Sydney’s rail future under a cloud

A document called “Sydney's Rail Future – Modernising Sydney's Trains” was released by the Barry O'Farrell NSW government in June. It plans to modernise the Sydney rail network by converting it to a "three tier" system: rapid transit, suburban and intercity.

Unfortunately, the plan is vague about the long-term future of rail expansion around Sydney. Its unstated objectives would appear to be:

1. Honouring an unfortunate election promise to build a railway to Sydney’s northwest – the North West Rail Link. This promise has been allowed to take precedence over the more urgent need to expand services in the inner suburbs first, with a new line under the CBD and a new rail harbour crossing.

The government's desire to be seen as doing something will probably mean tunnel-boring machinery in the ground for the North West Rail Link by the end of 2014.

2. Splitting the railway system so that a significant and growing part of it is made up of privatised single-deck trains that operate with different practices from the rest. This may mean trains without guards. It probably would include new signaling systems that permit trains to run closer together.

Several lies are being told about the wonderful future the new arrangement will bring. One is that single-deck trains will be the answer, that we unfortunate Sydneysiders have the only city in the world without single-deck trains.

Unfortunately, the plan is to bore North West Rail Link tunnels from Epping to Kellyville with a diameter of 6.1 metres, which is too narrow for them to be used for double-deck trains travelling at 100 kilometres per hour.

Fast double-deck trains would require a bore of seven metres. A report by Action for Public Transport's consultant says this constraint will have significant adverse consequences for the long-term expansion of the rail network.

Another lie is that the single-deck trains will make journeys faster. That could be so if the stations were 900 metres apart as they are on the metro systems of cities like Paris, and if the stations were designed to handle large crowds.

But on the North West Rail Link stations are planned to be three kilometres apart, which means the advantages of single-deck trains disappear.

Regardless of North West Rail Link train speed, buses along the M2 will remain the fastest way to travel to the CBD from most places in Sydney’s north-west.

Yet another lie is that single-deck trains can carry more passengers an hour than double-deck trains. In practice, it depends on station design.

Another disadvantage of the North West Rail Link as currently planned is that passengers for the CBD will have to change trains at Chatswood and board North Shore services that are already packed at peak hour.

These problems are becoming well known. Issues with the North West Rail Link itself, and recent state government cuts to education and health, are feeding a groundswell of opinion that the rail link should be deferred until it can be afforded and built properly.

Single-deck trains may well have a place in Sydney but it won't be the long runs out to Rouse Hill. However, single-deck trains would have been a good match for the ill-fated metro lines mapped out by past Labor state governments.

These trains could use existing tracks serving inner suburbs, such as the Bankstown line, the Illawarra line to Hurstville and perhaps Gordon to Lidcombe. Other advantages that single-deck trains might bring could and should be applied to the existing train fleet, however local railway engineers are slow to embrace new technology.

Action for Public Transport wants the Kellyville tunnels bored at a width of seven metres, however if the project is stopped there is a serious risk that the $3.3 billion set aside for it will be spent on roads instead.

We want work to start on the inner lines that will be necessary to handle the extra trains that will be arriving from all lines within a few years but the detailed plan doesn't exist yet.

Meanwhile, the first towers at Barangaroo will be open by 2015 and 8000 people will need to travel there each morning, eventually rising to about 23,000 people. How will they get there without another city railway line?

[Jim Donovan is a spokesperson for Action for Public Transport. Visit aptnsw.org.au. He will also speak at a GLW-sponsored public forum at Parramatta Town Hall on November 24. Call Fred on 0412 555 527 for more details about the forum.]

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