Posts Tagged ‘Driverless trains’

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.