Posts Tagged ‘Driverless trains’

Over 100,000 people used Sydney Metro today on its first day open to the public, with no fare charged for those travelling between Chatswood and Tallawong. It was the first time in Australia that a driverless train line operated with passengers, but was not without teething issues and delays.

The trains, which travel at a maximum speed of 100km per hour, had a noticeably quick acceleration and deceleration, and complete the journey from end to end in 37 minutes. Platform screen doors are in use and the gap between platform and train is minimal. The stations themselves were modern and fully accessible.

Indicators above each train door show where the train is along the line, as well as showing how far the train has progressed towards the next station. Lights above each set of doors flash red when doors are opening or closing, light up solid green when the doors are open, and light up solid white when the doors are closed.

Some problems did occur. Mechanical failures with trains occurred in both the early afternoon and during the evening, leading to delays of roughly 45 minutes and 15 minutes respectively. With Sydney Metro controlling the number of people who could enter stations to reduce overcrowding, this led to a blowout in queues. Chatswood Station saw a conga line emerge starting from 1:30PM. Many of those in the queue had travelled to Chatswood from the Northwest earlier and were now returning home.

Inside the trains, the air conditioning seemed set to maximum and in-train indicators began having problems from early in the day and were soon turned off. As a result, there was little indication that doors were closing, besides the silent flashing lights that went unnoticed by most. This, together with shorter than normal dwell times, led some passengers to get caught by the doors (including some with prams) or unable to enter/exit in time. The dwell times were noticeably longer as the day progressed, with doors remaining open for 30 to 60 seconds at stations. This would no doubt lengthen journey durations if allowed to continue. However, the in-train indicators appeared to be working again by late Sunday evening and dwell times were back down to a reasonable length.

Trains also routinely overshot their platforms early in the day. This blog’s author counted roughly one in every two trains would stop past its platform screen doors in the early afternoon, requiring the train to reverse before opening its doors. However, this problem did not persist into the late afternoon, by when it was no longer occurring.

All in all it was not a perfect first day, but a few inconveniences should not eclipse the significance of the first complete new train line in Sydney in 40 years. Many of these teething issues, such as the overshooting and in-train indicators, appear to have been fixed by the end of the first day. Tomorrow’s morning peak hour will be a big test for the new line. If all goes well, most of today’s problems will be soon forgotten.

Monday: 40km speed limits for the city

A large part of Sydney’s CBD will become a 40km per hour speed zone for cars by the end of September. The Roads Minister Duncan Gay said that “the new 40km per hour limit zone will operate in the area bound by Castlereagh Street to the east, Kent Street to the west and Hay Street to the south” and was due to be introduced by the Christmas shopping period at the end of the year. Large parts of the central Sydney area already have 40km per hour speed limits, including Millers Point, Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Redfern, Chippendale, Rosebery, Leichhardt, and Erskineville.

Tuesday: NWRL trains announced but will include 6-7 month shut down for Epping to Chatswood Line

Trains on the North West Rail Link (NWRL) will run every 4 minutes in peak and 10 minutes during off peak initially using a fleet of driverless 6 carriage trains. With platforms designed for 8 carriage trains, these can eventually be upgraded to longer trains. The line will initially have a capacity of about 17,280 passengers per hour, which could be doubled (34,560) if the maximum capacity of 30 trains per hour is reached. This maximum capacity of almost 35,000 passengers per hour is higher than the current 24,000 passengers per hour capacity for double deck trains, but will see fewer seated passengers per hour.

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

The line will require a 6-7 month shutdown of the Epping to Chatswood Line in order for it to be converted to operate on the new Sydney Rapid Transit system. This will occur in early 2019 and possibly also late 2018.

Friday: Rail workers lost right to not be retrenched

Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink employees have agreed to an enterprise agreement in which they have given up conditions which protected them from job redundancies in exchange for a higher pay in the agreement. Previously rail employees could not be retrenched if their positions were made redundant, a working condition that had become increasingly rare. The agreement was agreed to by two thirds of employees and according to Transport for NSW the state will save $20m per year.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that 200 rail employees are currently employed despite having their positions being made redundant. The organisation responsible for managing these employees, INS, spends a reported $8m in administrative costs each year. Employees will be able to be retrenched after 12 months if no job is found for them during that time.

VIDEO: Sydney’s new train unveiled as part of NWRL, Transport for NSW

Trains on the North West Rail Link (NWRL), the first part of a future Sydney Rapid Transit network, will run every 4 minutes during peak hour as part of the $3.7bn operations contract signed by the government. This is more frequent than the originally promised 5 minute frequencies previously committed to by the government, while off peak frequencies will remain at 10 minutes.

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Trains on the $8.3bn railway will initially have 6 cars, though platforms will be built to handle 8 car trains. Maximum capacity on the line is 30 trains per hour, twice the planned 15 trains an hour required for 4 minute frequencies. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that 15 trains per hour will allow for 17,280 passengers per hour, with 5,500 to 6,000 of those seated. Assuming that the maximum of 30 trains per hour is reached, this is two thirds the seated capacity of Sydney’s current double deck trains (which are too large to fit through the tunnels being built for the NWRL) but almost one and a half times the total overall capacity of double deck trains. This will partly be achieved by having less seating, with both longitudinal and transverse seating shown on artists impressions. Unlike most of the Sydney Trains rolling stock, the transverse seating shown is not reversible.

Trains will be driverless, the first in Australia to do so. This removes the need to reserve the front and back of the train for drivers and/or guards, allowing passengers to view straight ahead or behind for the first time. They will also benefit from level boarding with no gaps between platform and train, as well as make use of screen doors at platforms. Space will be available on trains for pram, luggage, and bicycle storage.

Trains will run every 4 minutes during peak hour, every 10 minutes off peak. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Tunneling on the new rail line began last week, 4 months ahead of schedule. The line is expected to open in 2019, initially terminating at Chatswood. An under the Harbour rail crossing would form the second phase of the Sydney Rapid Transit network, connecting it to the CBD, while a third phase would convert the Bankstown Line to single deck metro operation and extend the network further to Bankstown. The second phase is conditional on the money raised from the 49% sale of the state’s “poles and wires” electricity distribution network.

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.

The Options

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.

2014-02-02 NWRL Options

Summary of the 3 options available for integrating the NWRL into Sydney’s rail network. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, pp. 8-11)

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).

Map of the Suburban option. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 15)

Map of the Suburban option. A new Harbour crossing would link the NWRL to the SWRL, running double deck trains. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 15)

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.

Map of the Rebuild option. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 23)

Map of the Rebuild option. The Harbour Bridge would be upgraded to operate single deck trains, with the NWRL and North Shore Lines linking up with the Inner West and Bankstown Lines as well as Hurstville Station operating single deck trains. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 23)

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.

Map of the Growth option.Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 30)

Map of the Growth option. A new Harbour crossing would connect the NWRL and a Northern Beaches Line to the Bankstown Line as well as Hurstville and Revesby Stations. The new line would operate single deck trains. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 30)

 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.

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 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.

4 tunnel boring machines like these will be used on the NWRL. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

4 tunnel boring machines like these will be used on the NWRL. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Questions about the decision to build the tunnels for the North West Rail Link (NWRL) too narrow and too steep for existing Cityrail rolling stock have resurfaced as the government signs the tunnel boring contract for them. Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian had already admitted that any savings from narrower tunnels on the NWRL would be outweighed by the costs of retrofitting the existing Epping to Chatswood Line, but it now appears likely that one of the bidders for this contract had offered to bore the tunnels at the larger diametre for the same price.

Rumours of this have been circulating, and were first raised in this blog last month on 29 May in the comments section:

“I heard that one company that tendered offered to bore the tunnels to the regular specification for double deckers at no extra charge to facilitate future integration and they were told to go away.” – Joni (29 May 2013)

It was then put to Ms Berejiklian during question time last week. She was asked whether she had received such advice, a question which she dodged in her response. Her refusal to deny it strongly suggests that she has received such advice. The response did, however, contain one of the best interjections made during questions time, by Labor MP Richard Amery:

Mr MICHAEL DALEY: My question is directed to the Minister for Transport. Given the budget appears to confirm that the North West Rail Link will be nothing more than a privatised shuttle service, has the Minister received any advice that the tunnels for the North West Rail Link could be bored to a width that would accommodate double-deck trains at no additional cost to the project?

Ms GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN: Members of the New South Wales Labor Party should hang their heads in shame in relation to the North West Rail Link.

Mr Richard Amery: We’ll have to, to get through the tunnel.

The logical conclusion from this is that the government’s decision to proceed with narrower tunnels is not due to financial considerations. Instead, it is to guarantee that the NWRL remains a segregated, privately operated system that does not interact with the existing Cityrail network.

This is the dominant vision of the transport planners at Transport for NSW, and has been ever since 2008 when they convinced the state government to build a completely segregated metro line from the CBD to Rouse Hill (since abandoned and replaced with a cheaper option that also uses portions of the existing network rather than building completely from scratch). This would prevent the new line from being operated by Railcorp, an organisation that is seen by these planners as slow, inefficient, expensive, and lacking a user (i.e. passengers) focus. Ms Berejiklian often cites that it costs $10m per day to operate, about the same as the London Underground but with about a quarter of the patronage. She is therefore leading a structural reform of Railcorp, with the creation of Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink, but simultaneously also pursuing the option of a completely new line operated by “anyone but Railcorp”.

The decision to make the tunnels narrower and steeper guarantees the independence of this new line, ensuring that the private operator can be held entirely accountable without being able to blame the government rail operator (e.g. because a delay on Sydney Trains prevented the private operator from running on time), while also neutering union opposition to advancements like driverless trains. It is the poison pill that prevents any future government from having a change of heart and integrating the NWRL into the rest of the Cityrail network. Their fear is that a future government could do this in order to, for example, once again scrap the construction of a Second Harbour Rail Crossing, a project announced and subsequently abandoned so many times that transport planners may have found a way of ensuring it gets built – by holding another line hostage in the process.

