Light Rail Sydney

Sydney Looks at Closing Downtown Streets to Traffic, Considers Light Rail Expansion

» George Street in the CBD would see cars removed, transit inserted. Meanwhile, with Metro plans now axed, light rail to the Inner West is being pursued.

Following what is becoming a worldwide trend, officials in Australia’s New South Wales government, working with the Sydney city council, are considering plans to pedestrianize George Street, a primary corridor in the city’s central business district. The proposal, which has yet to be fully detailed, may also include a light rail connection along the route. The scheme coincides with the government’s release of a draft study detailing a potential extension of the 4.5-mile existing light rail line southwest to Lewisham and Dulwich Hill.

This plan for the elimination of automobiles from one of Sydney’s most prominent streets has yet to be approved and may be dismantled if the current government falls out of power after elections later this year. The current Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, suggests it will take two years to develop the plan after a consultation with Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, who has recently been involved in the development of street plazas in New York City.

The southwest light rail extension will play an important role in extending fixed-guideway transit service to a portion of the city that has relatively high density but which is nonetheless somewhat isolated from the existing CityRail commuter rail lines. The northern sections of this route, notably in Rozelle, were supposed to get stations on the CBD Metro, but that project was shelved earlier this year after it became clear that its A$4.8 billion cost was simply too much for the limited utility it would provide. With this new light rail route, these Sydney “suburban” neighborhoods will get easier connections to all CityRail lines at Central Station south of the CBD, to the Inner West line at Lewisham and to the Bankstown line at Dulwich Hill. What they won’t get, unfortunately, is anything particularly fast — impossible because of the large number of stations planned, ten stations on a 3.5-mile route.

The CBD Metro, which would have run from Central Station to Pyrmont and Rozelle, with unfunded plans to eventually connect further south and west, was a bit of an odd solution for Sydney as it did not build upon the well-used CityRail system, with its more than one million daily passengers, nor expand the light rail, which now does not enter directly into the CBD district. But the Metro would have been fast and frequent; on the other hand, the light rail line will be half as quick as existing commuter rail and only run every twelve minutes, even at rush hour.

Even so, the light rail connection will encourage better mobility between neighborhoods for a far cheaper price. It is expected to roughly double annual ridership from an expected five million on the current route in 2026 to 9.6 million if the connection all the way to Dulwich Hill is built. The New South Wales government has already put aside A$500 million for the system’s expansion as part of a 10-year regional transportation investment plan. It is currently operated under contract by private company Veolia Transportation.

The Inner West line is just one among many routes recently proposed by an influential local group called EcoTransit.

Least interesting is the proposed light rail line from Central Station north to Barangaroo, which is a major redevelopment scheme on the CBD waterfront. While this project would like catalyze growth in the area, it would skirt the edge of the jobs center, meaning more people will switch to CityRail at Central to get to their final destinations, a problem since that service is already at capacity.

That’s why the news that George Street might be pedestrianized is so interesting. If light rail were sent down that corridor — something that has been under consideration for years — it could play a genuinely effective role as both an Inner West-to-CBD commuter connection and as a convenient downtown circulator. The corridor would become the city’s central pedestrian spine in the model of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, connecting the Central Station with Town Hall and Circular Quay, running the length of the CBD. Jan Gehl expects that the improvements would double the number of pedestrians using the downtown every day to 80,000 — greatly increasing the value of retail property in the area.

Though the light rail line would never serve the number of passengers handled by CityRail, its surface-level operations along a pedestrian street would make it perfect for quick trips from one end of downtown to the other. If Sydney develops George Street into an attractive walkable avenue with a useful new transit link, it would be creating a new main street for the entire region.

Image above: Proposed Sydney Light Rail extension projects (without the George Street route), from NSW Government

Light Rail Metro Rail Sydney

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


Sydney CBD Metro Faces Stumbling Block

Sydney MetroTerminating all western train services at Central Station won’t be as easy as originally imagined

The Sydney CBD Metro project, which will provide train services from Balmain west of downtown, through the center city, and then south to Central Train Station, is in trouble because of a lack of coordination between the metro authority and the regional rail provider, CityRail. The project’s requirements would unduly overcrowd the platforms at Central and make existing CityRail operation no longer feasible. The Metro project plan must be revised before shovels are put into the ground next year.

Original plans for the 4.8 billion dollar (Australian) project, expected to be completed by 2015, would have required all Western suburban CityRail services to terminate at Central, rather than continue into the city core along the City Circle, as currently. Suburban trains are overcrowded and the Metro would provide much-needed relief. But it would also cause headaches for customers attempting to make it into downtown, who would have to switch to a Metro train at Central in order to complete their journeys. Without forcing customers to make this change, the Metro will likely have very low ridership. In other words, the Metro’s viability relies on a decrease in the quality of services currently offered.

