Posts Tagged ‘Parramatta to Epping Rail Link’

Michael Deegan

Infrastructure Australia chief, Michael Deegan, has disappointed the NSW government by not initially offering to fund the NWRL. (Source: LGMA National)

Following the rejection of NSW’s submission to Infrastructure Australia (IA) for funding of the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL), it’s worthwhile looking more closely at the reasons that supported IA’s rejection. Below are some excerpts, along with commentary:

“I acknowledge that the NSW Government has undertaken some good work in developing the proposal for the North West Rail Link. Whilst that work is worthwhile, it has not yet made a compelling case for this project. We have to remember that we are talking about a project estimated to cost $8.5 billion. It is not a small amount of money.” – Michael Deegan, Infrastructure Australia (7 May 2012)

This could be a polite way of saying no, though given the non-political nature of IA, Mr Deegan is probably genuine when he says that he might still be convinced to support this project. This is backed up by his later comments where he explains what NSW has to do in order to convince him.

“The NSW Government submission provided only preliminary economic analysis and that analysis shows that on the Government’s own figures the project is of marginal economic benefit. The submission has left unanswered the question as to how rail network capacity problems from Chatswood into the CBD are to be addressed. There may be interim solutions, for example terminating some trains on the lower north shore, but these have not been presented to us.” – Michael Deegan, Infrastructure Australia (7 May 2012)

Here is where Mr Deegan now delves deeper into the issue raised earlier. The NWRL has problems (primarily that there is only space for 2 trains per hour during the morning peak into the CBD over the Harbour Bridge), and in his views, the NSW Government had not addressed how it plans to deal with them. In other words, there is not yet a plan as to how the NWRL will fit into the larger network.

Will services from the North Shore be reduced in order to fit NWRL trains into the CBD? Will NWRL trains terminate at Chatswood/St Leonards? Will capacity into the CBD be increased, either via a second Harbour Crossing or by a conversion to single deck metro? Realistically, these are the only 4 options on the table, and the NSW government must pick one.

EDIT: It’s been pointed out (correctly) in the comments below that there is a 5th option – send the trains currently going from Hornsby to the City via Macquarie into the city via Strathfield, thus freeing up an additional 4 slots. This presents some additional challenges of congestion between Epping and Strathfield, but on balance is probably still better than not doing it.

I think the reason it has not done so yet is because it is waiting for the Transport Masterplan to be finalised, a process that will take most of the remainder of the year. Given this will be a plan for many decades to come, it’s understandable that they don’t want to rush it. They just better hope that this delay doesn’t jeapordise any potential funding. Either way, the NWRL will be built, and the NSW government is not backing away from that promise.

“At a deeper level, we also have a question about whether this project is obviously the highest priority project in Sydney. With Sydney growing to a population of between 6–7 million in the next 30 years, and much of that growth occurring in western Sydney, we might be better served by a north west link that can build up Parramatta as a second CBD. I stress that I’m not talking about the Parramatta-Epping rail link. That project is not on Infrastructure Australia’s priority list.” – Michael Deegan, Infrastructure Australia (7 May 2012)

Here Mr Deegan shows his political neutrality, pointing out that in his opinion neither the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL), nor the NWRL are top priorities for Sydney. However it also highlights the absurdity of the Federal Government’s position in refusing to fund an infrastructure project with a low priority (NWRL), yet offering to fund another with an even lower priority (PERL).

“Compared to the level of analysis we have seen from some other governments, on similarly large projects, the analysis to date from the NSW Government on the North West Rail Link is quite limited. Those other submissions have provided detailed economic analysis, rigorous assessment of project risks and complete environmental impact statements. That work has not yet been undertaken for the North West Rail line.” – Michael Deegan, Infrastructure Australia (7 May 2012)

Some more comments that do not bode well for the NSW submission. These comments on the inadequacy of the submission were rejected by NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, but when it comes to a he says/she says choice between a politician and an apolitical bureaucrat, I tend to err on the view of the bureaucrat.

Infrastructure Australia (IA), the Federal Government body responsible for handing out Federal Government funding for infrastructure projects, has rejected a submission by the NSW Government to fund the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL). In its response, IA head Michael Deegan argued that the submission was not detailed enough and that the NWRL is not Sydney’s top priority as there is insufficient capacity for trains to enter the CBD via the Harbour Bridge. Mr Deegan says that IA will continue talks with NSW, but that the final decision lies with the federal government.

One of IA’s proposals, to run more buses from the Northwest, was rejected by Premier Barry O’Farrell. Given the lack of capacity for buses in the CBD, it’s understandable why he would take this view. Part of the reason for a NWRL is that buses can only take a certain level of capacity, and that long distance trips into the CBD (as well as to the job rich arc that spans between North Sydney to Macquarie Park) should be done on high capacity rail rather than low capacity buses.