Nor would wider tunnels necessarily be some silver bullet, the tunnels would still be too steep for existing rolling stock. And it’s worth remembering that any future tunnels under the Harbour (the government is planning its Harbour Rail Crossing to be an under the Harbour tunnel) may also have to be quite steep and the existing tunnels between Epping and Chatswood are already too steep for some existing rolling stock, resulting in new rolling stock like the Waratah trains being built to be compatible with the steeper gradient. Similarly, there are few technical barriers to prevent future double deck rolling stock designed to navigate the narrower and steeper tunnels on the NWRL. But it will prevent that from happening long enough to see whether private operation of heavy rail results in better outcomes, and should be expanded; or is a repeat failure like the privately owned Airport Line, and should not be repeated.

Correction: It’s been pointed out that Tangaras, although not initially used in the Epping to Chatswood tunnels due to their steepness, now are used in them. This is confirmed by the proposed October 2013 timetable. In other words, rolling stock that was not initially able to be used on the Epping to Chatswood tunnels were later able to be used in those tunnels. This is consistent with restrictions on existing rolling stock on the NWRL tunnels, where future changes could also allow double deck trains to still be used on them.

Video: The Not Zach Braff $2mil Global Short Film Project. For more details, check out You’ve Never Heard of Me.

The North West Rail Link (NWRL) as currently planned, will require many passengers to get out and change trains at Chatswood. Based on government estimates, two thirds of passengers from The Hills in Sydney’s North West would have to do this in order to reach their final destination on the Lower North Shore or CBD. This would continue until a Second Harbour Rail Crossing is built, something which currently lacks a start date, end date, or funding.

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill, plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS - Introduction, page 1-3.)

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill, plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line. (Source: Transport for NSW)

One alternative would be to build additional capacity through the CBD first, and then extend that capacity into the outer suburbs second. In other words, build the Second Harbour Rail Crossing now, and the NWRL and South West Rail Links some time next decade. From a purely engineering perspective, this makes perfect sense – there’s no point in building new lines in the outer suburbs, if all they are going to do is dump passengers in the inner city once they reach a bottleneck.

Melbourne is doing exactly this. It’s current proposal is the Melbourne Metro, a new underground line through the CBD. And it is building this despite calls to build lines to places like the airport or to Doncaster (the latter has similar transport challenges to Sydney’s North West). Not only that, but this has put the Melbourne Metro at the top of Infrastructure Australia’s priority list, resulting in the Federal Government committing $3bn in funding to its overall $9bn cost.

A strong case can be made that the Victorian Government has got the policy right, while the NSW Government has not. But what could be argued is that the NSW Government has got the politics right. This is for a number of reasons.

Building a Second Harbour Rail Crossing will not guarantee that the NWRL will be built, but building the NWRL will force a future government to build a Second Harbour Rail Crossing. In a world where political realities make long term planning a dream rather than a reality, and where transport projects are announced, cancelled, changed, re-announced, and then cancelled again, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The narrower and steeper tunnels, which force the new line into being run completely independently from the rest of the network, will also allow the government to trial new methods of service delivery, such as franchising or driverless operations on trains. The former has allowed for Sydneys bus network to see improvements to services, lower fares paid by passengers, and reductions in operating subsidy paid by the government to provide them. The latter would reduce the marginal cost of each train service, allowing the government to increase services without as large an increase in operating costs. Neither of these could work effectively if the NWRL was integrated into the rest of the network.

Vancouver Sky Train

The SkyTrain in Vancouver is a driverless metro with frequencies that mean you never wait more than 8 minutes for a train. (Source: Jeffery Simpson)

These sorts of changes are possible on an existing line, and the Eastern Suburbs & Illawarra Line has often been touted due to it operating virtually independently from the rest of the network. But it is much harder to convert an existing line compared to a new one. Unions are likely to resist change, and existing passengers may have fears of the unknown. Both of these fears would be eased by seeing such changes in operation first, and if they work then they can be rolled out to the rest of the network.

Of course, for those who consider a Second Harbour Rail Crossing an expensive and unecessary expense, then there is little reason to support what the government is doing. The same goes for those who oppose one man or driverless operation. For everyone else, while this may not be smart policy, it certainly looks like smart politics.

NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian confirmed earlier today that the North West Rail Link will have driverless trains. The new line will be run independently from the rest of the network by a private operator, featuring screen doors and completely automated rolling stock.

Driverless trains are a massive game changer, and have many potential benefits. The most significant is the reduced marginal cost of operating an additional train service. It’s the marginal costs that matter, because it indicates the cost of providing an additional train or savings from cutting one. With lower marginal costs, a much lower level of patronage is needed to maintain a reasonable level of cost recovery via fares. Anecdotal evidence from Vancouver’s Sky Train driverless network (where you never have to wait more than 8 minutes for the next train, even late at night) shows that driverless trains there resulted in marginal cost of $11 per hour.

But there a also reliability and safety benefits. An automated train never calls in sick, or turns up to work late. Meanwhile, human error was responsible for both the Waterfall and Glenbrook disasters, both of which resulted in fatalities.

The transport union has decided to oppose this move, which is unfortunate. Their suggestions that driverless trains will be less safe flies in the face of the Waterfall and Glenbrook examples previously mentioned. It also overlooks the fact that modern aircraft run on autopilot all the time, despite being massive flying machines, where there are many more chances for something to go wrong than a train on a fixed guideway. They probably also fear job losses, but the benefit of driverless trains means that limited resources can be better allocated, to have more station staff or more staff roving trains (something which neither drivers nor guards on trains currently do).

Other concerns have been raised. Advocacy group Action for Public Transport raises the issue of assisting passengers on a train that breaks down between stations on the NWRL, which can be up to 6km apart.

Shadow Transport Minister Penny Sharpe suggests that this represents a broken promise, given that the government had previously said it had no plans to introduce driverless trains. That criticism boils down to how much you consider weasel words to be a broken promise.

Ultimately the decision to go with driverless trains is a good one. It will benefit passengers, and has been proven to work well in many other cities around the world.

Nicknamed “Howard the Tube man” by London Mayor Boris Johnson, Howard Collins has worked in the London transport system for 35 years. He has been the Chief Operating Officer of the London Underground during the 2012 Olympics and was responsible for its restoration and recovery following the 2005 London bombings. On July 1 of this year he will become CEO of Sydney Trains, the suburban portion of the Cityrail network, whose interurban network is to be spun off into a separate NSW Trains organisation as part of a restructuring of Railcorp.

Sydney Trains CEO designee, Howard Collins. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Trowbridge Estate)

Sydney Trains CEO designate, Howard Collins, while Chief Operating Officer of the London Underground. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Trowbridge Estate)

The announcement was followed by a flurry of articles and interviews with the man, during which he made some interesting comments that provide an insight into the views of who is soon to hold one of the most important roles in Sydney. One of these comments is to remind everyone that improvements may take 5-10 years to push through, and not to expect changes overnight. It is interesting to note that, although an executive, he has also worked at the coalface as both a train driver and in signalling.

On customer focus:

One of the major areas in which Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has focused on is making the customer the centre of the transport network, and this is something which Mr Collins agrees with completely. He gives the example of a time when “barons of engineering” would see passengers as a problem and think “wouldn’t it be alright if passengers didn’t muck up our wonderful service” (Sunday Profile, ABC Radio National, 24 March 2013). It is almost reminiscent of Yes Minister when Sir Humphrey complains about how patients just get in the way of effectively running a hospital.

Free wifi, something which has been rolled out in London, was also touted for Sydney as a way to improve the end user experience.

On electronic ticketing:

Bringing in someone with experience with London’s Oyster card, which uses the same system as Sydney’s Opal card, is a smart idea. It brings to the system someone with over a decade of experience in running a transport system that uses technology that is set to be rolled out in the Sydney rail network later this year.

Electronic ticketing will also allow for refunds to be given to commuters when delays occur, something which Mr Collins would like to introduce to Sydney: “when people have had a delayed journey, we can automatically refund their journey on the Tube. And I think that will be something for Sydney to look forward to” (Seven News, 18 March 2013). This is not possible with the current magnetic stripe tickets in Sydney, and resulted in calls from the state Opposition for a fare free day in order to compensate commuters for all the recent disruptions on the rail network.

On Sydney’s rolling stock:

Driverless trains, which were introduced to London while Mr Collins worked for the Tube, are also something that he would like to see in Sydney. He points out that it is important to get staff onboard with such changes, citing the change in London to one man operations (Sydney trains still retain 2 staff on each train). While this is not current government policy, it is speculated that the North West Rail Link, soon to begin construction next year, might be a driverless system, allowing for much higher frequencies due to the much lower marginal costs.

He declares that he was impressed by Sydney’s double deck trains, the new Waratah trains in particular, pointing out that London’s narrow tunnels restrict its trains to single deck. He does not comment on the decision to build the NWRL tunnels narrower and steeper than Cityrail’s current double deck trains can travel through. He does say, however, that there should be a place for single deck train in the Sydney network, pointing out that what matters isn’t the number of seats per train (which is as irrelevant on its own as the number of trains per hour), but the number of seats per hour (which is the product of trains per hour multiplied by seats per train). I would go further and say that what matters more is the number of passengers per hour (including both seated and standing), so long as the standing duration is not excessive.

On private sector involvement:

Mr Collins is open to private sector involvement in the rail network, having been a public servant in public organisations that are both entirely public as well as ones that bring in the private sector. Maintenance is an example of an area which he believes could be performed privately. He does insist that it requires the right guidance, and that “private sector support is a partnership” (Sydney Live with Ben Fordham, 2GB Radio, 22 February 2013).

