All change, please … and change again
Radical plans to overhaul Sydney’s rail system may come at a cost of comfort and convenience, writes Jacob Saulwick.
Sydney’s train system was built for places like Beecroft. It was built to allow people to live many kilometres north, west and south of the city centre and be able to hop onto trains near their homes and hop off where they work.
It was built so people could move from the Depression-era slums of The Rocks, Surry Hills and Paddington, and live where trees still grew and the air was clean.
These were the principles on which John Bradfield built the Harbour Bridge and ripped up the CBD to build the City Circle more than 80 years ago.
“Part of the problem we have today is that we have a clumsy 19th-century-focused double-deck system that keeps trying to have Band Aid solutions” … Gladys Berijiklian has launched a new model rail system to accomodate the system’s worsening crush of commuters. Photo: Brendan Esposito
The Bridge came to define the look of the city. But the Circle would also define the way people moved through it, allowing commuters from outer suburbs to enter the city on trains that would loop around, and then head to more suburbs.
At Beecroft station, about 35 kilometres north-west of the CBD and one of the suburban stations for which the network was designed, commuters this week told the Herald what they liked about the system.
”You want to be comfortable; it is about 50 minutes on the way in and I’ll usually study or look through work emails,” said Katie Pearce, a law clerk and student who commutes to either her city job or Sydney University.
”A longer commute than an hour would be quite an annoyance” … Alex Jones commutes to Alexandria. His trip, which involves changing trains at Epping for an express to Central and then a bus to Alexandria, would not change. Photo: Brendan Esposito
”I’ll go earlier if it means I will get a seat, I would rather not stand,” she said. ”I definitely don’t like to change trains.”
But this model, according to plans being developed by the state government, could be a thing of the past.
At a press conference last week to unveil the latest design for a rail line to the transport-deficient Hills district, the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and his Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, discussed changes to Sydney’s train system that run deeper than one new line.
“I’ll go earlier if it means I will get a seat – I would rather not stand” … Katie Pearce commutes to either the city or Redfern. Would need to change at Epping and Chatswood to get to the city. Photo: Brendan Esposito
”Part of the problem we have today is that we have a clumsy 19th-century-focused double-deck system that keeps trying to have Band-Aid solutions,” Berejiklian said.
And so she foreshadowed new operating patterns for Sydney’s rail network that would mark a philosophical break with the way it has worked since Bradfield’s day.
The changes are designed to accommodate the system’s worsening crush of commuters. But if implemented they will also mean a different sort of commute for tens of thousands of Sydney residents.
The promise will be more frequent trains. The downside will be less seating, fewer direct trains to the city, and more need to get off and change.
”I’ve been to Hong Kong; I haven’t been to some of the other cities that have fantastic public transport, but why shouldn’t we have that in Sydney?,” Berejiklian said. ”Unless we take the steps now it will never ever happen.”
The plan might be progress. But the risks involved have some wondering if Berejiklian and co really know what they are getting into.
It was only the quirks of NSW Labor history that meant O’Farrell and Berejiklian were the first politicians to announce this sort of overhaul of Sydney’s train system.
In late 2007, a former chief executive of state rail, Simon Lane, was brought back into the fold by the then Director-General of Transport, Jim Glasson.
Lane’s job was to review CityRail’s oft-delayed expansion plans.
The government’s then policy was to continue with the traditional CityRail model, but to supplement it with new lines to the south-west and north-west eventually connected by a second harbour rail crossing.
But Labor had an atrocious record of finding and allocating the money to these projects. So Lane, a British-born former rail executive in Singapore, looked for ways to prevent the need for a second harbour crossing.
And, with the backing of the RailCorp boss Rob Mason, he started work on schemes to try to turn Sydney’s railway system into something more like Singapore or Hong Kong.
The basic idea of what became known as the ”Simon Lane plan” was to stop running heavy double-deck trains that could run only every three minutes over the Harbour Bridge.
Instead, Lane argued in reports for Mason, RailCorp should convert to smaller single-deck that could run every two minutes, frequent enough to not require a timetable.
The new model could push more people over the bridge in peak hour, he argued, meaning the second crossing could be put off for decades.
