Western Sydney and the City Deal: a precursor to metropolitan governance reform?

cover_issue_505_en_USRecently, along with three other authors from Commonwealth countries, I was asked by the editors of the Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance to prepare a short “perspective” on issues and trends in metropolitan governance in response to a paper by Zack Taylor on Regionalism from Above: Metropolitan Governance in Canada.

In my paper – Western Sydney and the City Deal: a precursor to metropolitan governance reform? – I took a look at the changing face of governance in Western Sydney and in particular the implications of the “Western Sydney City Deal”. While this was the main focus, I was able in a few paragraphs to reflect on the attempts that the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC) made before and during my time there as CEO from 1996 to 2008 to engage collaboratively with the state government and to form broad governance partnerships “from the ground up” with other regional organisations in order to improve infrastructure and service provision for Western Sydney’s fast-growing population. While these strategies were successful initially in influencing government funding and planning priorities they met increasing resistance. I observed that WSROC “lacked the resources and authority to develop a sustained cross-sector collaborative governance model”.

The structure of the region has also changed greatly. Previously, communities of interest had evolved along the road and rail corridors radiating east to west through the region from central Sydney, but the development of growth centres and the completion of the M7 orbital Motorway introduced new links between outer metropolitan communities along a north–south axis. The eight outer western councils began to see themselves as a group facing distinctly different issues compared to the more-established councils in the eastern part of the region.

More recently the decision to build Sydney’s second airport at the mid-point of this corridor and the designation by the Greater Sydney Commission of this sub-region as the “Western Parkland City” as part of a restructure of the metropolitan area into three “30-minute” cities. The airport was also the focus the federal government’s Western Sydney City Deal, signed in 2016 which sought to establish a collaborative partnership between the federal government, NSW government and the eight councils. As well as providing substantial funding for transport infrastructure, a range of employment, education, housing and environmental initiatives and a new “Aerotropolis” close to the airport, the City Deal also involves additional collaboration arrangements which see all three levels of government working together to deliver these outcomes.

I conclude that while these arrangements appear to be working well, they are designed “to implement the commitments of the City Deal rather than to provide an enduring model of metropolitan governance”. However, “the participating municipalities may be developing a capacity and enthusiasm for working collaboratively at a metropolitan scale, and for engaging with federal and state governments on a more equal footing, rather than as subordinates”, and these arrangements “may yet provide a catalyst for the evolution of more inclusive and equitable forms of metropolitan governance”.

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Labor’s High Speed Rail proposal – too far, or not far enough?

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese today announced that Labor would “make fast rail connections between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle a reality” and establish a High-Speed Rail Authority if it wins government in next year’s federal election. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to be cynical about High Speed Rail (HSR) pre-election promises in Australian politics given their perfect track record of non fulfillment, but in this case it is just possible that the stars might align for Albanese’s promise to actually be kept if Labor wins office. If so, this raises another question – does his proposal go far enough?

It is now just over three years since the former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and then Transport Minister Andrew Constance made their “Fast Rail” announcement, stating that “The NSW Government will start work on a fast rail network in the next [ie, the 2019-23] term of government, linking regional centres to each other and Sydney, significantly slashing travel times across the State.” So far, very little has happened, apart from an announcement in April that there will be an upgrade of the NSW South Coast corridor.

NSW Fastrail map

NSW Fast Rail potential routes identified for investigation back in 2018. Source: NSW Fast Rail Future website

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Sydney Metro West gets a mega CBD interchange and Star Casino hits the jackpot, but no southeast link

Two more pieces in the Sydney Metro West puzzle were revealed in the recent announcement by the NSW Government of the location of the remaining stations on the line – Pyrmont and Hunter Street. The announcement itself was not a great surprise, as the general location of these stations has been foreshadowed for some time. However, the revelation of their exact locations has several interesting implications.

The first of these is confirmation that Hunter Street Station will play a pivotal role in a mega transport interchange underneath the northern part of the Sydney central business district (CBD). The second is the close proximity of Pyrmont station to the casino and how that may influence the redevelopment of the Pyrmont peninsula, which is similar in some respects to the relationship between Barangaroo station and the partially-opened Crown Casino.

However, one puzzle piece is likely to remain missing indefinitely – an extension of the metro to Sydney’s southeast. This along with several aspects of the metro’s design points to some of the compromises being made in the face of the project’s rising cost.

First, a very brief recap: Sydney Metro West (SMW) will be Sydney’s second metro line, stretching 24 kilometres from Westmead in Western Sydney to the city centre. Station locations have previously been confirmed at Westmead, Parramatta, Sydney Olympic Park, North Strathfield, Burwood North, Five Dock and The Bays.