On Gladys Berejiklian:

The views of both Mr Collins and Ms Berejiklian appear to be quite similar. It is likely that this was one main reason why he was selected, rather than it being caused by him repeating the government’s line. According to Mr Collins, the Transport Minister has effectively given him a mandate to improve the customer experience, and will not be micromanaging him or the rail network.

On safety:

Recent concerns that have been raised about improvements to ventilation systems in some underground CBD stations to deal with emergency fires have been talked down by Mr Collins. Speaking about the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London Underground, he stated that “there’s some things you can do…[other things] aren’t going to be effective” (Sunday Profile, ABC Radio National, 24 March 2013), suggesting that these improvements aren’t as necessary as reports make them out to be.

On congestion charging:

While the congestion charge introduced in London does go to fund public transport, Mr Collins points out that it doesn’t actually bring in very much money. He also dismisses any introduction of a congestion charge for Sydney in the near future, arguing for an increase in rail infrastructure first in order to give people an alternative to driving and allowing them to switch over.

Two years since the last state election and two years until the next one, it’s time to evaluate how the O’Farrell government has performed on the issue of transport. Given the scale of time it takes to implement changes and additions to such a large system (a new rail line take almost a decade from inception to opening), it would not be fair to judge the government on things it has not yet had a chance to reform. At the same time, 2 years is enough to take advantage of low hanging fruit, make operational improvements, and begin the process of changing the direction of the heavy ship that is Sydney’s transport system.

This is a long post, so here is the summarised version:

  • The good: The government has committed to a Second Harbour Crossing, Gladys Berejikliian is a good Transport Minister, the rollout of integrated ticketing (Opal) is on track, there will be a big increase in train services later this year, the South West Rail Link is running 6 months ahead of schedule, the creation of an integrated transport authority (Transport for NSW) will allow an integrated transport network, the government has prioritised public transport ahead of roads, the government learned from the PPP mistakes of the past, and new transport apps are making getting around easier.
  • The bad: Overcrowding on Cityrail is up, on time running on Cityrail is down, no congestion charging, and no committment to a second Sydney airport.
  • The uncertain: Integrated fares, sectorisation of the rail network to untangle it, and driverless trains??

The most important parts at this point in time, in my opinion, are a Second Harbour Crossing (good), integrated fares (uncertain), sectorisation (uncertain), creation of Transport for NSW (good), Opal (good), overcrowding (bad), on time running (bad), Transport Minister (good). our good, two uncertain, two bad. The two bad points could be improved with the October 2013 timetable changes, if some hard decisions are made, whereas the two uncertain points will require a decision some time this year. It will be worth revisiting this in 12 months time to see if the government delivers on those four points, but until then I would rate the government as a B overall (on a scale of A to F). This is giving them some benefit of the doubt, based on a good overall performance in other areas. Without the benefit of the doubt, bump that down to a C.

This is obviously quite subjective, so I welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below.

Capacity improvements

The best way to improve capacity into dense employment centres, like the CBD, Parramatta, or Macquarie Park, is with rail, preferably heavy rail. It is pleasing to see, therefore, that the government has committed to a Second Harbour Crossing, a new light rail line down the CBD through to Randwick, and the North West Rail Link (NWRL), in addition to the South West Rail Link (SWRL) and Inner West Light Rail extension, both commenced under the previous government. The Second Harbour Crossing in particular, expensive and opposed by some as necessary given the cost, will result in a 33% increase in capacity across the network by adding a fourth path through the CBD.

The decision to dump the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) is unfortunate, but was the right call as the priority right now is with the projects listed above. Similarly, the decision to build the NWRL with smaller and steeper tunnels, thus preventing existing double deck trains from using them, could be seen as short sighted. However, it also guarantees that the line will remain separate from the Cityrail network, opening up the possible benefits of a new operating model that has a lower cost to operate and therefore can provide more frequent services (see: Private sector involvement). It also has the benefit of lower construction costs, which would be very beneficial should the Second Harbour Crossing go under the Harbour, as seems likely.

  • Conclusion: A committment to expand the rail network, a Second Harbour Crossing in particular, will improve capacity by 33%. The decision  to make the NWRL tunnels narrower and steeper remains controversial.
  • Grade: B

Service quality

The Cityrail network, which forms the backbone of transport in Sydney, is under a lot of pressure at the moment. Overcrowing is up, while on time running is down. February was one of the worst months in Cityrail’s history, with 5 major disruptions during peak hour causing a suspension of services, which often spilled over onto other lines in the network. You have to go back 4 years to find operational figures this bad. It urgently needs additional train services to ease overcrowding and a more simplified network to improve reliability.

Interior of a Sydney tram. Overcrowding is up on the Cityrail network. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

Interior of a Sydney tram. Overcrowding is up on the Cityrail network. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

Part of the cause of these problems is the network that the government inherited. But 2 years in, it is now incumbent on the government to fix it. So far, this has meant 63 new services per week in 2011, and then 44 new services per week in 2012, for a total of 107 new services per week. This is a good start, but baby steps at best. What is really needed is an increase on the scale of the 2005 timetable, which cut 1,350 weekly services. Previously there have not been enough train drivers or rolling stock to do this, and it remains uncertain whether it’s possible now. Older, non-airconditioned trains may need to be used if the government does not order more Waratah trains to increase capacity.

Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has continually pointed to October of this year as the moment that a new timetable, re-written from the ground up, will be introduced that features a streamlined network with additional services. But few details have been officially released, though some proposed changes have been leaked. Once that is implemented, it would be worth revisiting this issue. Service is also still better than the horror years of 2003-05. These two factors give the government a slightly more favourable rating than would have otherwise been the case.

There have been some minor improvements that are worth mentioning in passing. Quiet carriages have been introduced and phone reception is now available in the CBD’s underground rail tunnels.

  • Conclusion: Overcrowding and reliability are at 4 year lows in the rail network, though there have been minor improvements such as quiet carriages and phone reception. Overall, it’s a poor result.
  • Grade: D

Ticketing and fares

The major issues here are the Opal rollout and integrated fares.

The implementation of Opal appears to be on track, with the new smartcard set to expand to the Manly Ferry on April 8, and then to the Eastern Suburbs and City Circle stations in the second half of 2013. Up to now it appears to have proceeded without any major hiccups, and has gotten further in the rollout than the T-Card did.

There remains little detail on integrated fares other than that cabinet will consider fares at some point in early 2013. This is a potential game changer, and it seems likely that it could be implemented once Opal is fully rolled out.

The government has made a committment to not increase fares beyond CPI unless service levels improve, and has also incorporated the light rail into myZone. Both are positive, though the former is problematic in that it will erode the ability of fares to recover operating costs, as fares only account for about a quarter of the cost to operate Sydney’s transport network.

  • Conclusion: Good progress on Opal, but not on integrated fares. Limiting fare increases and putting the light rail on myZone are also some good minor improvements.
  • Grade: C

Transport Minister

Gladys Berejiklian has been a good Transport Minister for 2 reasons: she supports public transport and she is a strong advocate of it.

She strikes the right balance between public transport (trains, buses, ferries, trams) and private transport (cars, roads). It’s worth pointing out that, despite numerous claims that this government is pro-car and anti-rail, the current government spends more than half of its transport capital works budget on public transport. It’s also worth remembering that private motor vehicle trips will continue to play a key role in providing mobility to Sydney residents, and therefore the road network should still be expanded. But the focus should be on public transport, as it currently is.

As an aside, this support for public transport is unusual for a politician from the conservative side of politics. But both Ms Berejiklian and the Premier Barry O’Farrell are not your traditional hard conservatives, both more accurately described as moderate pragmatists. They both seem to recognise that congestion is costing the NSW economy money and the best way to improve the situation is to focus on public transport.

The Victorian Liberal Government’s top transport project is a road tunnel under the CBD, while the recently elected WA Liberal Government rejected the opposition’s 75km expansion of the rail network in favour of a short airport rail link and light rail for the inner city with a greater focus on improving the road network. Across the Tasman, the Auckland Transport Blog speaks favourably of conservatives in Australia (though really it’s more a comment on NSW, because as seen this is not a view necessarily shared by Liberal Parties in other states):

“I guess this is what happens when you have a centre-right government that isn’t completely insane in its ideological dislike of public transport…I do wonder why centre-right politicians in Australia don’t seem to have the same ideological dislike of public transport as seems to be the case in New Zealand.”Mr Anderson, Auckland Transport Blog (23 December 2012)

The other, and arguably more important, reason why Ms Berejiklian is a good Transport Minister is her strong advocacy. It’s not enough to support something if the cabinet or Premier overrule you. And Ms Berejiklian has demonstrated an ability to get her agenda through the cabinet where it’s been needed. She got cabinet to support an expensive Second Harbour Crossing, despite opposition from Infrastructure NSW Chairman Nick Greiner and took the light rail issue to cabinet 3 times until it accepted her preferred option of George St light rail over the CBD bus tunnel. These two major items, along with numerous other minor ones, were not a fait accompli, and are a testament to Ms Berejiklian’s influence.

  • Conclusion: Gladys Berejiklian is supporter of and effective advocate for public transport
  • Grade: A

Funding, costs and scheduling

Public transport projects in NSW seem to come in over budget and behind schedule all too often. That appears to have been partly continued. The Inner West Light Rail extension has been delayed by 18 months and its cost blown out by $56m, while the cost of the South West Rail Link (SWRL) went from $688m to $2.1bn. However, the SWRL is running ahead of schedule: the new Glenfield Station was completed 4 months ahead of schedule, while the new line is on track to open 6 months early. While this project was started by the previous Labor government, it’s delivery has been overseen by the current Liberal government and that’s what matters. The North West Rail Link has seen some blow outs in costs, but these are tens of millions of dollars in a multi-billion dollar project, so here it’s too early to make any judgement.

