Sydney Metro’s commercialised future

What if the NSW government set up a new state-owned business corporation and handed it sweeping powers that duplicated those of several established authorities, including the power to prepare strategic plans, buy, develop and sell land, run other businesses (including bus services) and, incidentally, manage a railway system?

Well, this isn’t a hypothetical question, as the government has just pushed the Transport Administration Amendment (Sydney Metro) Bill 2018 through parliament. The legislation, which passed yesterday with little fanfare, amends the Transport Administration Act 1988 to constitute the Sydney Metro as a corporation. It also creates the Sydney Metro Board to run the new entity, which can undertake all the activities outlined above.

Why has the government done this? Setting up a government-owned corporation to oversee the development and operation of a privately-operated metro is not so surprising for a Coalition Government, but why give this new body a range of powers that goes well beyond ensuring the metro trains run on time?

Not surprisingly the opposition thinks it has the answer – the metro is being “fattened” for privatisation, a claim the government strenuously denies. However, the government may have another agenda for the Metro, one which may prove to be even more controversial.

 Sydney Metro: open for business

The legislation starts with a clear commercial focus. The “orderly and efficient development of land” near metro stations, depots and stabling yards is given equal top billing as a key objective alongside the delivery of “safe and reliable metro passenger services”.

Central Walkway at Central Station – will the new Sydney Metro Corporation be managing these sorts of projects in future? (source: NSW government – artist impression)

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Labor’s different track on the Sydney Metro – part 2: possibilities and practicalities

In my last article I looked at the broader political and policy perspectives of NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s recent announcement that if Labor wins the 2019 State election it will “accelerate the construction” of the Sydney Metro West line, scrapping current Government plans to convert the Bankstown to Sydenham rail line to form part of the Sydney Metro City and Southwest (Metro CSW).

Implementing this would not just be a simple matter of cancelling one metro project to build another. The Opposition has released little detail on its proposals, but in part 1 I identified three possible alternatives:

  • Two-line option: build the two Metro lines separately as currently planned, but without the Bankstown line conversion. The key decision is around where the Metro CSW line is terminated.
  • Combined single-line option: alter the plans for the both metros to combine them into a single line. This involves deciding where the two lines would join and what changes would need to be made to their alignments.
  • Postponing or cancelling the Metro City and Southwest: the most drastic alternative which would postpone or even abandon the Metro CSW and divert all funding to Metro West. This is extremely unlikely to occur as preliminary work for the line has already started, but it is a theoretical possibility.

It’s worth having a look at these options and the practical issues involved in more detail.

Two-line option

This assumes that Labor would adopt the current plans for Metro West largely unchanged. The Metro CSW would also be built from Chatswood at least to Central with a CBD interchange between the two lines as currently planned, but without the incorporation of the Sydenham to Bankstown line.

Labor Metro Options: two separate lines, indicative routes. Metro NW and CSW (Cudgegong Road to Waterloo) – magenta, Metro West (Pitt Street/Martin Place to Westmead) – yellow, interchange at Pitt St and/or Martin Place. (base map source: Transport for NSW)

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Labor’s different track on the Sydney Metro – part 1: politics and priorities

Recently the NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley announced that if Labor wins the 2019 State election it will “accelerate the construction” of the Sydney Metro West line and scrap current government plans to convert the Bankstown to Sydenham rail line to form part of the Sydney Metro City and South West (Metro CSW).

In essence this was the policy advocated by retired transport planner Dick Day in an opinion piece  which I discussed earlier this year. The Opposition Leader’s announcement endorses Day’s critique that the Bankstown line conversion is “a poorly thought out initiative” and offers a real point of policy difference with the Government, but its implementation raises some interesting questions.

Sydney’s new metro train – but not bound for Bankstown under Labor (source: Transport for NSW – detail)

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Sydney Metro West’s slow unveiling: part 2 – Minding the gap

I was going to devote my second article on Sydney Metro West to the implications of Labor’s promise to scrap the Sydenham to Bankstown section of the Sydney Metro City and South West (Metro CSW). However, the question of station spacing along the Metro West corridor has been raised in responses to my last post, in particular the large distance between stations on certain segments of the line. This raises some interesting issues around station location planning, so I’ll defer my review of Labor’s policy and look at these first.


Metros, subways, call them what you will, were first constructed in 19th and early 20th century inner cities in Europe and America to connect key destinations such as railway termini and to provide a congestion-free alternative to road transport. Consequently, the first metro stations were usually very closely spaced, often only two or three hundred metres apart.