Proposed Sydney West Metro route. Source: Transport for NSW

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COVID-19 and Non-Government Organisations

In addition to this blog I also host another called Sociamind which provides information about MindManager (MM) mind mapping software. I usually discuss things like the key features of the latest version, or explore how you can use these features in unusual ways to accomplish specific tasks. I’m a director of a small company and I’m also involved in several non-profit non-government organisations (NGOs) which manage small projects, so I often have these in mind when I develop ideas for posts on my blog.

These are not normal times, however. As the world responds to COVID-19’s terrible toll, millions of people’s lives have been upended. As countries try to contain the virus, businesses and other organizations have closed, suspended or radically altered their activities.

Almost all community, social and cultural activities have also come to an abrupt halt as social distancing and isolation kicks in. While it’s the cancellations of the big events which have attracted the most attention, thousands of local fetes, markets, concerts, sporting events, performances, exhibitions and other activities put on by small (NGOs) have suffered the same fate.

In collaboration with MindManager I’ve turned what I’ve learnt from working with several NGOs which are going through this process to develop a COVID-19 NGO Pause Strategy which may be helpful to other organisations. This article, which also includes ideas on how to continue some activities online, has just been posted on the MindManager blog: https://www.mindjet.com/blog/2020/04/202004how-non-government-organizations-can-manage-the-impacts-of-covid-19/

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Meet REM: Sydney Metro’s Canadian twin

A fully automated metro system over 65 kilometres long is under staged construction in a major city and is expected to be fully open by the early 2020s. Using technology supplied by European rail company Alstom and trains manufactured in India, the stand-alone system will link suburbs with the heart of the city – but it represents also a controversial break with the past.

Sounds a lot like the Sydney Metro – but it’s also an equally accurate description of the Réseau express métropolitain (REM – Metropolitan Express Network) currently under construction in Montreal, Canada. As well as being nearly identical in length, technologies and construction timeframes, both systems are also a contentious departure from existing heavy rail practices in their host cities. Not only are they technologically incompatible with existing rail networks, they also involve the takeover and conversion of established and functional suburban rail infrastructure.

In previous posts I have compared Sydney Metro with broadly similar projects currently under construction in Australia and New Zealand, as well as with London’s Crossrail. However, the similarities between REM and the Sydney Metro are much more striking. In this post I’ll compare these projects and in part two I’ll discuss the controversies in both cities around the parallel decisions to construct stand-alone transit systems.

Montreal REM map. Source: REM website

Sydney Metro. Source: Wikipedia

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Sydney Metro West update: the government goes for speed over coverage

Yesterday’s release of a Project Overview detailing the station locations for the planned Sydney Metro West between Westmead and the Sydney CBD largely confirms the state government’s previous announcements as well as analysis in this blog and elsewhere. It also reaffirms the government’s intention that the trip is planned to be a speedy one, with between only five and seven stations and a travel time target of around 20 minutes between Parramatta and the CBD.

This also means that the new line follows the model of the recently opened Sydney Metro Northwest which has a high average distance between stations, though similarly the stations will be “clumped” in several groups along the way. One key difference however is that in north-western Sydney the station locations largely reflect the current and planned uneven development patterns of the region, unlike the relatively even densities along the proposed route of the Sydney Metro West. This means that a number of key locations in this corridor will miss out on metro service.

The Project Overview is consistent with the government’s previous announcements and provides some clarity about how the metro will operate and its interaction with other transport infrastructure and services. However, it also points to a range of still-unanswered questions, for example the location of the CBD station, the location of stations at Rydalmere or Pyrmont, and indeed whether these stations will be built at all.

Sydney West Metro map. Source: NSW Government

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Why are motorways good but fast trains bad for regional cities?

While I was overseas a few months ago in Tbilisi (among other things looking at the city’s transport systems) I read The Conversation article by Todd Denham and Jago Dodson – Regional cities beware – fast rail might lead to disadvantaged dormitories, not booming economies critiquing the Federal Government funding of nine business cases assessing fast rail opportunities in NSW, Queensland and Victoria. At the time I wrote a response on social media but thought I would turn this into a longer article.

VLine VLocity Train, currently the backbone of the Victorian regional rail network. Source: Public Transport Victoria

Denham and Dodson’s article concentrated on the plans to develop a fast rail connection between Melbourne and Geelong. The crux of their argument is that fast rail strategies treat “regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres”. Furthermore, they claim that:

Reduced travel times can mean regional businesses become less efficient than metropolitan competitors that can offer a wider range of specialist goods and services. This may lead to regional business closures, employment losses and wage decline. Unless a regional city is able to develop a specialised set of high-skill, high-wage industries that complement or outcompete the metropolis it risks being economically disadvantaged by faster rail.