On the revenue side, the government has spoken about value capture as a way of funding infrastructure improvement, where property owners whose land values increase because of government built infrastructure contribute to the cost of building it. This is welcome, but no action has yet been taken. It has also openly committed to making users of any new or improved freeways pay tolls to contribute to their construction. This move to a user pays system, where the users of motorways pay for them rather than all taxpayers whether they use them or not, is a welcome one. What is unfortunate, is that the government has refused to introduce congestion charging, as pricing roadspace would allow a more efficient use of it, reducing congestion and the need to build more roads.

  • Conclusion: Cost blowouts and delays remain, though a possible early finish to the SWRL is a welcome surprise. Tolling and funding is a mixed bag, but mostly positive.
  • Grade: C

Governance

The two big reforms made by the government in the area of governance are the creation of Transport for NSW, which brought all transport related departments and agencies under the one umbrella, and the splitting of Railcorp into Sydney Trains and NSW Trains.

Transport for NSW’s creation is a game changer. By centralising planning into one department, rather than independent “silos” in separate departments that rarely communicate with each other, it will allow transport in Sydney to be fully integrated as one network, rather than a collection of separate networks. This extends to things like timetables and fares, but also adds roads to the mix – changing a transit department into a true transport department. All of this which will allow commuters to get from A to B much more easily than is currently the case. It will make examples like the following a thing of the past:

“For example, a customer could travel from St Ives to Sydney, via a private bus to Turramurra, a Cityrail train and walking along the city streets… The journey requires 2 separate tickets and therefore revenue streams, which never meet. The two vehicles are owned, maintained and driven by vastly different staff working for different silos.

The station facility is provided by Cityrail. If they’ve thought to accommdate the bus in the design of the facility, it would be the exception rather than the norm. The timetabling, if it is done at all, would be by a third silo in a distant building, remote from the reality of what’s happening.” – Riccardo, Integrated transport planning – what is it really? (11 June, 2011)

The Transport Master Plan put a great deal of emphasis on moving towards an integrated network, one where it would be much more common practice to take a feeder bus to a transport interchange and then take train, tram, or another bus to your final destination, with all coming frequently and all day, in order to maximise mobility. This would be a big improvement on the current network design, which is designed more around a single seat trip to the CBD than on connections to get you from anywhere to everywhere. However, this will be difficult to implement without integrated fares (discussed above), as currently commuters are penalised for making a transfer as though it is a premium service, when really it’s an inconvenience.

Evidence of the benefits of centralised planning can be seen in the recent decision to house metrobuses in separate depots in order to minimise dead running. This was not previously possible, as planning was done at the depot level, and so shifting buses from one depot to another was not feasible.

A Metrobus on George St in the Sydney CBD. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

A Metrobus on George St in the Sydney CBD. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

The changes to Railcorp are not set to occur until July 1 of this year, so the jury is still out on that.

  • Conclusion: The creation of Transport for NSW, centralising the planning function and creating a true transport department.
  • Grade: A

Planning

NSW has had no lack of plans in recent years, if anything it’s had the problem of too many plans but not enough action. When it comes to just planning, the government had 2 competing visions: the Transport Master Plan from Transport for NSW and the State Infrastructure Strategy from Infrastructure NSW.

To its credit, every time the two plans disagreed, the state government sided with the Transport Master Plan every time. That means it has committed to building a Second Harbour Crossing for the rail network and light rail down George Street rather than the ill-fated bus tunnel idea.

It also dogmatically refused to commit to a light rail line to Randwick until a feasibility study was completed, but then got totally behind the project once it was completed and put before cabinet.

That is not to say that there aren’t concerns about the planning process. For example, the government has committed to the Second Harbour Crossing before having done enough work into it to name a cost or set a timetable for its completion. It was this sort of behaviour that contributed to the $500m spent on the aborted Rozelle Metro by the previous government.

  • Conclusion: The government has sided with Transport for NSW, rather than Infrastructure NSW, leading to a greater focus on public transport, rather than private transport. However, it has a mixed history of committing to projects before having done its homework.
  • Grade: B

Private sector involvement

The failure of PPPs like the Airport Line as well as the Cross City and Lane Cove Tunnels mean that government’s should approach private sector involvement with caution. But that does not mean that it should avoid it entirely.

In NSW, the government has opted to adopt the WA model, rather than the Victorian model. In WA, the government plans and owns the network, but puts the operation of various lines or regions out to tender, allowing competitive practice to drive down costs while maintaining a minimum contractual level of service. The government then pays the operator, but keeps all fares, ensuring that the operator can increase profits only by operating more efficiently, rather than by cutting service. The Victorian model sees the operators keep farebox revenue, which is then topped up by a government subsidy. The disadvantage of the Victorian model is that the operator can increase profits by cutting services with low patronage, even if these services are part of an overall network such as feeder buses.

The chosen model has proven successful in NSW, having been used on the bus network for almost a decade. It allowed the government to put some bus contracts out to tender, resulting in $18m of annual savings for the tax payer. It has also recently been expanded, when Sydney Ferries being franchised last year. The NWRL is also planned to be privately operated, while the Sydney light rail line was recently re-purchased by the government but will remain operated by a private company.

Sydney Ferries were franchised in 2012. (Source: Author)

Sydney Ferries were franchised in 2012. (Source: Author)

The decision to turn the NWRL into a completely separate and privately operated line, but one where commuters still pay the same fare as if they were on a Cityrail train, has the potential to finally stem the bleeding in Cityrail’s costs, perhaps through the use of driverless trains that would allow very high all day frequencies.

The recently introduced unsolicited proposal process has also allowed a proposal for an M2-F3 link to be constructed by the private sector at no cost to the taxpayer. While the outcome is uncertain, the process has been shown to work, and is a great way to increase the stock of infrastructure in Sydney. (Setting aside the involvement of this process for another Sydney Casino, which has raised some controversy.)

  • Conclusion: The government has learned from the bad PPPs of the past and appears to be using private sector involvement as a means, rather than as an ends.
  • Grade: A

Second Sydney airport

The current government has not only ruled out the preferred site of Badgerys Creek for a second airport, it has ruled out a second airport altogether, suggesting that a high speed rail line to Canberra airport could be used as a substitute. Not only is this unlikely to happen, given the high costs involved, but it means passing up on the opportunity to bring jobs to Western Sydney and revitalise its economy, which currently has a huge jobs shortfall that is only predicted to increase.

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Google Maps)

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Google Maps)

Given the lack of support for a second airport, it is then disappointing that the government has not sought to reduce or elimiate the access fee for users of the airport train stations in order to ease the ground transport congestion around the airport, cited as the biggest constraint on Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith Airport at the moment.

  • Conclusion: The government does not support a second airport, and has not done enough to improve the capacity of the existing airport.
  • Grade: F

Transport apps

The makers of transport apps have seen an increase in the amount of transport data available to them. This has allowed for Google Transit to expand to all forms of public transport (previously it was just light rail and the monorail), and has also now included bike paths (though it seems Google did this on its own, rather than with help from the state government). More recently real time bus data was provided for STA buses, and will hopefully later be extended to all buses and also trains.

  • Conclusion: The government has been proactive in improving transport information to commuters by involving third party developers.
  • Grade: A

The recent article by Sandy Thomas made numerous criticisms of the current government’s policy choice on heavy rail in Sydney, but ended by making a plea with the government to build the North West Rail Link’s tunnels at a width and gradient sufficient to allow Cityrail’s existing double deck trains to pass through it. Not doing so, Mr Thomas argues, would be akin to repeating the mistake of 1855 where different rail gauges were set for different states, forever preventing any movement of trains from one network to another. While his other arguments went so far as being wishful thinking or even approaching conspiracy theories, this is the one point which has garnered the most public support and is the most likely element that the government would change, if it changes anything at all.

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill, plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS - Introduction, page 1-3.)

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill, plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS – Introduction, page 1-3.)

I am still undecided as to what I think about this move. It does concern me that this will create 2 separate systems, one of which will eventually go as far as Hurstville, Cabramatta, Lidcombe, and Rouse Hill, running exclusively single deck trains. Will these corridors, or even part of these corridors still be using single deck rolling stock 50 or 100 years from now? The simple answer is we just don’t know, so the safe thing to do it to build them with the ability to convert them in future, just as part of the current network is being converted now.

This plan appears even more absurd when you realise that the savings from the NWRL tunnels will be offset by the cost of converting the line between Epping and Chatswood for single deck trains. In other words, it will cost more than creating a new line with just double deck trains.

Countering these are 2 points in favour that are worth considering. First is that if a Second Harbour Crossing is built under the Harbour, then narrower and steeper tunnels will result in much more significant cost savings than they would on just the NWRL portion. Second, there is nothing to say that double deck trains in the future could be small enough and powerful enough to fit into the narrower tunnels and make it through the steeper gradients. In fact, a cynic could argue that since the tunnels are only barely small enough to prevent existing rolling stock from fitting though them, that this was purposely done to prevent only current rolling stock from using it, rather than any potential future rolling stock. It also deserves remembering that the Epping to Chatswood Line’s tunnels were built too steep for some Cityrail trains. So this is not necessarily as much of a long term line in the sand that the different rail gauges of 1855 were (something which can never really be overcome).

At the heart of all of this is whether an independent single deck metro is the best way to run the NWRL. I think it is, on both cases. An independent line will allow the government to escape the bottomless money pit that Railcorp has turned into, perhaps even result in driverless trains that can achieve very high all day frequencies while allowing the cost savings to be directed at better staffing at stations or more roving security guards/police rather than drivers and train guards (responsible for telling you to stand clear of the doors rather than any tangible security) which are redundant given today’s modern technology. A single deck metro is also appropriate for the global economic corridor that the NWRL will cover and its high turnover passenger nature, preventing dwell times from ballooning out and thus maintaining a high level of on time running.

