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Sydney's railways: a great legacy betrayed by myopia

By Robert Gibbons - posted Friday, 29 June 2012

The NSW Government has announced its 20-year vision for the upgrading of Sydney's great rail system. It faced immediate criticism on the grounds of broken promises and impracticality of key elements. The chairman of Infrastructure NSW was reported as suggesting that the existing system be improved before extensions and upgradings are considered, with extra time to get such matters right.

The biggest issue, however, is the "elephant in the room". Past analyses have shown that there is a way to start to reconfigure the legacy rail system, to reduce overloading and costs and to free capacity in areas the Government gives priority to but at a lower cost than the Government's scheme

That project and another announced by a previous Coalition Government were missing from that 20-year vision.


Given the history of ill-considered rail and metro schemes and the heavily compromised nature of light rail projects, is it not time for a profoundly sensible review of needs and options in the way that Eddington did reviews for London and Melbourne?

The stakes are great: will historical structures be set in concrete, leaving Sydney with an inadequate system in future as in current terms; or will less money be applied to greater effect in re-engineering the structures to the benefit of future generations?

The options

The Government proposes to add north-south capacity by building a new crossing of the Harbour. It does not know the cost but press commentary has focussed on $10 billion. Given the length of tunneling and the introduction of new technology through new and existing track sections, no-one should be surprised if the total ends up as double or triple that. Moreover Treasury has been known to have advised governments over many years that under 5,000 residents of the ultimate size of the NW would want to end up in the CBD on workdays. The growth of employment in the Norwest/Macquarie Park area (sourced from inner areas in large part) would probably reduce that flow.

Previous studies especially by Jacana Consulting, as summarised in the appendix, produced the idea of a Hurstville to Strathfield line which would allow interchanges with the Illawarra, East Hills, Bankstown, Main West and Main North lines, as well as busways. It was included in an important "plan" in 1998. It has great potential as explained below and must not be ignored.

The Fahey Government and its transport minister Bruce Baird produced the idea of a new line (using part of an old one) from Parramatta to Epping and Chatswood. The latter section has been completed, while the national government has offered $2.1 billion for the former which the NSW Government has rejected. It is intrinsic to the future of Parramatta.


The Government's scheme was produced in the same manner as the CBD Metro and other ill-fated ideas, without detailed exposition of main options and scenario-testing and full reporting of generally agreed performance parameters of two or three of the most promising options.

An historical perspective allows two conclusions: there are valid alternatives to the second Harbour crossing which are forgotten through silo processes; and there is "spatial blindness" on the part of innercity-orientated politicians and bureaucrats.

Why should Sydney's citizens care?

A full professional review leading to the reconfiguring of the rail system through consideration of the Hurstville to Strathfield line (and the Parramatta to Epping line) is important because:

  1. It would help to avoid further blunders and waste of taxpayers' and investors' money, especially with so few future NW commuters likely to want to access the CBD. It would increase patronage through the middle-west and generally and whether that reducing the CityRail operating deficit is up to the government of the day.
  2. It would mesh with demographic projections which show that well over 50% of future residents in Sydney's south-west will commute to the northern end of the "global arc" around North Rye, Macquarie Centre, Norwest Business Park and the like, meaning:
    1. They unnecessarily will have to travel through the CBD and Bridge otherwise
    2. This is a massive waste of time if not money for those commuters
    3. The time loss will encourage car usage even more, worsening congestion and probably imposing tolls on family budgets
  3. It would permit a broad area for redevelopment and revenue-raising through various means, whereas the Government's proposed option has very little potential for either. This would make the difference between a successful PPP and another failed one.
  4. It would decrease congestion throughout a major sweep of Sydney.
  5. It would facilitate the more efficient movement of coal, containers and other rail freight.
  6. It would facilitate special event and emergency operations by adding multiple route options and extra bus interchange points (as well as alternative track, signalling and power systems).
  7. Both would support the development of Parramatta and improve the community and employees' access to the second CBD's Justice, resources and other centres there.
  8. It would cost much less per train path added compared with the government's scheme, and indeed the government's operational intentions could probably be implemented without a second Harbour crossing within 50 years and perhaps forever.

The Eddington processes in London and Melbourne were conducted in accordance with UK Treasury requirements. They would more than satisfy COAG's and Infrastructure Australia's requirements. Most important, NSW citizens are the least confident in their planning system (Productivity Commission) and the suggested process would be the most important way (next to better local governance which is also being neglected) of restoring credibility as well as reducing congestion, improving intergenerational equity and railway finances, and meeting the transport side of the carbon challenge sensibly.

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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