Dodson amplified some of these arguments recently in another article specifically addressing the population impacts of high speed rail. I have a lot of time for Jago Dodson’s work and I would like to see the full research work behind the claims in both articles, but the problem I have with this sort of analysis is that it often treats fast rail in isolation, ignoring parallel investment in other transport infrastructure. Continue reading

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Metros and Marshrutkas – taking a ride in Tbilisi: part 1

Recently I had the privilege of spending five weeks in Georgia helping my wife with an art installation. I spent most of my time in Tbilisi on my second visit to this sometimes chaotic but always interesting city which always feels a bit bigger than its population of 1.2 million people. Few people have visited Georgia or its capital, whose transport systems present an interesting contrast to those in Australian cities. It offers some interesting perspectives on transport planning, so in this two-part series I’ll take a look at the city’s urban structure and how people get around it.

The city and its context

It’s hard to understand how Tbilisi works from a transport perspective without knowing something about how the city’s structure evolved. This is closely intertwined with Georgia’s complex history and its current geopolitical status. Both are way too complicated to describe here, but the country along with its neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan make up the Caucasus and form a major crossroad between Europe and Asia. Not surprisingly Georgia’s location is a key factor in the country’s turbulent and often violent past.

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Sydney Metro Observations

Last week I joined the thousands of people who tried out the new Sydney Metro Northwest. I was going to say half-million people, but the total patronage for the first week of operation of over 546,000 obviously includes return and repeat trips. Still, this is an impressive figure, and even if the first day’s patronage (when travel was free) is taken out, average daily use for the working week was nearly 80,000.

I started my trip by taking a train from the line’s current eastern terminus at Chatswood to the final station in the northwest, at Tallawong. I then retraced my journey in stages, stopping at Rouse Hill, Norwest, Hills Showground and Castle Hill before returning to Chatswood. I was trying not just to get a sense of how the new line is working but also its relationship to the centres and communities along the corridor.

The trains

I’ve described the trains in more detail previously and I’ll revisit them in a future post, but in summary there are 22 six-car 132-metre long trains with 378 seats and a total capacity of 1,100 passengers. These have been manufactured in India by Alstom and are a variant of their Metropolis model.

The trains are energised at 1500 VDC from overhead catenary and are driverless, with operations overseen from a control centre near Tallawong where they are stabled. There are three doors per carriage side with 100% longitudinal seating and spaces for wheelchairs, prams and bikes.

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Update: Sydney West Metro station plans firm in NSW election refresh

It’s always easy to know when there’s an election on the way in Australia, especially in NSW, as all parties commit to new projects big and small. Top of the list are new infrastructure projects – hospitals, roads, and, increasingly, public transport – with their seductive promise of a shiny new future, ushered in by ribbon-cutting politicians.

But what if you are in government and have already started planning or constructing several large infrastructure projects, or you are in opposition trying to differentiate yourself while supporting at least some of the government’s proposals? Well, the next best thing to a new project is to “refresh” an already-announced one, for example by proclaiming that extra funding has been earmarked for it, that work will begin sooner, or that it will be “fast-tracked” – even if the project remains largely unchanged.

Recent announcements about the Sydney West Metro by both major political parties in the run-up to the 2019 state election provide excellent examples. A few weeks ago NSW Opposition Leader Michael Daley’s committed to spend $8 billion to “fast-track” the planned line. In the last couple of days the government responded, with the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Transport Minister Andrew Constance announcing that $6.4 billion would be set aside for the project and that construction will begin a year earlier than previously planned, in 2020. The premier also committed to reducing journey times between Parramatta and the city via the metro to around 20 minutes.

Despite all these promises it is unlikely that the project will be completed significantly earlier than 2028 – and neither the government of the opposition’s funding announcements will be nearly enough to complete the metro, given its $16 billion estimated cost. However, the announcement did provide more details regarding the government’s proposed route and preferred station locations, coming shortly after the Sydney Morning Herald’s documentation of the sites of intensive geotechnical investigations for the project and my most recent article which used this information to try to assess the most probable corridor.

While they have both refreshed their commitments to the project, the announcements mean there is now some differentiation between the parties in their approach which have some interesting implications.

Sydney West Metro: potential corridor and station site options. Sources: Transport for NSW, SMH, Coalition/ALP statements, Google My Maps. (Map assumes Rydalmere corridor is selected).

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