North West Rail Link Map

Map of the Northwest Rail Link. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source:

This clash continues the saga between the NSW and Federal governments, which began when the Federal Labor Government promised to pay $2.1bn of the cost to construct the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) in its 2007 election and then the NSW Liberal Government (then in opposition) promised to build the NWRL ahead of the PERL in its 2011 election.

Now it seems neither party is willing to budge. The federal government, keen to get its budget back into surplus, is probably quietly happy to let this funding remain in its coffers. Meanwhile, the NSW government appears to be pinning its hopes on a change of Federal Government and that a future Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be more open to providing NSW with access to those funds. Either way, the NWRL looks set to go ahead, so the fight over the $2.1bn is essentially to determine whether or not other infrastructure gets built or not, rather than whether the NWRL will get built.

BOF NWRL on Twitter

Probably the only one who is happy about the current impasse is Cr Lorraine Wearne, Lord Mayor of Parramatta City Council. Having seen the writing on the wall for the PERL, her council has been pushing for a light rail network for Parramatta and wants part of the $2.1bn to be earmarked for this project. To this effort, Parramatta is also commissioning a $1m feasibility study into a light rail network centred around Parramatta.

The NSW Government’s response was a cautious maybe, with Acting Premier Andrew Stoner calling the $9.5bn price tag “a heck of a lot of money”, but also saying that “if they are able to convince us, if they are able to convince Infrastructure NSW, we might facilitate it”. This would be consistent with comments by State Treasurer Mike Baird, who said he was looking at opportunities to move government offices to Parramatta.

I have previously raised the option of a circuit breaker (here and here) like this as a way of ending the impasse on this issue, and while I think it’s less likely than more that this will be successful, I do think there is a chance that it might go ahead.

Submissions to the Transport Masterplan were due by midnight tonight.I’ve included my submission to it below. The questions are in bold, with my responses in after that. I got in with an hour to spare. It’s quite long, so if you just want the highlights, read my responses to the second and last questions.

TRANSPORT OBJECTIVES : Are the objectives for future planning for transport in NSW appropriate and comprehensive?

Overall the discussion paper is quite comprehensive, and I’m generally quite happy with the direction that it lays out for transport in NSW.

TRANSPORT OBJECTIVES : Do you have any other objectives to suggest for both public transport and roads?

A number of issues were not raised in the discussion paper (or I could not find them):

1. Congestion charging and uniform tolling. Currently there are countless different tolling systems throughout Sydney, ranging from free to distance based to flat fee to time of day. There is a significant potential to set tolling in such a way as to provide funding for additional transport spending AND as a form of congestion charging to discourage private car use during peak hour.

2. Car share. This has taken off in the inner city parts of Sydney, with some limited expansion into the North Shore and Parramatta. Though it is supported at the local council level, there is huge scope for car share policy to be expanded to the city-wide level in order to encourage take up, and thus discourage car ownership/use.

3. Bike share. As a “last mile” strategy, bike share can greatly expand the catchment area of public transport by allowing commuters to ride a bike after alighting from their public transport vehicle. This is a much better option than encouraging commuters to take their own bike on buses/trains, as this uses up valuable space onboard the vehicles. Helmet laws should be considered, and if any rollout is ever done then it should be done at a large scale. Small scale bike share schemes have been shown to fail due to insufficient coverage (e.g. Melbourne) whereas successful schemes invested in a substantial and wide fleet of bikes (e.g. Paris and London).

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : In solving the transport problems in Sydney, what transport mode should be the first priority for new investment, bearing in mind the need for a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable transport sector?

Transport modes are a transport solution to a transport problem. To pick a mode first is putting the cart before the horse, as it seeks to pick a solution and then go looking for a problem. Ideally we should be highlighting the problems and then selecting the most appropriate solution (and hence transport mode), which will be different depending on the exact problem. In some cases, the solution may be buses, in some cases it may be rail, in some cases it may be a re-organisation or upgrade of existing services.

But the key thing is to work out the problem first, and find a solution second.

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : What do you consider to be the main priorities for investment in Sydney’s transport infrastructure?

Public transport should be a priority. In the last 2 decades, many public transport projects have been deferred or cancelled. Meanwhile, every single new freeway that has been proposed has also been built. Freeways need to go to the bottom of the pile for the next 20 years in order to being public transport infrastructure back to square one.

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : How can the road network be better utilised and enhanced?

Get people out of cars and into public transport or out of the peak and into the off-peak. There is enough existing road capacity out there to transport Sydney’s population without having to build more roads.

There are many roads that are currently used for travelling through, rather than used for arriving at a final destination. For example, many people drive through the CBD without actually stopping there. This sort of traffic belongs on a freeway of some sort. Perversely, there is a freeway that people could take (the Cross City Tunnel), yet people choose not to use it because there is a toll. A logical solution would have been to toll the surface roads via a congestion charge, which would then fund a free CCT journey.

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : What are your priorities for public transport services in terms of frequency, reliability, cleanliness and safety?