Making the tunnels narrow and steep guarantees that the NWRL will end up as an independent metro line. It prevents any future government from having second thoughts on the matter. So clearly, if you disagree with how the NWRL should operate, as Mr Thomas does, then the tunnel’s decision is the biggest point of focus for you. Therefore, to justify the tunnels as planned, you need to have no doubt in your mind that this is the best option to take.

And this is why I’m still undecided. I have little doubt that an independent, single deck metro line is the best way forward on the NWRL, but that is not a complete absence of doubt. So while I remain open to the decision to build narrower and steeper tunnels, I am hesitant to endorse it. But I do find myself currently leaning towards it.

EcoTransit recently produced a video attacking the government’s plans for the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL). It’s a well produced video that provides some good background and makes some good points. But it’s also a bit off the mark in some instances, which are discussed below, following the video itself. The video makes two main arguments about the NWRL: that it should be double deck and that it should be publicly operated.

The video gives some background on how metro systems developed around the world, where typically you have a long distance commuter rail system (often but not always double deck) combined with a short distance metro rail system primarily within a roughly 10km radius of the CBD. Commuters from the suburbs would catch a commuter rail train into a central station, where they would change for a metro train to travel within the CBD itself. Residents of the inner city could catch a metro train directly. Commuter rail is designed around peak hour travel, and off peak will often only have hourly services, while metro rail is all day and frequent.

The NWRL alignment. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

The NWRL alignment. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

The beauty of Sydney’s system, the video correctly points out, is that rather than having 2 separate systems, it combined the two. And so Cityrail trains from the suburbs arrive at Central Station, but rather than terminating there, they continue through an underground CBD subway. This has many advantages, primarily allowing a seamless journey into the CBD, and avoids the need for large amounts of scarce CBD space that would be required for a commuter rail to metro rail interchange. But it also has its disadvantages, such as infrequent trains outside of peak hour and unreliable services during peak hour, which the video does not address.

The video also criticises the previous Labor government’s various metro proposals, the Northwest Metro (which would travel under Victoria Road) and the CBD Metro (a shortened version of the previous proposal). The problem with these metros is that they seemed to be designed as a way of building metros almost for the sake of building metros. They were the wrong solution for Sydney, not because they were metros but because they were the wrong metros. Luckily, they were eventually dumped, but not before the government spent $500m on the project.

Single deck metro systems are designed for short distances to dense city centers with stations spaced about 1km apart. The Northwest Rail Link does none of these, and is inappropriate for a metro system.

A metro would definitely be inappropriate for making a long distance trip to a single employment center, these are trips where passengers get on at suburban stations and then all get off when they reach the CBD. While most of Sydney is low density suburbia, the NWRL alignment is a dense corridor very similar in nature to the CBD. It is full of employment and residential centers, resulting in a constant turnover of passengers both getting on and getting off at many stations along the way. Single deck trains, which lack the bottlenecks that double deck trains’ stairs have, ensure that dwell times will remain low at these stations. In fact, the proposed NWRL’s 47km alignment from Cudegong Rd to the city, which passes through the “global economic arc” of Macquarie Park, Chatswood, St Leonards, North Sydney, and the CBD, is probably the only possible long distance (significantly over 10km-20km) rail line in the Sydney basin that suits metro style operations.

Cityrail doesn’t need to convert to metro to increase the existing frequency from 20 trains per hour to 30 trains per hour. RER has 2 minute headways with double deck trains, so Sydney could get higher frequencies without shifting to single deck.

Comparing the headways of Parisian double deck trains to those of Sydney single deck trains is comparing apples with oranges. Paris has a far more advanced signalling system that allows trains to safely run closer to each other. The point is that single deck trains will, all else equal, always be able to run more frequently than double deck trains. This is due to single deck trains having shorter dwell times from quicker boarding/exits by passengers. You need no more evidence of this than to see that while Paris’ RER system has 120 second headways, the Paris metro’s headways are even shorter at 85 seconds.

NOTE: Dwell times are important, as long dwell times lead to delays. These delays then limit the number of trains that can pass through a given station each hour. Once you limit the number of trains per hour, you are reducing the overall passenger capacity of that line. It is not uncommon for 17 Northbound trains to cross the Harbour Bridge during the busiest hour in the morning when 19 are actually timetabled. So ensuring low dwell times can actually increase passenger capacity.

Paris is replacing its single deck trains with double deck trains. Having converted all Cityrail trains to double deck, going back to single deck would be a step backwards.

This is true of the RER system, which is their commuter rail network, and something that Sydney did many decades ago. But they are not converting their metro system to double deck. A metro needs to be able to handle high passenger turnover, and this is the achiles heel of the double deck train. They provide lots of seats for a comfortable long distance journey, but they do this at the expense of allowing high numbers of passengers to get on and off quickly.

Double deck trains have 50% more floor space, meaning 50% more capacity.

The former is true, and the latter is also true if the configuration of seating is the same. However, it is not. Single deck trains will have fewer seats, allowing more space for standing passengers. Double deck trains cannot achieve this without a blowout in dwell times as the stairs into the vestibules are only wide enough for one person at a time. Single deck trains have no such constraint and so you are able to remove seats in order to increase capacity without longer dwell times.

A metro’s lack of seating will result in passengers from the Northwest to stand if making a 40 minute journey into the CBD via the NWRL.

Unlike other lines in the Cityrail network, the NWRL is not one where passengers continue to baord the train as it approaches the CBD, then spill out in the city. They will continually board and exit the trains as it passes through job rich areas like Macquarie Park or the North Shore. This constant turnover of passengers means seats will often become available during the journey. Only about half of all commuters predicted to use the NWRL are expected to be travelling to the CBD, with almost half getting off before crossing the Harbour. Additionally, those making the long journeys, say from Rouse Hill to the CBD, will be boarding an almost empty train, thus be almost guaranteed a seat the whole way (a similar mirrored scenario will exist for the return journey in the afternoon, where high passenger turnover will provide many opportunities for a seat if the train is full when it leaves the city).

Large number of passenger will have to change trains at Chatswood, which could lead to many passengers getting stuck on the platforms, particularly if a CBD bound train is cancelled.

This is absolutely true, and one of the biggests risks that the NWRL poses. However, the fault of this is not that the NWRL is being operated as a completely different system to the Cityrail network, but that there is only so much capacity across the Harbour. If NWRL trains were sent directly into the CBD, then it would limit the number of North Shore trains that would be able to do the same. The only real solution here is to build in more capacity. In the short term this means a quadruplication of the track between Chatswood and St Leonards, allowing NWRL trains to continue through to St Leonards, and in the long term it means building a Second Harbour Crossing.

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, promised the NWRL would be integrated with the Cityrail network and only made these changes to get the support of Infrastructure NSW Chairman, Nick Greiner, given that Mr Greiner is a big proponent of privatisation.

It’s true that Ms Berejiklian broke her promises on the NWRL. She promised it would be operated with double deck trains and that trains from the Northwest would travel directly through to the CBD. Both of these will not be the case. (Incidentally, the government has also promised that the NWRL trains will not be driverless, which hopefully will be another broken promise given the benefits that driverless trains would bring.)

However, it’s not clear that this was done to appease Mr Greiner. It would appear more likely that Infrastructure NSW was told that the NWRL was government policy and not negotiable, given the government’s desire to not be seen to back away from a transport infrastructure project like the previous government had with its metro proposals. Nor did the government seek Mr Greiner’s approval on other projects (other than WestConnex), as every time the Transport Plan and Infrastructure Plans disagreed, the government opted to take the advice of Transport for NSW’s report.

Instead, this raises the questions over whether privatisation is inherently a bad thing. If privatisation is implemented like the Airport Line was, were a private company owns the stations and charges a station access fee, then it will not work as part of an integrated transport system. However, if it is implemented like the Sydney bus network or Sydney ferries, where the government pays private operators to run the vehicles, but the government sets and collects fares from commuters, then it can be a way of reducing costs while ensuring services are maintained at a contractually set level. All indications are that the latter is true in this case, particularly given that the government has seen Cityrail’s costs spiral out of control. So if introducing private operators is one way of cutting costs, then it can allow for more services with the same transport budget.

Building the NWRL with smaller tunnels will forever shut out the rest of the Cityrail network from using those tracks as well as a future Second Harbour Crossing.

This is unfortunate. It does not even seem that the savings from smaller tunnels will result in a significant cost saving either. In fact, the cost savings will be less than the additional costs that will be incurred in converting the Chatswood to Epping Line to be metro compatible. The separation of NWRL services itself will provide an added benefit of improved reliability through additional sectorisation, the line does not have to be built so as to permanently shut out all double deck trains.

The completed second Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) was released yesterday, and it has some further details on the project.

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill (green), plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line (blue). Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS – Introduction, page 1-3.)

NWRL Details

The new rail line is expected to remove 14 million cars off the road each year in 2021, rising to 20 million by 2036. This 14 million cars figure compares to an earlier figure of 9 million new passengers per year in 2021, prepared by NSW Treasury in July of last year, which suggests that the patronage forecast has been increased following the addition of 2 more stations to the line (Bella Vista and Cudgegong Road) and from higher frequency, higher speed services provided by single deck compared to double deck trains.

The estimated completion date remains 2019, with tunneling to begin in 2014, then trackwork and station construction to occur between 2016 and 2018.

Construction timeline. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL Environmental Impact Statement – Executive Summary, page 8.)

The new line will commence from the existing stub tunnels at Epping that were designed as the beginning of the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL). New stub tunnels will be built on the new line to allow for a future PERL to still be built as originally planned. This means that a future PERL will also be a single deck metro system.

No specific operating times are given, other than “early morning until late at night”, which suggests similar operating hours as the existing Cityrail network, rather than a 24/7 operation. The trains themselves are listed as having a capacity of 1,300 passengers (presumably including standing passengers), compared to the existing double deck train “crush” capacity of approximately 1,200.

