Sydney Metro Project Wavers as Light Rail Expansion Gains Supporters

» The creation of a single line would produce an underused system for decades to come; extensions of the existing network may be a better option.

Few places in the world are as reliant on their commuter rail systems as Sydney; the Australian metropolis’ CityRail attracts more than one million daily passengers. The almost 1,300 miles of track the system includes provide for the transportation needs of most of the rail transit users in the city, though a light rail line that opened in 1997 and which now has 4.5 miles of service provides some connections to the Inner West parts of the city. A monorail loop links the light rail to Market Street, midway up the CBD peninsula.

A traditional metro system has long been considered for the city, not only to relieve congestion on the CityRail network downtown but also to expand access to neighborhoods that currently lack reliable transit access. In 2008, the New South Wales government moved ahead with what became a A$5.3 billion CBD metro project that would extend from Rozelle, west of downtown, under the bay, through the business district, and finally to Central Station, where it would meet CityRail and light rail services.

The project was supposed to begin construction this year, with a completion date of 2015. But strong opposition to the project from neighborhood groups and political forces have delayed the program significantly. Now the government has stopped property acquisitions and will make a final decision about whether to move ahead with the project by the end of February.

If the CBD Metro goes down, it will be a significant political loss for the Labor Party government of New South Wales and the defeat of one of the biggest transit programs in Sydney’s history. But there are other transit investment strategies that may yield better results.

Part of the problem with the CBD Metro plan was that it simply wasn’t ambitious enough: its short initial line would attract far too few people in itself to justify a massive investment in a fully-grade separated (and underground) rapid transit system. If it were incorporated in a funded city-wide plan with links south, north, and west, the investment might be justified, since it would undoubtedly attract hundreds of thousands of commuters.

Yet, the argument made by the provincial government, that the CBD Metro is a starting line and that other corridors, beginning with a West Metro, will follow, isn’t good enough, because there is no assurance of future funding or specific decisions about what routes lines would follow. Experience with the development of recent American subways proved that rapid transit systems work best when they’re conceived as part of a broader network. One only has to compare the highly frequented Washington Metro with Los Angeles’s significantly less-used Wilshire and North Hollywood subways, which terminate in a single line downtown. As rapid transit systems add lines, ridership increases even on existing corridors, since the number of potential destinations for people along each line expands exponentially.

To make matters worse, as initially conceived, the CBD Metro would require a large number of bus transfers at Rozelle and could cause serious congestion at Central Station where it would meet CityRail trains. It would also duplicate some light rail services, which would damage that system’s ability to operate effectively.

The Metro’s proponents say that CityRail’s operations downtown are overloaded and that the Metro would provide a convenient alternative, but the commuter rail authority suggests that additional capacity is not necessary. CityRail already offers Metro-like capacity and frequencies in the inner city; building another underground trunk line through the half-mile wide CBD may simply be too extravagant for Sydney’s needs.

Even when CityRail capacity does reach its limit, it seems clear that the best option would be to build another tunnel for CityRail, not for a brand new Metro service. This would reduce congestion on the commuter rail and open up more CBD destinations for suburban riders using existing lines, something that would not be possible with the Metro service, which would use different, non-compatible technology. There’s something to be said for working as much as possible with the system one already has rather than investing in an alternative that has no network connections and no ability to reinforce the existing offerings.

Some opponents of the CBD Metro have argued for the construction of the 11-station West Metro instead, arguing that a line between Central Station and Westmead, some 15 miles west, would do more to satisfy the transportation needs of areas far from existing rail lines. But this would make the situation at Central worse still, since commuters hoping to get to downtown workplaces would have to switch to CityRail to reach stations along its City Circle.

Abandoning the Metro and its extensions entirely might be a reasonable option. An extension of the light rail network directly into the CBD and to Rozelle along surface routes would allow many of Inner West neighborhoods a transfer-free connection to most of the office core — now the government is planning to study such an extension. Much cheaper light rail extensions to the south and west could be built to fill in the gaps between CityRail lines. A few choice extensions of the commuter rail could encourage suburban commuters to use transit.

Indeed, finding ways to reinforce the existing networks of light rail and CityRail commuter lines could produce more benefits for Sydney’s inhabitants than the Metro project, whose high cost and limited scope will result in few riders for decades. With increased service in the CBD and new connections to underserved neighborhoods, on the other hand, existing offerings will become more attractive.