Frequency is freedom. I love turn up and go public transport that is frequent enough that I don’t need a timetable. Depending on the context, this may mean 5, 7, 10, 15 or even 20 minute frequencies.

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : What criteria should determine whether light rail or bus transport should be preferred?

Light rail has a few benefits over buses, such as higher capacity, more popular appeal, faster acceleration/deceleration, less noise, certainty, etc. However, many of the benefits normally attributed to light rail, such as exclusive rights of way of better stops/stations, are actually also available to buses and are not technology based. Such things should not be considered when deciding between the two technologies.

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : What are the current barriers to using multiple transport modes to complete a journey? How can the barriers be addressed?

Integrated fares exist with myMulti tickets, but they are limited to weekly tickets and are CBD centric (a daily ticket also exists, but is far too expensive for all but a few users). Additional myMulti tickets should be available, such that Zones 1, 2, 3, 1+2, 2+3 or 1+2+3 are available, for users in outer suburbs who do not commute into the CBD.

Fares should cost the same to get from A to B, regardless of the number of vehicles used to do so. Currently, using 2 vehicles costs more, despite the fact that this is an inconvenience, not a premium service as the cost would suggest.

Resolving this can take either the form of point to point fares (which can be done once Opal is rolled out) or simple zonal fares (as myMulti tickets operate). Either is fine, but whichever option is taken the fare system should be built up from the ground up to be simple. Grandfathering the existing fare structure would complicate things unnecessarily.

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : How can the transport requirements of Sydney Airport and Port Botany be best addressed?

A second airport should be built at Badgerys Creek, where the joint NSW-Federal study into a second airport recommended it be built, in order to relieve the pressure on Kingsford Smith Airport and to provide jobs to Western Sydney, where the majority of the population growth will occur.

SYDNEY TRANSPORT : If there are to be more greenfield land release areas in Sydney, should there be a focus on developing public transport options as part of strategic land use planning for Metropolitan Sydney? How should this policy be given effect?

Future developments should be designed more like Rouse Hill, which has a dense town centre at its core which acts as a transport hub/interchange, rather than Kellyville, which is streets upon streets of houses and little else, forcing residents into their cars as the only transport option. Such a strategy, along with reservations for future rail corridors, allows for buses to serve these new areas until sufficient population/funding is available to extend heavy rail into the area.

Good planning for public transport also increases land value, and accessing some of the increase in the value of the land can help to fund this new transport infrastructure through, for example, additional levies on developers of these greenfield sites.

REGIONAL TRANSPORT : What are the key transport objectives for your region?

Rail lines have been poorly maintained and trains today run no faster than they did for most of the past century. There is little reason why trains in non-urban areas should not be able to go at 160km/hr (the maximum speed of an XPT train). Such an improvement could make living in Wollongong or Newcastle and commuting into Sydney a viable option, or getting a train between Sydney and Canberra competitive with air travel.

FUNDING : How much would people be prepared to pay for further investment in the transport system and what would be the expectation flowing from these investments?

I can’t put a number on this, or speak for the entire population of NSW. But there does seem to be an increased appetite for government spending on critical infrastructure, such as transport infrastructure, given the infrastructure deficit that has built up over recent years and the cost pressures that it has caused.

FUNDING : Given the limitations on funds available for future transport investment, what mechanisms should be employed to manage demand?

Congestion charging could help to manage private vehicle flows to limit congestion.

Also, encouraging employment in centres outside of the CBD, to make use of existing capacity on public transport from vehicles going in the counter flow direction during peak hour could allow unused capacity to be used, rather than having to invest in increasing existing capacity.

FUNDING : Should new revenues or charges be explored to deliver the transport infrastructure needs within a realistic timeframe?

Absolutely. Now is not the time to be ruling things out.

FUNDING : If further road user pricing were to be introduced, how should this operate? For example, by distance travelled? By vehicle type? Or should it be area based?

Distance travelled is a much more effective method of tolling, now that the technology exists to do it that way. Time of day tolling (congestion charging) should also be considered, as a way to discourage peak hour traffic and also to fund additional transport infrastructure.

OTHER COMMENTS : Are there any other comments about the NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan Discussion Paper that you have?

The federal government is currently offering $2.1 billion in funding for public transport. Unfortunately, due to the political constraints of neither the state nor federal governments wanting to break a political promise, this $2.1 billion is not currently available. At a time when so much infrastructure needs to be built, losing this funding should not be considered an option.

It is therefore imperative that the NSW government do what it can to negotiate a compromise solution to this problem. This could involve offering to build some sort of high capacity transport link between Parramatta and Macquarie Park, which could be done at a fraction of the cost of the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link and thus allow the construction of the Northwest Rail Link (which is the current government’s priority). A number of proposals to do this (through BRT, light rail, etc) are currently on the table, and ultimately I care less about the option taken as I do about a compromise being struck.