The line will see an increase in maximum speeds, from the existing 80km/hour to 100km/hour, and have frequencies of 12 trains per hour during the peak and 6 trains per hour at other times, with the potential to increase frequencies to 20 trains per hour if demanded. Commuters continuing past Chatswood will need to change there for a connecting train, with peak hour frequencies increased to 20 trains an hour on the North Shore line. This means that during peak hour there will be a train every 5 minutes on the NWRL, and every 3 minutes on the North Shore Line.

Artist’s impression of the new Kellyville Station. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS – Chapter 6, p. 6-53)

4,000 new park and ride spaces will be built on selected stations, while all stations on the line (including the existing Epping to Chatswood portion) will have kiss and ride, bike storage, taxi ranks and bus interchanges. Once completed, the bus network will be redesigned to have shorter distance but frequent feeder buses into the new rail line rather than long distance buses connecting directly to the CBD or North Sydney. This had already been announced previously, and no additional specific details are available are included on what the bus network changes will be.

The new line also includes a stabling yard on the Cudgegong Road end of the line.

Unanswered Questions

The new single deck metro line from Chatswood to Rouse Hill will require a conversion of the existing line between Chatswood and Epping to be compatible with the new rolling stock. Yet missing from the EIS (or hidden away in a hard to find place) is any mention of a timetable for when this will happen. The line will presumably have to be shut down while this occurs, and this would likely happen right before the full line opens, causing a not insignificant level of disruption. So the question remains: how long will the Epping to Chatswood Line be closed?

The EIS also contains information on peak hour frequencies on the North Shore Line of 20 trains per hour. This had already been hinted at, so it is a confirmation of an open secret rather than new information. What is missing is details of what sort of off peak frequencies will exist on the North Shore Line, and how they will be organised to interface with the 6 trains per hour on the NWRL that start and end at Chatswood.

Additionally, what will happen on the Northern Line? It only has 1 track pair, yet operates both local (all stops) and express services. The inability of the express services to overtake the local services means the capacity is capped at 8 trains per hour (4 local, 4 express). In order to increase this, either the express trains must be scrapped or the tracks must be quadruplicated to allow express trains to overtake local trains. The latter is preferable, though will incur a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars, given that the Northern Line currently shares the title of highest level of overcrowding (average passenger levels equal to 150% of seats, above the recommended maximum “crush capacity” of 135%) with the Bankstown Line. Recent reports in the Herald suggest that this option is being considered by Transport for NSW, and this was further reinforced by comments made at recent Budget Estimates hearings where it was argued that these, and other costs, have already been budgeted for.

The maximum frequency for the NWRL is quoted as being 20 trains per hour, and not 28 or 30 trains per hour as had been previously suggested in media reports. One of the purported benefits of single deck over double deck trains was the higher frequencies possible given the shorter dwell times and higher acceleration/deceleration rates of single deck trains. In fact, the Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has even pointed out that improved signaling technology is expected to raise the frequency of double deck trains to 24 trains per hour.

Finally, there is still no answer to the question of whether the NWRL will be a driverless system. The government’s line thus far is that they “are planning for the trains on this important rail link to have drivers”. This new phrase: “no plans” has become the new weasel word, as Sean Nichol’s explained so well in last weekend’s Herald. That is not to say that driverless trains are a bad thing, quite the contrary. But the government knows that it would face a backlash from the union were it to publically declare it was seriously considering the option. And rather than have to wait a long 7 years to demonstrate the benefits of a driverless metro, it seems to have chosen to hold off until as late into the process as it can in order to minimise union clashes.

Media reports

Bus services to go when rail link opens, Sydney Morning Herald

New rail line to slash car trips, Daily Telegraph

Noise annoys along North West Rail Link link, Daily Telegraph

North West Rail Link: Have your say, Northern District Times

North West rail station designs released, Hills Shire Times

The announcement of a stand alone Northwest Rail Link, followed up with a Second Harbour Crossing, has been criticised as a broken promise by the O’Farrell Government. What has received less attention is the unanswered questions that this announcement leaves. It’s important to remember that the main reason why Infrastructure Australia refused to back funding for the NWRL was a number of unanswered questions in the submission by the NSW government.

  • Will the NWRL use driverless trains?
This question was raised earlier and hosed down by Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, who said she planned for trains on the NWRL “to have drivers”. But given the recent back flips this question deserves to be asked again, particularly considering the NSW Auditor General recently found drivers spend only one third of their time actually driving trains. Perhaps the government only intends to introduce ATO (Automatic Train Operation) and ATP (Automatic Train Protection), then running trains on “auto-pilot” but with a staffed train so that someone can take over if need be (as is the case on all commercial airlines these day). This could allow one person to act as driver and guard, as is the case in London or Singapore (which have automatically operated trains, but maintain someone on board to open/close doors and take over for manual operation if needed).
  • Will the NWRL tunnels be big enough for double deck trains, or only big enough for single deck trains?
Smaller tunnels would probably end up being cheaper, but would also further isolate the new metro portion of the network by preventing double deck trains from using it.
  • What happened to the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link?
Previous reports suggested that this had been deferred to 2036, but would still eventually be built. This new announcement makes no mention of the PERL. Perhaps it has been abandoned altogether due to the high price of a Second Harbour Crossing (costed at $10bn by industry experts). If it has, then will there be an alternative transport connection built to connect Parramatta to Macquarie Park (such as light rail or bus rapid transit).
  • Why isn’t the Inner West Line being included in the future metro network South of the Harbour?
Previous incarnations of this plan (here and here) did include the Inner West Line as a metro line. The high density housing along this line, along with stations spaced quite close to each other and the potential to separate this line from the rest of the network made it a good candidate for conversion to metro.
  • How will the Northern Line operate?
It is clear that trains will no longer go from Hornsby to the City via Macquarie Park anymore, and there have also been reports that Northern Line trains will go to Sydney Terminal at Central Station rather than going through the City and then across the Harbour. But the Northern Line is mostly dual track, meaning express trains have trouble overtaking slower local trains that stop all stations. This makes it difficult to increase services on the Northern Line. Yet increasing capacity on this line would alleviate much of the pressure from passengers on the NWRL, who would then have the option of changing either at Epping or Chatswood for CBD journeys.
  • Will there be a reduction in M2 buses before a Second Harbour Crossing is built?
The government had previously planned for a 66% reduction in M2 buses from the Northwest into the CBD once the NWRL opened, but that was when the NWRL would connect directly into the CBD itself. This seems to boil down to a question of where to put the congestion: trains from the North Shore into the City (which are at 110% of capacity) or buses from the M2 in the Sydney CBD (which is currently overflowing with buses coming across the Harbour Bridge).
  • Will the Richmond Line be attached to the Cumberland Line?
This has also been raised in the media as a possibility, yet speculation was not confirmed nor denied in the government’s recent announcement. Will trains from Richmond now run South towards Liverpool rather than East into the City?
  • Will quadruplication of track between St Leonards and Chatswood be fast tracked?

Of the proposed link between Chatswood and the CBD, this portion is the quickest, cheapest and easiest to complete given that it is short, above ground and requires little or no land acquisitions. It also connects directly to the terminus of the proposed metro line, extending it to St Leonards, which should also go some way to reducing the strain on capacity that will be caused on city bound North Shore Line trains.

Gladys fixing the trains

Unanswered questions remain for the Transport Minister. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

None of this takes into account the Second Harbour Crossing. Ms Berejiklian has refused to discuss details on that, saying that not enough work has been done on it to comment on the timetable or cost. Yet one thing that does seem to be clear is that this crossing will be under the Harbour, and thus result in a very expensive crossing. So there is one more question that must be asked:
  • Will all options for a Second Harbour Crossing be explored?

New track could be hung underneath the Bridge. Alternatively, the Easternmost lanes on the Bridge could be converted to rail, as they were when the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened, and a new road tunnel built under the Harbour (more cheaply than a rail one) to maintain roadspace for private vehicles. A new underground rail tunnel is surely not the only option, although it probably is the most expensive one and therefore most likely to either be cancelled/deferred or to suck the oxygen out for many other infrastructure projects.

The announcement on the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) and how it will fit in with the rest of the rail network contained a number of broken promises. Promises to use double deck trains rather than a single deck metro, to not privatise rail, and to run the NWRL directly into the CBD.

Of these broken promises, the first hasn’t caused much angst other than a perceived reduction in seats, but as Premier Barry O’Farrell has pointed out: services every 5 minutes means there will actually be more seats available than with services running every 15 minutes. The second broken promise is a grey area, and comparisons have been made to the Airport Line, with its privately owned stations and $11 access fee ontop of the regular fare. While the NWRL will be privately operated, the government will still own the infrastructure: stations and rolling stock, as it does with ferries, all non STA-buses and the light rail (all of which are also privately operated). This means that fears of additional access fees, as happens on the Airport Line, will probably not happen, especially given the government knows how unpopular such a decision would be.

However, it’s the final broken promise that will probably get traction: no direct services into the CBD. It’s understandable why people are angry about this. If passengers have to get off at Chatswood, and North Shore trains already run at an average of 110% capacity, then how will they handle all the passengers from the NWRL unloading off a train every 5 minutes? The problem with this thinking is that it assumes that one variable will change (number of trains from the NWRL) while another remains static (number of trains from the North Shore Line). The reality is that these changes would allow for an additional 6 trains per hour to run on the North Shore Line (4 that now turn around at Chatswood rather than continuing into the CBD and 2 from existing spare capacity), an increase in capacity of over 40% for the North Shore Line. Signalling upgrades could increase this further to almost a 70% increase. The simplified timetable (which reduces the number of lines using that track from 2 to 1) also means fewer disruptions.

The problem with this promise is really that it should never have been made in the first place, as it took the best option off the table (as dictated by the the lack of CBD capacity). The bigger mistake here would be to follow through on a bad promise, rather to bite the bullet and make the unpopular but right decision.

