, opened this weekend. The line saw fare free days on both Saturday and Sunday, with 80,000 trips taken on the first day. For comparison, first day patronage figures for other rail lines opened in NSW/ACT during 2019 were 76,000 for Sydney Metro, 17,000 for Canberra Light Rail, and 4,000 for Newcastle Light Rail.

A major complaint about the new line has been the long journey duration, with an end to end trip lasting about 50 minutes. Meanwhile, a direct 373 bus from Randwick to Circular Quay can complete a similar trip from Randwick to Circular Quay in a little over 20 minutes. The Transport Minister, Andrew Constance, has explained that the long journey durations should only be expected in the first 6 months or so and to expect those times to shorten down to the 40 minutes initially promised.

The author of this blog rode the light rail three times: on Saturday from Randwick to Circular Quay, on Sunday from Randwick to Circular Quay, and on Sunday from Circular Quay to Central. Trip times were measured on the two Sunday journeys to gain a better understanding of what is currently contributing to the long durations. The first Sunday trip (from Randwick to Circular Quay) took 51 minutes end to end while the second Sunday trip (between Circular Quay and Central) took 21 minutes. A breakdown of the second Sunday trip is included in the table below, showing that the tram spent 11 minutes in motion (55% of the total trip time), 6 minutes stopped at stations (27%), and 4 minutes stopped due to traffic delays (17%).

The main contributors to long trip durations would appear to be: (1) long dwell times at stations, (2) traffic delays at intersections, (3) flow on effects of slow trams holding back other trams behind them, and (w4) low speed limits, particularly on George St.

Dwell times

Trams currently look to be dwelling for 40 seconds at each station to drop off and pick up passengers. Some stations had shorter dwell times (such as Chinatown Station with 24 seconds), but more often than not the time spent at stations was at least 40 seconds. For comparison, Sydney Metro has dwell times of 20 seconds. With 12 intermediate stations between Randwick and Circular Quay, even a 10 second reduction of dwell times down to 30 seconds would represent a time saving of 2 minutes.

Traffic delays

A lack of traffic light priority, where signals change to allow trams to pass through intersections either without having to wait or with short wait periods, does not currently appear to be in place. The documented trip from Circular Quay to Central was delayed by 3 minutes 35 seconds due to traffic delays, primarily having to stop at red lights. Anecdotal evidence suggests this was on the lower end of traffic delays on the line. Introducing traffic light priority just on this section could reduce travel times by over 3 minutes.

Flow on effects

High frequency services heighten the problem of a slow or delayed tram impacting trams behind it. This was particularly the case at Central Station, where this blog’s author noted dwell times of 3 minutes and 5 minutes while the track ahead was cleared by the previous tram. However, there was also a delay of over 1 minute at the QVB Station, during which the tram ahead could be seen to be dwelling at the Town Hall Station. These are no doubt deepened by the dwell time and traffic delay issues mentioned earlier. Fixing those would aid in providing consistency, reducing the instance of flow on effects. Had this been the case, each trip measured would have been at least 4 to 5 minutes shorter.

Speed limits

George St currently imposes speed limits as slow as 10km per hour. This would seem to be attributed to pedestrians having gotten used to a pedestrianised George St and not yet used to trams . A higher speed limit of 30km per hour, still in line with a pedestrianised zone, would reduce trip durations in the critical Central to Circular Quay section of the line. A hypothetical increase in average speeds in this section, for example from 10km per hour to 15km per hour, could result in a time saving of 4 minutes.

Conclusion

Taking the sum of the observations above gives a total time saving of at least 13 minutes. This could achieve the government’s stated goal of reducing the total trip time from 50 minutes to 40 minutes. Therefore, this goal does appear to be a realistic one.

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