But the worst outcome would be for both governments to stick to their guns, because then we all lose out.

The Australian newspaper claimed recently that the NSW and Commonwealth governments are “no closer to resolving their differences on the Epping-Parramatta rail link [PERL] than on state election night, a year ago”. The Commonwealth government pledged at its last election to provide $2.1 billion of funding for the PERL, while the NSW government pledged at its last election to prioritise the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) over the PERL and wants that $2.1 billion to be provided for the NWRL instead.

The article quotes Commonwealth Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese as saying that:

“It’s extraordinary that the NSW government have had this funding on the table and yet haven’t responded to correspondence. The NSW government is the only state government that seems incapable of basic dealings between governments. I don’t have this problem with anyone else” – Anthony Albanese (23 March 2012)

Responding to this, NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian says that her government has:

“told him repeatedly — in departmental correspondence and submissions — that our priority rail projects are the northwest rail link and the southwest rail link. The only political paralysis comes from the federal government” – Gladys Berejiklian (23 March 2012)

This suggests that either resolving this issue is not an immediate priority for the two governments or that neither is willing to budge from their existing position. If it is the former, then there remains hope that a compromise solution will eventually be reached (perhaps Ms Berejiklian is waiting for the next federal election in the hope that a new Abbott led Liberal government will be easier to negotiate with, or that the threat of loss for the federal Labor Party will give her an edge in negotiations). However, if it is the latter then this can only lead to a lose-lose situation where nothing happens and the infrastructure deficit in NSW is added to.

Parramatta to Epping Rail Link

The Parramatta to Epping Rail Link, as part of the greater Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link. The Eastern portion between Epping and Chatswood was finally constructed in 2009, leaving the Western postion unbuilt. (Source: Historical NSW Railway Timetables)

Given that both the NSW and Commonwealth governments went to their last elections promising to build the PERL and NWRL respectively, I can understand the problem arising from neither government wanting to break its promise. But a compromise solution is really the only way to break the deadlock, and the only way to arrive at this is through negotiations and by considering other, innovative, solutions to Sydney’s transport problems. I’ve previously written about how light rail or bus transit ways have been suggested as a way to create a short term connection between Parramatta and Epping/Macquarie, which would provide a stop gap for the missing link until the PERL is constructed to provide a solid long term solution. The form of transport solution should not be the focus, instead the focus should be on getting a more efficient transport connection to build capacity, one that can be build in the near future and within a certain budget.

In December of 2011, I sent letters to (1) Anthony Albanese, (2) Gladys Berejiklian, (3) Parramatta City Council and my local MP (4) Bruce Notley-Smith, on the issue of arriving at a compromise solution to the PERL funding problem, suggesting the bus transit way as a possible compromise solution. The responses I received were as follows:

1. Office of Anthony Albanese, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport (Commonwealth)

Cristina Mojica, Acting General Manager for Rail and Intermodal, wrote that the Australian government has provided funding of “$12.2 billion to 2013-14 on road and rail project [sic]…also committed and additional $2.1 billion from 2014-15 to construct the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link”.  She then argues that “public transport is primarily a responsibility for the New South Wales Government” and that my letter has been forwarded to the NSW transport minister’s office for consideration.

It does appear like quite a cop out that the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure can on one hand boast about how much infrastructure funding they have provided and where they have directed it to, then defend its decision to fund certain projects but not others by pointing out that these decisions should be made at the state level. The very decisions that it is insisting on making itself in choosing to fund the PERL over the NWRL.

2. Office of Gladys Berejiklian, Minister for Transport (NSW)

Kate Foy, General Manager for Customer Service, indicated that my letter had been forwarded to Transport for NSW for advice on the matter. I have yet to receive a follow up response.

3. Parramatta City Council

David Gray, Manager for Transport Planning, writes that the council is aware of the bus transit way proposal, and that though there were “possible advantages”, that there were also “disadvantages of T-Ways including the congestion created with the large number of terminating buses in Parramatta city centre and the lack of suitable layover space”. For this reason, the council is seeking funding for a light rail feasibility study. While I was disappointed to hear that they were not putting more options on the table, this was the only response I received that understood that a compromise solution was the only way to progress in this situation.

4. Office of Bruce Notley-Smith, Member for Coogee (NSW)

I have yet to receive a response.

The Epping to Chatswood Line began its planning stages as the Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link, part of the Carr Government’s 1998 Action for Transport. The line would actually run from Westmead, going to Parramatta, then joining up to a duplicated Carlingford Line, followed by a tunnel to Chatswood via Epping and Macquarie Park. By the year 2000 the project was so certain to happen that we even saw it on the maps in every train station and in every train carriage (see below). For anyone who forgot to turn their sarcasm detectors on, that last sentence is not to be taken seriously.

Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link

The original alignment for the Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link, seen as a dotted blue line. This map is from the year 2000, shortly after the opening of the Airport Line. Click on image for link to source website. (Source: Historical NSW Railway Timetables)

Originally to be up and running by 2006, the line was truncated in 2003 to just Epping to Chatswood due to concerns over the cost (a mere 3 months after Carr’s 3rd election victory, I’m sure the timing was purely co-incidental). Even then it was not completed until 2009, longer, more expensive and without one station originally planned for. More on this further down, first I’d like to focus on the Westmead to Epping portion, what is now termed the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL).

A Department of Planning report on the Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link from 2002 outlines what the line from Westmead to Epping would have looked like. The line would join up to the existing track at Westmead before going underground, necessitating an additional set of dives which would require space either from the Parramatta Golf Course or Parramatta Park, both of which were adjacent to the line between Westmead and Parramatta. At Parramatta, an additional underground platform would be built just North of the existing station (underneath Darcy Street). This would then continue underground, going East until they reach the Carlingford Line at Rosehill Racecourse, where the tunnel would follow the Carlingford Line alignment North until it reached a new station underneath the Grand Avenue bridge. This new station would be an amalgamation of the nearby Rosehill and Camellia stations and also link up with the Parramatta to Strathfield bus transitway (which was never built either). Between the old Camellia Station and Carlingford, the line would continue mostly unchanged other than with the addition of a second track. At Carlingford a new station would be built underground, with a tunnel connecting Carlingford up to the underground platforms at Epping.

Though this plan was scrapped, a plan was later announced to build a passing loop on the Carlingford Line, which would allow 2 trains an hour, rather than the current limit of 1 train per hour. However, this too would also be scrapped.

One thing that was done right was future-proofing, and both ends of the Epping to Chatswood Line have been left ready for expansion. On the Chatswood end, there is space for an additional track pair between Chatswood Station and St Leonards Station. Both stations either have 4 platforms (Chatswood) or have space to run additional track along them to become a 4 platform station (St Leonards). This leaves open a potential Chatswood to St Leonards quadruplication, which is one step in an eventual new line through the CBD.

St Leonards Station

On the left you can see the space left to run an additional line of rail track to form another platform. The same is the case on the other end of the station. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Epping end of the line has stub tunnels on the Northern end of the underground track at Epping Station. This would allow for a future PERL to be built with minimal disruption when it was connected to the existing network. Almost ironically, it appears that these stub tunnels will instead be used to connect the network to the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL), which will also have a set of stub tunnels for a line to Parramatta.

As a side note: the decision to have the NWRL join up at these stub tunnels, rather than further North above ground, has been seen as a controversial decision as it limits the options for trains from the Northwest (i.e. they must go via Chatswood and do not have the option to go via Strathfield). However the O’Farrell government has defended this decision, pointing out that using the tunnels is cheaper than going above ground as it avoids expensive land acquisition and that to do otherwise would delay the project by requiring new plans, investigations and impact studies to be carried out.

Epping Stub Tunnels

The existing stub tunnels at Epping is the tunnel on the right which goes deeper underground in this cross section, which forms the start of the NWRL. An additional planned stub tunnel can be seen rising up on the left, which will join up to a future PERL. Apologies for the poor image quality, this is what the government put online – and is no longer available as it has been superseded. (Source:

The truncated line, from Epping to Chatswood, was initially meant to have 4 stations – 3 at Macquarie Park and one at UTS Ku-rin-gai. However, protests from the public meant that the line was re-routed underground, rather than crossing over the Lane Cove River. This meant that the line would be too deep underground for the Ku-ring-gai Station, while also increasing the cost of building it and lengthening the journey time. Many of those opposed to the bridge option did so on environmental grounds, an ironic argument seeing as improved public transport would have done far more for the environment than preventing the construction of the rail line on the original alignment.

The changes also meant that the gradient were now too steep for Tangara trains to run on the line. As a result, the line was initially serviced by OSCARS. This was done as a shuttle service at first, running between Epping and Chatswood, but was later integrated into the Northern Line.


Due to steep gradients, Tangaras are unable to run on the Epping to Chatswood Line. Therefore, OSCARS were used instead. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Wikipedia)

The benefits of the new line were not limited just to increased network coverage, it also added capacity to the network by allowing trains from Epping to approach the CBD either via Strathfield or via Chatswood. Up until recently, there was ample spare capacity Southbound over the Harbour Bridge into the city. However this spare capacity has been mostly used up by a combination of new trains from Epping via Chatswood and an increase in trains from the North Shore due to increased population densities in that area. Today the morning peak sees 18 trains cross the Harbour Bridge into the city during its busiest hour, just shy of the maximum capacity of 20 trains per hour. (It should be noted that Northbound trains through the CBD that cross the harbour are already at the maximum of 20 during the morning peak.)

The long term solution to this capacity problem is to build a second harbour crossing. This would join up to a City Relief Line which, as mentioned earlier, would result in a new line running through the city, the first new line through the city since the Eastern Suburbs Line opened in 1979. Doing so would mean a 33% increase in capacity through the CBD. Alternatively, a metro conversion proposal has also been floated as a cheaper alternative to increasing capacity across Sydney Harbour.