Sidenote: I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me on this. But I’ve never been a fan of oppositions making promises of what they will do in government before they know all the facts. I have a lot of respect for governments that do go back on their promises when they realise those were a mistake. Though I would have preferred that they not make a hollow promise in the first place.

Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian’s comments seem to reflect this thinking:

“I assumed when I became Transport Minister that double decks were the way to go but expert advice, community input, industry input, demostrates to me and also looking at what happens around the world, the best way to go for the north-west rail line is single deck” – Gladys Berejiklian, Transport Minister (20 June 2012)

And I think she’s right. This is all part of a process to simplify Sydney’s rail network, so that each line is completely separate, with its own stopping pattern and own rolling stock. The mixed system currently means dropping to the lowest common denominator: a delay in one part of the network spills over to the rest of the network, express trains cannot overtake local trains, passengers wait for their specific train on overcrowded platforms rather than catching the next one causing long dwell times at stations, etc.

Sydney metro network

The proposed future Sydney metro network. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Sydney’s Rail Future, Transport for NSW)

Despite my personal misgivings towards a metro in the past, I’ve recently become a supporter of such an idea. A single deck metro system is off the shelf, meaning Sydney could just buy trains designed for the rest of the world rather than expensive custom made trains. If they are driverless, or atleast combine the role of driver and guard thanks to automation, then high frequencies can be maintained all day. And by moving to a private operator, this will also side step the bureaucracy and poor customer service of Railcorp and the resistant trade unions that value their working conditions above a good transport network.

Tomorrow I’ll put up my third and final post on this topic. It will be about unanswered questions arising out of this announcement.

A report in the Australian Financial Review and Ten News yesterday suggests that Transport for NSW wants the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) built with the potential for driverless trains to run on the line. Such a system exists in many parts of the world, such as Vancouver, London or Dubai.

The main advantage of this is the low cost, as you no longer have to pay a driver to operate the train. This benefit would be seen most clearly during the off-peak, where you can maintain frequent services thanks to the lower variable costs (most costs are up front and fixed: track, stations and trains). Jarrett Walker describes how on the Vancouver driverless metro: the SkyTrain (portions of which are driverless) you never have to wait more than 8 minutes for a train, no matter what time of the day or week it is, helping to maintain high patronage all day rather than just during peak hour. The reason it can do this is the efficiency that comes from the low operational cost.

Vancouver Sky Train

The SkyTrain in Vancouver is a driverless metro with frequencies that mean you never wait more than 8 minutes for a train. (Source: Jeffery Simpson)

The news piece from Ten News presents 2 arguments against driverless trains: cost and safety.

The first is by Shadow Transport Minister Penny Sharpe, who says that this is just a cost cutting exercise. That is correct and is simple economics – the lower the variable cost of running one train, the more trains you can run for the same amount of funding. You could argue that the government should just increase funding to achieve this, but then you could have increased services even more. Either way, lower cost is a good thing, not a bad thing.

The second is by Bob Nanva of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, who is concerned about the safety of not having a driver on the train. He cites the case of a driverless train on the London Underground that went 6km before it was stopped, almost hitting another passenger train in the process. There are 2 problems with this assertion. First, human error has been responsible for 14 deaths in Sydney in the last 15 years due to the train accidents at Waterfall and Glenbrook, neither of which may have happened with an automated system that takes human error out of the equation. Second, the driverless train was actually an engineering carriage without a driver that was being towed by another train when the coupling between them broke. Despite the towing train having a driver,which under this argument should have detected the incident and dealt with it, this was not noticed until signallers detected it and resolved the potential disaster. In other words, it was the driverless controls in place that prevented any escalation of the situation, not the presence of a driver. I would therefore argue that a driverless system is actually more safe, not less safe, than one with drivers.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that Premier Barry O’Farrell’s response to questions on this led to him responding that “it’s not a prospect that’s been put to me” and that Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian stated that they “are planning for the trains on this important rail link to have drivers”, suggesting that this is just Transport for NSW making sure that the NWRL is future-proofed for driverless trains should a NSW Government ever choose to go down that path in the future. But it leaves the option open to that, rather than being the start of a process to make it happen.

Realistically, the government would first have to remove guards from trains, arguing that one person should now be capable of performing the duties of driver and guard, before making the move to trains that are no longer staffed on a permanent basis. And this itself would be a huge fight with the union. When and if it does that, then we can start speculating on whether driverless trains might become a reality.

The finalisation of the new transport master plan for NSW is one step closer, with the release of a discussion paper outlining the current context and key challenges for transport in NSW. The next step is public consultation on the masterplan, which will be considered and incorporated into the actual masterplan that is to be finalised later this year. To make a submission, you can contact Transport for NSW on masterplan@transport.nsw.gov.au by 27 April.

The key points raised in the discussion paper (relating to commuter transport in Sydney – I have skipped over freight and rural transport), along with the page references are covered below. The main points that I thought were missing, and will mention in my submission, are congestion charges for driving in the CBD and bike share, both of which I discuss briefly below.

Introduction

There are a number of corridors in Sydney which will see capacity constraints over the next 20 years. These include (1) CBD to Northern Beaches, (2) CBD to Inner West, (3) CBD to the airport, (4) airport to South-West Sydney, and (5) Macquarie Park to the Northwest Growth Sector (pp. 39-40).

Corridor capacity constraints over next 20 years

Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan Discussion Paper, page 40.)

530,000 new jobs will be created in Sydney in the next 2 decades, 50% in Western Sydney and 20% in the global economic arc covering the Macquarie Park -Chatswood-St Leonards-North Sydney-CBD-airport are (p. 34).

When deciding what should be done in order to meet transport needs, the first priority should be small enhancements to existing infrastructure (such as track duplications, platform extensions, creation of bus lanes, improved timetables, better interchanges, etc) to deal with bottlenecks/pinchpoints rather than expensive construction of new infrastructure. Where this cannot be done, new infrastructure should be the solution (p. 41). All current projects across Sydney are also displayed:

Current transport projects 2012

Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan Discussion Paper, page 14.)

Integrated transport system

To be successful, the transport system in Sydney needs to be a single integrated network, rather than a patchwork of competing networks that do not allow for an easy and simple trip from point A to point B. To this extent, the NSW government has created a new transport authority: Transport for NSW (seemingly modelled on Transport for London) which puts customers at the centre of planning and decision making (p. 3). It also accepts that an integrated public transport system uses buses and light rail to compliment and support the heavy rail system, rather than compete with it (p. 3).

Roads and driving

The freeway network in Sydney still has a few missing links, including the M4 East between Strathfield and Sydney Airport/Port Botany/Sydney CBD, a connection between the Sydney Orbital on the M2 and the F3 at Hornsby, and the Sydney Orbital on the M5 and the F6 in the South (p. 46).

The discussion paper was noticeably silent on the issue of congestion pricing for the CBD, which has been used in places like London to reduce traffic congestion and act as a source of revenue for public transport.

Heavy rail

The Cityrail network is quite extensive, with half of all residents living within 2km of a train station and half of all jobs being within 1km of a train station (p. 58). But while coverage is quite extensive, the network is fast approaching capacity constraints, and the discussion paper says a few things about how the heavy rail network can be made to run more efficiently:

One way of tailoring services to customer needs is to separate services so that the high frequency all-stop services can operate on different tracks to the express services. This can be achieved through improved timetables linked to the development of new rail infrastructure projects. Timetables need to be customised to the different needs and priorities of customers. Increasing the frequency of trains will reduce crowding and speed up journey times. Increased service frequencies will enable those making short trips within inner Sydney, such as on the Inner West, Illawarra and Bankstown Lines, to ‘turn-up-and-go’ without needing to consult a timetable.

Sydney has a highly complex rail network. Fifteen outer lines feed into eight inner lines, which in turn feed into six lines converging through the Sydney CBD. This results in constraints where rail lines converge. Further consideration about how to separate major lines is required.

Automatic Train Protection and Automatic Train Operation systems can be used to automate acceleration and deceleration of trains as well as manage the distance between them. These systems increase safety and can enable increased capacity on each line. Automatic Train Protection is currently being introduced to the rail system and a trial of Automatic Train Operation [i.e. driverless trains] will be undertaken to test the capacity that could be gained. These systems will support the improvements in timetables to increase frequency and reduce journey times. (p. 43)

Single deck metro style trains and a second harbour crossing are also discussed, almost to the point where it seems like a certainty that these change will be occurring and that the only question is when, not if (p. 45).

Rail infrastructure construction timeline

The SWRL, NWRL and City Relief Lines appear to be the next 3 major expansions to the Cityrail network. After that it’s a question of which order a second harbour crossing or metro conversion will occur, not whether either or both will occur. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan Discussion Paper, page 45.)

Light rail

Any new light rail lines constructed in the inner city will be designed to fit in and compliment the bus and train network rather than to compete with it. As a result, it will replace a number of bus routes and see a redesign of the bus network to fit in with light rail (p. 49).

Buses

There is currently a significant amount of congestion in the CBD caused by buses, particularly around Wynyard (from the Harbour Bridge) and Circular Quay (via the CBD). A short term solution of re-routing some lines is provided (p. 48), though nothing is mentioned about long term solutions (though this is likely to involve replacing buses from the Northwest with trains on the Northwest Rail Link and buses from the Eastern Suburbs with light rail). Nor is there any mention of re-organising bus routes to have them travel through the city (as many metrobuses currently do), rather than merely terminating at one end of it, which could potentially eliminate about half the buses travelling through the CBD itself.

Ferries

The ferry system is to be privatised, starting with new private routes that were recently announced, then followed by franchising out the government owned Sydney Ferries to a private operator (p. 51).

There was no mention of any other possibilities of privatisation, such franchising out any potential future metro style rail network or for private operation of the Northwest Rail Link, both of which have been rumoured in the press.

