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