The short answer is no. Unless you consider 2036 to be soon.

The Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) was planned to be built by the previous Keneally Labor government and had obtained a $2.1 billion funding commitment from the Commonwealth Labor government to get it built. This was promised during the 2010 federal election campaign and seen as a porkbarelling exercise to get more Labor MPs elected from Western Sydney, which would benefit from this new line. The state Liberal opposition, under Barry O’Farrell, instead promised to build the Northwest Rail Link (PERL) and to defer the PERL.

O’Farrell beat Keneally, and this resulted in a deadlock between the NSW and Commonwealth governments, each having promised to fund or build one line and not the other. O’Farrell argues that the NWRL is more critical and wants the $2.1 billion of funding transferred from the PERL to the NWRL, but has declared that he will build it whether he gets the money or not. If no agreement is reached, then everyone loses.

Personally, I think the only was to get a solution here is to form some sort of compromise. Something that links Parramatta to Macquarie Park (which is what the PERL is designed to do) would do this, thus allowing the Commonwealth Government to be satisfied that its election promise has been satisfied, albeit with a non-heavy rail solution, while allowing the NSW government to focus on the NWRL.

BusNSW have put forward one option that would do this – a bus only transitway (like the current T-Ways between Parramatta and Rouse Hill/Liverpool) between Parramatta and Macquarie Park. The advantage of this option is the low cost: $250 milion, compared to a revised $4.4 billion cost of the PERL. Note: News story in video below starts at 0:20 seconds.

Parramatta Council have also offered proposals. Their first was a re-routing of the NWRL via Parramatta and then along the PERL alignment. This proposal was unworkable as it would delay trips between the Northwest and Macquarie Park/Chatswood/St Leonards/North Sydney, while also relying on an already strained Parramatta-CBD rail corridor to transport commuters into the city. As there was also good transport links between Parramatta and the Northwest via the existing T-Way, the NSW government rejected this proposal. I personally agree with the state government in this case.

More recently, Parramatta Council proposed building light rail instead of heavy rail in order to connect Parramatta to major centres in Western Sydney, including Macquarie Park.

Ultimately, I am not as fussed about the mode of transport chosen as much as I am about the willingness of the different parties to negotiate and come to an agreement on this issue. On that basis, I think Parramatta Council is onto a winner with its strategy. The same cannot be said of the NSW or Commonwealth governments, who up until now have not budged from their positions and have not showed any hints of accepting a compromise outcome.

With the chances of a Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) being built anytime soon fading rapidly (not likely to happen until 2036), Parramatta Council has begun to search for alternatives in order to meet its transport needs. The most recent proposal is a light rail network centred on Parramatta.

Parramatta Light Rail

Light rail proposal for Parramatta and its surrounding areas. Stage 1 is in yellow, green and red. Stage two is in black. Existing rail lines in solid gray, proposed Northwest Rail Link is dashed gray. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Parramatta City Council)

Stage 1 of this network is 44km of light rail – consisting of a line from Castle Hill to Bankstown via Parramatta (1a),  a second line from Westmead to Carlingford using the Carlingord heavy rail line (1b), and a third line from Dundas to Macquarie Park (1c). Stage 1 has been estimated to cost $3 billion, based on the cost of the Lilyfield-Dulwich Hill and Gold Coast light rail projects.

Stage 2 involves a further 44km extension of this network along the Northwest and Liverpool T-Ways, as well as a loop between Parramatta and Olympic Park, a link between Castle Hill and Cabramatta via Blacktown, and linking Carlingford through to Epping. Stage 2 would cost an additional $6.5 billion.

Parramatta Council’s strategy, to realise that the writing’s on the wall for the PERL and to push for something else instead, is a good one. But their tactic of pushing for this particular project seems questionable. It’s all about choosing the right mode for each area, and while I think light rail would be very well suited to some of the routes suggested, in other routes it would be like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole.

Recently most new transport infrastructure in Western Sydney has been Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the form of T-Ways between Parramatta and Liverpool, Parramatta and Rouse Hill and Blacktown and Parklea (linking up to the Rouse Hill T-Way). There is also a significant BRT route on the M2 between Windsor Road and Epping, including 2 bus stations. The advantage of BRT is that it is cheaper than light rail (the T-Ways cost less than half per km than this proposed light rail network) and more flexible (buses aren’t locked in by where the rails go, so they can divert into suburban areas or overtake other vehicles). Where BRT falls down is on capacity and operating costs, light rail can carry more people at a lower ongoing cost. There are other benefits to light rail, people seem more willing to ride light rail than buses and they like the certainty of knowing that they go where the rails take them or that a tram will eventually come by when they see rails.