Cycling and walking

Both cycling and walking are also said to need to be promoted, but nothing is mentioned about integrating it with rail as was mentioned with buses and light rail (p. 5). Significant work has been put on constructing large (and expensive) park and ride facilities to allow commuters to drive and park their car to the local train station, but relatively little for cyclists to ride their bike and store it before getting on the train, which could significantly increase the catchment area around train stations for people who live too far to walk, have limited bus connections and/or do not to drive to the station for whatever reason.

Also not mentioned is bike share (p. 52). Such a scheme was implemented in Melbourne (600 bikes) and Paris (20,000 bikes), but to a much lesser extent in Melbourne than in Paris and therefore never quite reached a critical mass for it be as successful as it was in Paris (click on the link to read Alan Davies’ article about it at The Melbourne Urbanist). Obviously, one challenge to bike share in Australia is the mandatory helmet laws. That aside, imagine how much easier it would be if you could ride your bike to the train station, leave it in a locker, catch the train into the city, then hire one of the bike share bicycles to get you to your final destination. (A similar outcome can be achieved by transporting bikes on buses/trains, but this only works if few people do it and is therefore not scalable to being done by large numbers of people.) This leads to an increase in the area which you can get from and to the train station at both ends of your journey, making public transport a much more attractive option. Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit refers to this as the “last mile issue” and has some interesting further reading on the topic.

Jacob Saulwick reports in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that consideration is being given to converting a third of the Cityrail network to a single deck metro style system. This proposal is one of seven being prepared for the update to Sydney’s transport plan due for completion next year, and is reportedly the one being pushed by Transport Department bureaucrats.

2011 proposed metro plan

The proposed metro would cover the Bankstown Line (truncated to from Liverpool to Cabramatta), Inner West Line, part of the Illawarra Line to Hurstville, the North Shore Line and the Northwest Rail Link (via Macquarie). Existing Double Deck trains would be replaced with more frequent Single Deck trains, to improve frequency and capacity without having to build a costly second Harbour Crossing. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

The plan is not new, and an almost identical version was published in the Herald’s Public Transport Inquiry earlier last year, which also suggested a conversion to single deck trains (which I will now refer to as “metro”). The inquiry attacked the proposal for being costly and that similar benefits could be obtained much more cheaply by maintaining the existing double deck trains (which I will now on refer to as “heavy rail”). More on this later under “Disadvantages of the proposed metro solution”.

2010 proposed metro plan

The metro plan as proposed in 2010. Click on the image to zoom in and read the details. (Source: Public Transport Inquiry, page 207)

Were this change to go ahead, there would need to be a few requirements to be met:

  1. Many single deck trains must be acquired. This is likely to take a number of years, based on the Waratah train rollout, and these trains could only be used during the off-peak until a critical mass are acquired to run them exclusively on certain lines. Using them during peak hour would reduce capacity without any improvement to frequency or speed.
  2. Changes to signaling in order to increase the number of trains per hour from the existing 20 to 30 required by a metro system.
  3. New dives and flyovers to shift trains from Bankstown and Hurstville onto the tracks that cross the Harbour Bridge (currently used by Western/Northern/North Shore Line trains).
  4. Construction of the City Relief Line, to allow Western Line and Northern Line trains from Parramatta and Epping respectively to continue through into the city.
Advantages of the proposed metro solution
  1. Shorter dwell times – Metros are able to have 4 doors each side per carriage, compared to the 2 doors that the current heavy rail trains have. This means passengers are able to board and alight the train more quickly, reducing the amount of time trains must spend waiting at each station. This is a particular problem at the moment at many CBD stations (Town Hall being particularly bad), where large numbers of passengers both board and alight from trains. Shorter dwell times also translate into faster journeys, as more time is spent moving between stations, rather than waiting at stations.
  2. Shorter headways – Lighter metro trains are able to accelerate/brake more quickly, meaning that you don’t need as much space between two trains (known as “headways”). Current headways of 3 minutes per train mean the system is limited to 20 trains per hour on each track. If this could be reduced to 2 minutes, then it means you could run 30 trains per hour, a 50% increase.
  3. Cheaper than a second Harbour Crossing – This plan aims to increase capacity through the highly constrained existing crossing over the Harbour Bridge, but without having to either build a new tunnel under the Harbour (estimated to cost $3bn to $4bn) or converting 2 traffic lanes to rail (which would be hugely unpopular with motorists). Transport for NSW points out that with the Southwest Rail Link and Northwest Rail Link soaking up construction resources until 2019, an alternative to large scale infrastructure construction is needed to increase the cross-Harbour capacity before then.
  4. Cheaper rolling stock – Few other countries use double deck trains like Sydney does. By using single deck rolling stock, trains could be purchased off the shelf for a much cheaper price, rather than the over-engineered cost blowouts that we are used to (see the Waratah train as a case in point).
  5. No net loss of seats – While metro trains have fewer seats than heavy rail (about 600 vs 900), the increased frequency means that there is no net loss of seats. Based on the current 18 trains an hour that cross the Harbour and proposed 28 per hour under the metro proposal, there would actually be an increase in total seats per hour of 600 (from 15,200 to 15,800), while standing capacity would double from 5,400 to 10,800 per hour. All up this is an increase of 6,000 passengers per hour, or 29% of the current capacity.
  6. Reduced operational costs – A new metro system would avoid the legacy labour costs of the current Cityrail system under Railcorp. Things like requiring both a driver AND a guard to operate each train. We no longer have drivers and conductors on buses (even Melbourne did away with conductors on its trams in the 90s). The Waratah trains are designed so that one person can operate both the driver and guard function, and there’s few reasons why they couldn’t, short of a strong union presence insisting guards be maintained. Ideally, it would be completely driverless, like in Vancouver. Those concerned about safety should remember that the incident at Waterfall was caused by the driver having a heart attack while the guard was asleep, and that the incident at Glenbrook occurred due to informal communication and not obeying rules. In other words, both tragedies (which resulted in a combined 14 deaths) may have been avoided had they been automated.
  7. Allows privatisation of metro system – Depending on your views, this is either an advantage or disadvantage. The current Liberal government would see this as an easy way to privatise a portion of the Cityrail network (likely by shifting operational responsibility to a private operator, as is done in Melbourne, rather than to sell the actual assets). A private operator, motivated by higher profits and without having the pressure of the electorate, would take a harder line against unions, achieving the previous advantage – reduced operational costs.
Vancouver SkyTrain

Sydney could potentially put in place a driverless metro like the Vancouver SkyTrain. (Source: Wikipedia)

Disadvantages of the proposed metro solution
  1. More trains, staff and stabling required – A metro system would require 50% more trains that the current heavy rail system, and each of those trains need to be staffed by a driver and guard (unless union resistance can be overcome to reduce these) and the extra trains need to be stabled somewhere, necessitating construction of new stabling yards on top of the existing ones in place. This will lead to both additional capital and operational costs.
  2. Increased capacity comes from standing, not seated passengers – This is particularly a problem for long distance passengers (such as on the Northwest/Macquarie Line). For example, Epping to Central via Macquarie is currently a 40 minute trip, and with Northwest Rail Link passengers getting on at Castle Hill or Cherrybrook potentially taking all the seats, this means a 40 minute standing room only commute into the city. Cityrail policy is that no commuter should have to stand for more than 20 minutes, and while this is unlikely to be a problem at the extreme ends of the network (the trains here are empty and seats are plentiful), it makes metro style trains unsuitable for long distance routes.
  3. Significant infrastructure still needed – In order to get Western Line passengers into the city, an additional City Relief Line must be built through the city. This is at considerable cost ($4.5bn at last count). This is in addition to changes to the signaling system and dives/flyovers required to get trains onto the appropriate track.
  4. A second Harbour Crossing would increase capacity more – There are currently 4 tracks approaching Chatswood (from Epping and Gordon) and 4 approaching Central (on the East Hills and Airport Lines) that truncate to 2 tracks. By constructing a new set of 2 tracks through the city (the City Relief Line), across the harbour (a Second Harbour Crossing) and up to Chatswood (the Chatswood to St Leonards Quadruplication) then it would allow an additional 20 trains in each direction across the harbour and through the city. That means an increase in capacity of around 24,000 passengers an hour (most of them seated), compared to only 6,000 under the metro plan (virtually all standing).
  5. Loss of flexibility – Mixing single and double deck trains on the same track will significantly reduce capacity, either due to fewer trains an hour or fewer seats per train. As a result, the metro and heavy rail systems must be entirely segregated during peak hour, leading to a loss of flexibility.
  6. Deferral of the Parramatta to Epping Line – Under the proposal, the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link would be deferred until 2036. And even then, the line would operate only as a shuttle service, running between Parramatta and Epping. Previous proposals had trains going through to St Leonards (with a quadruplicated line between Chatwood and St Leonards), before turning around and returning to Parramatta. This would link the key centres of Parramatta, Macquarie, Chatswood and St Leonards, with existing lines allowing for direct travel into the CBD.
  7. Signaling improvements can apply to heavy rail too – Something often overlooked is that the improvements to signaling required to increase frequency to 30 metro trains per hour could probably also increase heavy rail train frequency too. 24 double decker trains per hour would be a 33% increase in on the current 18 per hour, greater than the 29% mentioned earlier, without most of the other problems associated with a shift to a metro.
Conclusion
For me, it is the last point in disadvantages that decides it for me. If signaling changes (required for the metro proposal) can allow for an increase to 24 trains per hour using the existing rolling stock, then the entire proposal should be junked. Instead, effort should be focused on completing the Northwest and Southwest Rail Links, followed by lines already proposed and waiting for action: Parramatta to Epping and a new connection between Refern and Chatswood (the City Relief Line, a Second Harbour Crossing and Chatswood to St Leonards Quadruplication).
That, along with the mandatory complaint of “another plan?”, makes me hesitant to support the metro proposal. I can only hope one of the other 6 proposals does more to increase capacity, frequency and/or speed on the network than the one seen on the news today.