Over time dense networks of lines and stations were developed in many of these centres. While this provided a very efficient and effective form of transport there were some downsides as both cities and networks expanded. Many systems experienced overcrowding and with such closely-spaced stations average speeds dropped considerably on longer journeys as lines were extended.

Later metro systems started to be constructed with wider-spaced stations, partly in response to these issues. Maximum walk-up catchment for a metro or other rapid transit stop came to be generally regarded as around 800 metres (this is a gross simplification of this issue – see these articles by Jarrett WalkerAlon Levy and Alan Davies for further discussion).

Suburban railways have always tended to have more widely spaced stops, though initially development was also confined to walkable distances from these stations. Transport planners also have to juggle many other factors which influence station location. These include geographic and geological constraints, the location of key centres, catchment population numbers and densities and, increasingly, the presence of other infrastructure such as older rail and motorway tunnels. Continue reading

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Sydney Metro West’s slow unveiling

The State Government’s continued gradual unveiling of station options for the Sydney Metro West line between Parramatta and the Sydney CBD is slowly revealing the final route, suggesting a middle path between a high-speed line and a traditional frequent-stopping metro.

While it is easier to see the final shape of this corridor, one factor could force a further revision – the March 2019 state election. The Opposition has promised to scrap the Bankstown Line conversion and commit instead to bring forward construction of Sydney Metro West. This raises a number of different scenarios for the final route, particularly at the eastern end.

This article will discuss the Government’s latest proposals while a future post will look at how Labor’s commitment could be implemented and the implications for plans for this corridor.

Sydney Metro routes. Source: transport for NSW

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The Sydney Metro – a better option?

After spending a large part of 2017 writing about transport issues and in particular the Government’s metro strategy, I had hoped to start 2018 on a different note. Retired transport bureaucrat and planner Dr Dick Day’s thoughtful opinion piece on these plans published last week has caused me to change my mind.

Day’s initial comments are similar to the criticisms I made in my last post and earlier articles about the Metro, in particular the inappropriateness of metro technology for a low-density corridor and the hidden and exorbitant costs of converting existing rail lines to metro operation. He also notes the disruption to the existing rail network that these conversions will cause.

Day’s main concern is the point raised by the submission he helped to write to the State Government in 2015 which was obtained by Fairfax late last year: the metro will do little to solve the existing network’s capacity problems between Strathfield and Central, even with the expensive incorporation of the Bankstown line. As Day puts it:

The Bankstown Line metro conversion represents a poorly thought out initiative that will incur considerable expenditure and disruption yet is incapable of being used to its full potential to relieve congestion on the rest of the network.

This is because in Day’s view the Bankstown line will never be able to use the considerable additional capacity provided by the Metro (unlike the original heavy rail plans which would have directed this additional capacity to relieving pressure on the congested Main South and East Hills lines). Day estimates that converting the Bankstown Line to metro operation is unlikely to provide more than about 15,000 passengers per hour even after major residential redevelopment.

Day has offered an interesting alternative. Assuming the Metro is extended through the CBD as currently planned, he has proposed that the Bankstown line conversion to metro be abandoned. Instead he suggests the Metro West line to Parramatta (currently planned as a second metro line after the entire North West to Bankstown line is built) be “reprioritised” and connected directly to the CBD Metro line.

Source: Transport for NSW

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A 60th anniversary salute to Sydney’s Great Experiment

I can’t let 2017 pass without paying a slightly belated tribute to the 60th anniversary of a book which has influenced me for many years. Sydney’s Great Experiment: The Progress of the Cumberland County Plan written by Denis Winston, was published in 1957 and presents not an academic analysis but a highly readable account of Sydney’s first metropolitan-wide comprehensive planning scheme completed in 1948 and its initial implementation.

Apart from the overview it provides of the history of planning in Sydney and the description of the Cumberland County Plan itself, Winston’s book provides a fascinating perspective on first attempt to create a whole-of-city planning and governance system in which local government representatives played the primary role.

With hindsight we can all look back now and point out the plan’s shortcomings and where it subsequently failed, but the influence of Cumberland County Council and its plan on Sydney’s development was profound. It is also insightful to realise that in the late 1940s Sydney’s Councils were given a much greater responsibility for the city’s planning than they have enjoyed before or since.

I wish Strategic Matters readers a happy Christmas and all the best for 2018.

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