But the key thing here about BRT is that when built as a fully segregated busway, as the T-Ways are, BRT is also quite easy to upgrade to light rail in future. It’s no surprise, therefore, to see the Parramatta Council proposal suggest doing just this. And it makes sense, these T-Ways should be upgraded to light rail when they start to run into capacity constraints.

However, the proposal only includes this conversion in stage two. Stage one is basically two major connections: Westmead to Macquarie Park and Castle Hill to Bankstown. The former has a much better case for light rail than the latter.

Westmead to Macquarie Park uses an existing rail line on its Western end, which is fully segregated, and has a reservation between Eastwood and Macquarie Park on its Eastern end, which would also be fully segregated. This would leave some on-road running, but this would usually involve replacing bus lanes, resulting in no net loss of road space for private vehicles. Buses would then be re-routed to act as feeder buses to connect commuters to the light rail or heavy rail lines.

Castle Hill to Bankstown has very little of this. Most of it is along 4 lane roads which would involve either reducing them to 2 lanes of private vehicle traffic or sharing tram and car lanes. Bus lanes are limited, so are not an option as was the case with the previous route. There are few options to build light rail on new land without expensive land acquisitions as there are no reservations left along this alignment.

My knowledge of the route between Parramatta and Bankstown is sketchy, but there is does seem like the roads are less congested and that light rail could feasibly be run on-road shared with private vehicles.

So personally, I think a better option for stage one would be to merge the three lines into one line that goes from Bankstown to Parramatta and then goes through to Macquarie Park. The connections through to Carlingford and Westmead could also be built, but are not central to the core part of the line. This could then be followed up by converting the T-Ways to light rail and linking them to the existing system.

UPDATE (6:40PM, 30 Nov): The government has announced the process for finalising its transport plan on Transport for NSW’s website. It will involve a 12 month period of consultation with the community and various interest groups before a final version of the plan is finalised. A discussion paper and draft plan will be released during 2012, prior to the completion of the process. This is a welcome move, and should help to prevent the transport planning disasters that we’ve had in Sydney in the last decade (such as the $500m cost of the aborted Rozelle Metro).

The NSW Government has released a draft version of the rail portion of its transport plan. It’s definitely worth a read – the first half outlines existing projects (NWRL, SWRL, etc), so if feel free to skip to page 24 if you want to get to the meat of the report. I have previously voiced concerns about a new transport plan, as it suggests trashing the previous plan and starting again from scratch. In NSW, this reminds me all too much of the Rees Labor Government’s Rozelle Metro, which cost NSW tax payers $500m before being scrapped – $500m that couldn’t be spent elsewhere. However, the new plan appears to retain all the key elements of the previous plan developed under Kristina Keneally’s government in 2010: a Southwest Rail Link, a Northwest Rail Link and a Western Express (including a City Relief Line), and then provides a number of options through to 2036 for expanding network capacity after these projects are complete.

This fear grew larger when it became apparent that the government was considering converting a portion of the Cityrail nework into a single deck metro style rail system (I wrote about it here, here and here). However, seeing that the new plan in effect locks in what was in the previous plan and then builds on it. I have since warmed somewhat to the metro plan as a result of reading the draft plan, and I might have been a bit too hostile to it initially. (I still think a second Harbour Crossing is more important than a conversion to single deck, but I’d be happy for that second pair of tracks to carry single deck trains.)

One thing not included in the report is the cost of each option. The Herald has obtained estimates of the costs, which range from $26 billion to $38 billion (see below). However, the Herald also points out that the costs may not have been calculated consistently, and that the Sector Five option (which involved maintaining a fully double deck network) includes the costs of necessary upgrades but the other options do not, despite also requiring the same upgrades. If true, this would suggest the report is biased towards the metro proposal.

Cost of various options. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

Cost of various options. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

All plans follow the same initial timeline: SWRL to be completed in 2016, NWRL to be completed in 2019 (the diagram says 2021, but the document says 2019) and a City Relief Line to be completed in 2026 allowing express trains from Penrith and Richmond via Parramatta to go through the CBD (though not across the Harbour). Image quality is unfortunately quite poor, even at full resolution, but these were the maps included in the draft report:

Southwest Rail Link, completed in 2016. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 33.)

Southwest Rail Link, completed in 2016. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 33.)

Northwest Rail Link, completed in 2019. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 34.)

Northwest Rail Link, completed in 2019. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 34.)

Western Express/CBD Relief Line, completed in 2026. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 34.)

Western Express/City Relief Line, completed in 2026. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 34.)

It has been suggested (I can’t remember where) that the Western Express trains will stop at Blacktown, Seven Hills, Westmead and Parramatta before continuing express to Central and the CBD stations. Central may be misleading, as the platform may actually be located underneath Railway Square, a few hundred metres West of the suburban rail platforms, then continuing North most probably either under Sussex Street towards Barangaroo or under Pitt Street towards Martin Place.