Lane left, but the concepts took hold to the extent that the day Nathan Rees was deposed as premier in December 2009, he was to have released a transport “blueprint” that included converting about a third of the CityRail network to single-deck trains as recommended under the Lane plan.
Rees’s blueprint called them “metro-style” trains. Last week, when O’Farrell and Berejiklian went public with them, they branded them “rapid-transit”.
Under Rees’s blueprint, as with O’Farrell and Berejiklian’s plan, the north-west rail link would be built for single-deck services.
Under Rees’s blueprint, as with O’Farrell and Berejiklian’s plan, the Illawarra Line to Hurstville and the Bankstown Line to Cabramatta would be converted to single-deck trains running at a higher frequency.
The main difference between the two plans is that O’Farrell and Berejiklian are actually going to build the north-west rail link.
And they have also committed, some day in the future, that there will be a second harbour rail crossing on which to run these single-deck trains.
But all these plans involve more than just replacing double-deck trains with single-deck. They also necessitate unpicking the historical model of Sydney’s train system that has allowed commuters to board trains in the suburbs and alight in the city.
Take, for instance, the O’Farrell government’s model for the north-west rail link, to be opened in about 2019.
The line will be built as a private shuttle between Rouse Hill and Chatswood, meaning the existing Epping to Chatswood line will be handed over to a new private operator. The concept means everyone on that line wanting to get to the city will have to change at Chatswood to get into town.
But it will also mean residents of suburbs north of Epping, places such as Cheltenham, Thornleigh and Beecroft, will have to catch three trains instead of one to get to the lower north shore and the city.
They will get one train to Epping, another on the new private line to Chatswood and a third train south from Chatswood. Commuters are unlikely to get seats on these last two.
Of course, forcing a few thousand people to change is not a disaster. Particularly when you are building a new rail line to suburbs that have never enjoyed one before. But Berejiklian’s department is also drawing up proposals for further interchange at other spots on the network.
Documents obtained by the Herald, and previously reported, reveal plans to force thousands of commuters on the Richmond Line to change at Seven Hills to continue to the city, and thousands of commuters at stations south of Epping to change at Central to continue to the city.
The idea is to require fewer lines to merge. Instead, the lines will run in simpler, shuttle patterns, just like they do in Hong Kong.
Dr Dick Day, a former general manager of planning and timetable development at RailCorp who was responsible for planning and development of the timetable for the Olympics, says the north-west plan might work if the second crossing was eventually built.
But in the meantime, there will be plenty of political heat when passengers are forced to stand up and change onto already crowded trains.
”The adverse impact on the very large number of passengers forced to interchange makes the minister’s decision to support the metro alternative without detailed public discussion truly heroic,” Day says.
Day is less impressed with the proposals to force passengers to interchange off the Richmond Line and from south of Epping. On his reckoning, these plans would have dubious benefit but could each affect about 4000 passengers an hour.
Dr Paul Mees, a senior lecturer in planning at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, is particularly scathing of attempts to try to make Sydney’s train system more like Hong Kong.
He has seen it happen in Melbourne. The operator of Hong Kong’s metro, MTR, was appointed in 2009 to run the city’s train system. It attempted to simplify Melbourne’s train patterns and provoked a furore.
”What happens is that people go to Hong Kong and they say: ‘Aren’t the people that run the system brilliant’,” Mees says.
”But they’re not, the way the Hong Kong system was designed was brilliant, which meant that idiots could run it. It is a completely inappropriate model to be using in a city that already has a legacy suburban rail system. What we should be doing is looking at comparable cities that manage to get their trains to run reliably.”
Mees nominates Paris, Zurich and Copenhagen as examples.
In the meantime, Berejiklian and her advisers, many of whom are the same people in senior positions under the previous government, continue to pursue the goal of a 21st-century railway for Sydney.
The chairman of Infrastructure NSW, the former premier Nick Greiner, has embraced the new model for the north-west as a victory for common sense.
”There is not and there will not be a god-given right for people to go to the corner of their street and get on something and get off where they work in the city,” Greiner said last week.
He does not need to get elected.