The problem for Metro is that stopping CityRail trains at Central – 26 of them an hour – wouldn’t be possible because of the necessary turn-around time and limited platforms at the station. Metro’s response to the problem is that “The reference… refers to a future opportunity – and not a requirement before the CBD Metro opens.” Is the authority suggesting that Central be expanded to deal with the capacity problems caused by Metro? Is it worth spending even more money to pay for a hugely costly expansion? Or is Metro arguing that it would be acceptable to begin services with little ridership, as CityRail trains wouldn’t have to terminate?

This isn’t to say that the Metro project shouldn’t be considered at all. But with CityRail lines overflowing and more capacity needed into the CBD, the answer isn’t an elimination of existing service. Rather, what would make more sense would be a new CityRail offering into downtown along the Metro alignment, splitting off at Central from existing lines and then continuing along the planned Metro route. While it’s nice to imagine a new Metro in Sydney, improving the existing network by providing an alternative to the City Circle, as well as providing new services to Rozell and White Bay, as the Metro is planned to do, would decongest the routes through the CBD and open up new service opportunities. There’s no reason to think that metro-like services to the west and south couldn’t be provided along new alignments and connecting to the new CityRail tunnel.

Image above: Sydney CBD Metro Plan, from Sydney Metro

Australia Commuter Rail Gold Coast Australia Kansas City Light Rail Metro Rail Sydney

Kansas City Abandons Light Rail; Australian Rapid Transit Projects In Development

Kansas City abandons light rail for regional commuter systemProposed Kansas City Light Rail Map

In November, Kansas City voters abandoned hope for a light rail system by a 44-56% margin. There had been several efforts over the past few years to build a variety of lines, led by community organizer Clay Chastain, who in 2006 won an endorsement from voters for a 27-mile rail system to run throughout the city. In 2008, however, the city council decided on a $1 billion 14-mile north-south line (shown in the plan to the right) that would be sponsored by a 3/8¢ sales tax; voters obviously weren’t interested.

But now the area’s Regional Transit Alliance has decided to replace its light rail plan with a commuter rail system that would run using diesel locomotives on existing tracks. The Kansas City Star reports that Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders sees the commuter rail system as more ambitious than the previous light rail plan:

“If we’re going to have a mass transit plan, it needs to be regional so that we move the largest number of people where they want to go… Bigger is better.”

The irony of Mr. Sanders’ statement is that while an investment in commuter rail may provide longer lines spreading further out into the region, it would also almost certainly mean fewer riders. The fact is that commuter rail systems, usually running at inconvenient frequencies and stopping at stations more likely to be surrounded by parking than dense housing, do not attract the kind of patronage that a game-changing light rail network would. And while commuter rail would improve the mobility of a small number of the region’s suburb-to-downtown commuters, it wouldn’t help much in getting people in the inner city around.

Perhaps it is true that the population in Kansas City is spread out enough that citizens of the region are unwilling to agree to a sales tax for a central city-only light rail network, but the commuter rail network for which they might settle will change the travel habits of fewer people than a light rail system would have.

Australian rapid transit projects – in the Gold Coast and in Sydney – up in the air because of Labor-Liberal political controversies

The Gold Coast, Australia’s sixth-largest city located just south of Brisbane in Queensland, is planning a 17-km light rail transit system that would run north-south along the city’s trademark coast and then west to the Pacific Motorway. The city is increasingly dense along the waterfront but lacks any major mass transit option. The project has been supported by Australia’s ruling center-left Labor Party, but recently the coalition of the conservative Liberal and National Parties that controls Queensland has veered back and forth about whether to support the project, putting its construction into jeopardy.

The problem is that neither the national government nor the Queensland state have indicated the appropriate willingness to direct the necessary hundreds of millions of Australian dollars that would be necessary to get the light rail line built, even though everyone seems to agree that the Gold Coast is in desperate need of alternative transport options.

In Sydney, a similar situation is playing out. Late last year, the New South Wales government announced that it would fund the construction of a $4.8 billion new CBD subway in the city’s downtown area. The project would begin construction in 2010 and be completed by 2015. Now that the state government has begun property acquisitions, however, some local Sydney politicians have expressed their discontent about the project’s massive price, suggesting that a better use of the funds would be in an expansion of the city’s light rail network. The national government, however, sees the CBD subway as the first stage of a massive new metro system that would run to the Northwest quadrant of the city and provide much-needed traffic relief.

As of now, both projects remain funded but obstacles are likely to stand in their way in the future.

Image above: Kansas City Light Rail network plan (abandoned), from