It is after this point that the plans diverge. One plan recommends converting a large portion of the network to single deck metro, the other recommends connecting the City Relief Line to Chatswood. These plans seem to suggest the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link and Chatswood to St Leonards Quadruplication might also be built, but no mention is made of either in the document.

Metro option, completed in 2036. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 35.)

Metro option, completed in 2036. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 35.)

Second Harbour Crossing option, completed in 2036. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 35.)

Second Harbour Crossing option, completed in 2036. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 35.)

What is common for both plans is a merging of the non-express Western trains (which start at St Marys) with South Line trains going from Liverpool to the City via Granville. This makes a lot of sense as it puts each different line onto a different physical set of tracks: the Western Express trains on the Main West Line, the St Marys and Liverpool/Granville trains on the Suburban West Line and the Homebush starting Inner West trains on the Local West Line. Currently Western Line and South Line trains share track between Granville and Homebush, while South Line and Inner West Line trains share track between Homebush and Redfern, despite each having separate stopping patterns (i.e. express, limited stops and all stations).

This makes it a 25 year plan, however there are also a number of future corridors which it recommends should be kept for future consideration, allowing land to be reserved for any developments in the future. The report points out that these corridors may end up being developed either as a non-rail option (such as light rail along the Anzac Parade corridor) or as part of a “stand-alone rail system” (code for metro) in addition to just adding to the Cityrail network. Realistically, other than a minority of these corridors (the NWRL and SWRL extensions in particular), I would imagine that no further extensions would be made to the Cityrail network, with any new developments either forming the start of a new metro network or an extension of the metro network created by converting a portion of the Cityrail network.

Future corridors, for consideration post 2040. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 36.)

Future corridors, for consideration post 2040. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Rail options for the Sydney Greater Metropolitan area, page 36.)

A leaked email from Railcorp has revealed that the estimated operating costs of the Northwest Rail Link (NWRL) will be $30 or $80 per trip (depending on the assumptions used). The $80/trip headline figure is based only on the 9 million new trips from the line and excludes the 19 million other trips on it that are diverted from other lines. Counting all 28 million trips on the NWRL brings this amount down to $30/trip. This is significantly higher than the $11/trip average across the Cityrail network, and represents a significant subsidy by the government to commuters who will be paying around $6/trip (depending on the type of ticket and destination).

The figure you need to focus on is the $30 one, not the $80 one. That is because those commuters who are moving from one line to another are mostly going to be residents in the Northwest who are currently heading South to stations like Blacktown or Seven Hills and catching Western Line trains. These are some of the most crowded trains on the network with an average of 1,236 passengers per train (Public Transport Inquiry, page 243), and additional capacity on these trains will easily be filled. Therefore, the loss of passengers to the NWRL should easily be replaced by new passengers.

The Herald article reporting this story suggests that each new passenger would cost $80 (or $30) to operate. The reality is that the operating costs are mostly fixed (you pay the same for running a train, track maintenance, stations, etc whether 100 people use them or 10 people use them), so increasing the number of passengers has the effect of reducing that cost per trip. This will help with cost recovery.

The main obstacle to getting sufficient patronage is being able to run enough trains on the NWRL. Currently it is restricted by the Harbour crossing, which has space for only 2 additional trains per hour into the CBD during the morning peak without removing trains from the upper North Shore Line. In the short term, a quadruplication of track between Chatswood and St Leonards will allow trains to turn around at St Leonards (currently tricky at Chatswood at higher frequencies) and go back to Rouse Hill while also linking commuters with the job rich areas at Norwest, Macquarie, Chatswood and St Leonards. Commuters wanting to go into the CBD can either change at St Leonards or wait for a direct CBD service (which should run at 15 minute intervals). In the long term, a second Harbour crossing should be built, separating the 2 lines entirely and allowing significant increases to the capacity of trains running through the CBD.

Northwest Rail Link alignment

The Northwest Rail Link will connect residents of Sydney’s Northwest to job centres at Norwest, Macquarie, Chatswood, St Leonards, North Sydney and the CBD.(Source: ABC News)

Also in the news on the NWRL: the NSW O’Farrell government is set to submit costings and a timeline to Infrastructure Australia by the end of the year (possibly as soon as November). This is part of its attempt to have the $2.1 billion promised by the federal Labor government for the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link applied instead to the NWRL. Federal Transport and Infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese has thus far ruled out requests by the NSW government as no submission had been made to Infrastructure Australia. The O’Farrell government’s submission is an attempt to move one step closer to getting that money from the feds.

I think the federal government has a 50-50 chance of giving NSW the $2.1 billion. On one hand, they don’t want to be seen as holding back money from transport in Sydney and know that there are a lot of marginal electorates in Sydney that they need if the want to win the next election. On the other hand, the NWRL route goes right through safe Liberal seats, and the federal government desperately wants to keep the budget in surplus, so ditching the $2.1 billion pledge could also work in their favour.