There are a lot of rubbery (some plain wrong) numbers quoted when it comes to public transport use, and it seems that trains and train stations are among the worse offenders. Perhaps because the costs of maintaining, operating or expanding network facilities are so eye watering, the promised benefits need to be overstated?
Let’s start with some context. Pre covid, there were around 1.5 million people with jobs in the South East Queensland region. Of that, around 120,000 were located in the CBD and this grows to around 200,000 including inner city locations.
Of the 1.5 million workers, around 60,000 to 70,000 people used a train as part of their journey to work. Nearly all of those people – 84% in fact – board or alight at one of the six current inner-city stations. The busiest was Central Station (roughly half of the station traffic) with around 33,000 people but numbers drop quickly to second place Roma Street (roughly 9500) and Fortitude Valley (nearly 5000).
Fast forward to some of the promised traffic volumes associated with the new CBD stations being delivered as part of Cross River Rail. Overall rail passenger numbers are generally forecast to increase massively. As Engineers Australia observed in a 2017 submission: “The average daily user demands stated in Section 4.2 of the Request for Project Change report equate to a level by 2026 of 208% of the 2015 levels (equating to an average annual growth rate of 6.9%pa over that 11-year period), and a level by 2036 of 289% of the 2015 levels (equating to an average annual growth rate between 2026 and 2036 of 3.3%pa).”
The Cross River Rail website claims the new Roma Street station will handle a surprisingly precise “46,320 users per day by 2036.” The same for the new Albert Street station, officially predicted to have 67,260 users by 2036.
If it were true that 67,000 users were to use the Albert Street Station and 46,000 will use the Roma Street Station, that would be equivalent to 113,000 users, or around 95% of today’s total CBD workforce, or almost double the number of people who currently (pre covid) use the entire City Train network.
It is probable the term “users” actually refers to total traffic volumes, not individuals. The Cross River Rail website isn’t clear on this but on this basis, you would roughly halve the predicted station “users” to get to the number of individuals, because most people arrive in the morning and leave in the afternoon using the same transport mode (the one individual ‘uses’ the station twice in the same day). This would mean these two stations would be serving maybe 56,000 people daily. But that is still a very big number; close to the total number of people using the entire rail network in 2016, and just from two stations. Either way, the projections appear optimistic, particularly given recent trends.
Public transport tends to be very much a CBD thing. Across South East Queensland, according to this Queensland Government publication, total mode share of public transport is 20%. That’s for trains, buses, ferries etc. A further 76% use the private car. For the CBD, public transport mode share rises to 76% and only 21% use private car. This is worth keeping in mind because public transport’s ability to relieve congestion is highly correlated to the number and proportion of jobs in the CBD. The numbers have been relatively stable and the proportion is falling as the economy changes.
The predictions for station numbers could assume heroic growth in CBD job numbers by 2036 but this seems unlikely: CBD job numbers have been growing at only around 1% per annum (2011 to 2016) while suburban jobs have been growing at twice that rate (largely due to rapid growth in health and education).
And yes, our population has grown and is forecast to increase substantially in years ahead but has this automatically translated into higher rail passenger numbers? It would seem not. Ten years ago Central Station had 33,000 people using it daily. According to a special data run by a friend in the industry, that number in September 2019 (pre Covid) had fallen to around 28,500. Then there’s been the impact of Covid, which has seen CBD station numbers drop by 30% on pre Covid levels, and inner city station numbers drop by 35% (June 2021 compared to June 2019). Too many people have not returned to work, and too many of those who have are choosing different means to get there. This in a state which has escaped lengthy “stay at home” orders arising from Covid.
The long-term impacts are unknown at this stage but some things seem probable. CBD job numbers appear unlikely to grow quickly for the foreseeable future. If many choose to continue to work from home for even one or two days a week, that will reduce overall demand. Plus, there may be a continuing hesitancy about use of crowded public transport networks. Meaning the promised numbers for station traffic will need to be treated with extra caution.
On the flip side, there is no doubt the addition of new, contemporary stations in the CBD will add value to the appeal of train travel and overall network performance. The new stations will enrich and enliven the precincts in which they are located. More frequent services and more conveniently located stations are a good thing for CBD workers who can use the train.
For suburban workers who cannot use the train for their intra-suburban work trips (which account for more than 80% of all jobs), it’s not so good – especially if your trip includes having to cross one of the many rail level crossings. More train services will mean more time with the boom gates down, meaning more congestion and longer journey to work times, until these are fixed.