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Sydney tram lays track for past mistakes

By Robert Gibbons - posted Friday, 18 January 2013

Elements of the NSW Government are pushing ahead with the construction of tram routes in important parts of the "old city". Other elements are not convinced that the Transport administration is serving the government and community better than in the past. In the background are the history of failed plans and projects; the reforming procedural guidelines of Infrastructure Australia and COAG which have not been applied yet; and past studies which showed that current decisions may be second-best or worse.

"Planning myopia" (time-wise) has been added to "spatial blindness" (locational neglect) in heavy rail planning. Already the Dulwich Hill light rail extension is known to be less than 10 per cent as effective as would be the known but forgotten alternative through Leichhardt, past Sydney University and two other universities, completing an overall loop at Central. Other known options for trams are being ignored as will be seen later.

The debate between Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and trams – as alternative express modes, in reserved corridors - has bubbled for many years, in America in particular. The recent Nick Greiner/ Infrastructure NSW (iNSW) report on "First Things First" recommended both but with BRT in the politically-charged CBD and Parramatta, and trams in the inner eastern sport/university zone. (That zone was to have been served by the ANZAC Metro which had been announced in 2006 and remains the best prospect for metro trains.)


The reformist Waverley Council has long wanted to bring the iconic "Bondi Shooter" service back and noticed that neighbouring councils had approached Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian in an effort to get up the Moore Park-Kensington service that Greiner endorsed. Waverley's hope was that a spur line could be run from the Moore Park mainline through congested eastern suburbs to Bondi Beach. Trams had been replaced in 1960 by buses which are regarded now as the only commercially self-sustaining sector in the Sydney train, bus and ferry networks. The buses provide intensive community accessibility on Bondi Road, with its many retail, community and personal services premises.

Congestion, parking and the costs thereof along access ways from the CBD and in that precinct are horrendous for visitors and residents. Lend Lease investigated a heavy rail extension from Bondi Junction but the costs were excessive compared with fare potential and the grade from Bondi Road prohibited a mid-beach station.

NSW Transport advised Waverley that it would consider its Bondi Beach proposal subject to conditions, including a Stage 1 feasibility report (not an Eddington-type comprehensive assessment), a limit of one to two stops between Bondi Junction and the beach in order to ensure rapid transport, and the overcoming of engineering difficulties. A report and map were presented to the Council by officers in September 2011 with a cost of up to $100,000 but with no warning on risks.

Discussions over the years had been focussed on the Bondi Road corridor. This was confirmed in discussions with the Mayor, councillors and officers. (The map showed the two former routes, one down Bondi Road to the south, and one mid-beach via Curlewis St.) The then Council had been briefed in March 2010 on changes in traffic intensity, tree planting and even road arrangements on Bondi Road since 1960 which would make the re-introduction of trams problematic through to impossible. This author reported to them the outcome of a European Community design competition in Bath UK for PRT which would use airspace where road and underground enhancements are not feasible. It would serve a greater part of the zone than could trams and at less cost.

Many of Melbourne's tram routes are heavily congested, the trams' travel speeds being only what congestion allows. Separation of high occupancy vehicles of any type would be impossible without a radical restructuring of Waverley's roads and access privileges. Without separation, buses move faster than trams.

There was the alternative tram at mid-beach which had its own unique features, a viaduct over Boundary St and Barcom Ave, Darlinghurst and the purpose-built Birriga Road (which is a classically windy, treed boulevard). This route via Paddington and Birriga Rd/Curlewis St is still available in most respects and could loop around the beach front in a new way.


The Government has also missed emerging but proven technologies. Formerly CBD connections to the east were street-based. Tram/trains can do far more than trams, trains or buses. The Bradfield generation built several tunnels from the City Circle and Central. Greiner said Sydney should use the City Circle more. One possibility is to use the disused tunnel from between Martin Place/ Museum-St James stations on the City Circle up to Oxford St at Whitlam Square through tram/trains. This is a radically new idea for Sydney which can be seen in operation in Porto and elsewhere.

There are many issues involved especially in applying new thinking and taking communities through alternative "scenarios". A rigorous evaluation framework would be required together with genuine engagement if credibility and intergenerational progress are to be improved. The alternative approach, of not doing careful mode-neutral thinking, threatens the credibility of processes and agencies more than they are already. The implications of a Bondi Road tramway on the Transport department's lines might well horrify the community. As the Premier said before the election in 2011, "we understand that people who live with those decisions, and who will directly benefit from those decisions, have a much greater interest in making the right decisions than bureaucrats and Ministers located elsewhere"; and

… I have asked for a new discipline of my team – to be open-minded in our own thinking, and on every decision, ask 'is there a way this thing can be better delivered and owned by people closer to the place where it has its impact'.

Local politicians are expressing expectations, which is excellent; but where is the strategic guidance about best practice options? and also, through the very limited scope of the study, the coming generation has probably been denied the chance to do a better job. There is a provision in the Local Government Act for financial penalties for "culpable negligence or misconduct" but suchlike has been resisted in the State Government. One has to wonder if performance there will improve without greater accountability, professionalism and openness.

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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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