Image above: Sydney CBD Metro Alignment, from Sydney Metro

13 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Ocean Railroader

    I wounder could they use the 5 Billon dollars set aside to rebuild the old streetcar system as a light rail system. Where one thing dies another grows and maybe the streetcar system could come back better then before. They could even have some of the light rail streetcars run though underground tunnels though some of the more crowed parts of town.

  • Nathaniel

    Sydney has a bad track record of building stuff that no-one uses – see the airport rail link, the cross city tunnel and the Lane Cove tunnel. This does seem a bit extravagant too, considering that outer suburban extensions of the CityRail network were axed in order to fund this new corridor, meaning that a good 300000 people in an area with no rail service for kilometres get nothing, while people within a 10km bike ride from the city get yet another transport option.
    There is also an opportunity to extend the light rail along a disused freight corridor – something I think the light rail operators have been pushing for now for a while – which runs south from the end of the existing alignment and crosses the main west line and the Bankstown line (I think). Again, the NSW Government denied the light rail operator approval to undertake this project.

  • Nathaniel

    Also, the monorail is very much, just like in the Simpsons, ‘the crappiest train ever built’. It goes nowhere and pretty much only tourists ride it. (I remember visiting Sydney as an 8 year old and getting really excited by it, then having my excitement completely demolished by how underwhelming the whole thing was.)

  • It’s not true that nobody uses Sydney’s rail system. Sydney actually has a pretty high transit mode share by Anglophone standards – 24% for the metro area, up from 19% in the late 1990s. This isn’t much lower than the corresponding figure in New York, which is either 27% or 30%, depending on how you define the metro area.

    I don’t think it’s stupid to build urban lines before suburban extensions. Urban lines are where most ridership is. Excessively suburban systems can only attract peak hour commuters to downtown; this is BART’s main problem.

    • Thad

      I think they were talking about the light rail and monorail, not CityRail, which serves mainly the suburbs with rapid-like service in the CBD. Seeing how most of the ridership would be from the suburbs to the CBD, it does make more sense to expand suburban options.

  • Jeffrey Bridgman

    “There’s something to be said for working as much as possible with the system one already has rather than investing in an alternative that has no network connections and no ability to reinforce the existing offerings.”

    Makes me think of Toronto’s Scarborough RT….

  • I guess this seems kind of similar to High Speed Rail allocations in America. Do you put money towards smaller things that can make a difference or do you start something new that won’t be very beneficial with just a small segment but will probably be when it is built out? Not sure what the right answer is to be honest.

  • Indeed, a new Cityrail tunnel could be used to help fix previous blunders, like connecting the Airport line to the Southern Line at the same time as building a massively expensive underground expressway in the south giving much easier access to the airport by road from the area served by the southern line.

    If the new tunnel allowed trains from over the Sydney Harbor bridge to run into the Airport line, that could given directly no-transfer access to the North Shore, where 70% of high frequency airport users live, and to Hornsby, the Central Coast and Newcastle and the Lower Hunter, who face the most substantial obstacle course in accessing the airport by road from the Pacific Highway.

  • Nathanael

    Cityrail is a treasure, and I hope they go with the new Cityrail tunnal across Sydney Harbor — it is by far the most sensible option.

  • Urbane

    The new light rail extension is along a goods line that connects nowhere to nowhere. It is an easy way for a very lazy government to announce a project that has supposed green credentials, but does nothing to connect people where they want to go or need to go. There has been no analysis to support the route, or any proper examination of alternative routes that actual connect places together. Supposedly, they will build “new” places along the route, but why do that when you have perfectly good centres servicing the region already, that need to be better connected? Maybe it gives developers (read Labor Party Donors/Funders) more opportunity to build new developments that are poorly designed and planned, not sustainable in any way, nor do they help build a great city that people would enjoy living in.

    Sydney has incredibly bad, even non-existent transport planning that does not understand where or why people want to move about the city. Thus most schemes fail because there is none of this analysis.

  • urbantransit

    Sydney should convert some of it’s CityRail lines to Metro-style lines, in addition to the planned lines.

    However I agree that the CBD Metro is stupid by itself, if combined with the West and Northwest Metros, then it would work well.

    There is a good proposal/plan here:

    http://www.railpage.com.au/f-t11355472.htm

    • WesternLine

      This is not a bad idea at all, unlike what people on the forum are saying. I did some quick cauculations on the system, and came up with the following:

      Cost – About $50 billion
      Daily ridership – Around 1.1 million
      Size – 193km of track, 98 stations
      Cost per KM of track – $260,000,000

      • $50,000 per rider would embarrass any European or Asian transit agency and many American ones. Recent subway projects in Europe and Asia have come in in the $7,000-20,000 range.

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