Bradfield, 75 years on – part 3: Rapid Transit comes full circle

As the 75th anniversary of John Bradfield’s death on 23 September 1943 approaches, I’m writing a series of posts exploring some of the ideas outlined in his 1924 engineering doctorate thesis and their relevance for Sydney a century later. Please see part 1 for the background to this series, and catch up with part 2 here.

The first name for the Sydney Metro when it was announced in 2012 was Sydney Rapid Transit, with much being made of the “new rapid transit system” and its ability to carry thousands of people per hour. The name has since changed but the fundamental premise, that a new breed of single-deck trains operating at high frequencies represents a step change for users of the Sydney rail network, remains the same.

This would have surprised John Bradfield because the concept of rapid transit was at the core of his plans to modernise and expand Sydney’s rail system a century ago. Why then is rapid transit being reinvented for the Sydney Metro, and what has changed in the past 100 years?

The use of “rapid transit” to refer to urban rail systems is older than you might think. In England, Picturesque and Descriptive. A Reminiscence of Foreign Travel published in 1882, Joel Cook, an American visiting the UK, admired the Metropolitan Railway, London and the world’s first underground railway which had opened in 1863:

The original idea seems to have been to connect the various stations of the railways leading out of town, and to do this, and at the same time furnish means of rapid transit from the heart of the city to the suburbs… In this way London has solved its rapid-transit problem, though it could be done only at enormous cost.

By the time Bradfield travelled to Europe and North America in 1914 to study the latest metro and subway systems the term rapid transit was in common use; the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was formed in 1896 and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened in 1904 as New York’s first subway line. Bradfield made detailed observations of these systems, carefully documenting the speed, frequency and dwell times of trains for his 1916 Report on the proposed electric railways for the City of Sydney. This report also outlined his rationale for a rapid transit system in Sydney and how it would work.

Brooklyn Rapid Transit System A/B Railcar plans, 1914. Source: http://www.nysubway.org

NSWGR Standard Suburban railcar design, 1924. Source Bradfield thesis, University of Sydney

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Planning for AVs: part 1 – three perspectives on a driverless future

Predicting the impact of new technology is a very inexact science. Technological change proceeds by fits and starts and the outcomes are rarely what its authors expect – who for example, could have predicted the rise and swift demise of the fax machine, or the marriage of phones and cameras, or that an app built on couch surfing could upend the hotel industry?

Despite this we still need to at least try to ask the right questions if we want to at least attempt to influence the direction of change. The seemingly unstoppable rise of autonomous vehicles (AVs) provides a potent example. There is an increasing realisation that AVs are likely to become a reality, though there is still considerable debate on how, when, and how quickly this will occur. What is certain however is that the impact of AVs will be profound. The advent of their predecessor provides abundant evidence for the impact of new mobility technologies; every aspect of human life over the last century or so, especially for people living in cities, has been substantially affected by cars.

While the impact of AVs will be different, our experience with cars gives us some clues regarding the potential spread and scale of disruption. Three major reports released in the past 12 months have looked at these issues from different perspectives. The first, Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030 by James Arbib & Tony Seba from the think tank Rethinkx, is full of dramatic predictions regarding the potential for AVs to be universally adopted within the next decade, and the consequent social changes.

Speed of adoption of Transport as a Service (TaaS). Source: James Arbib & Tony Seba, Rethinking Transportation, 2020-2030.

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Bradfield, 75 years on – part 2: “the only woman present” – Kathleen Butler and the Bridge

As the 75th anniversary of John Bradfield’s death on 23 September 1943 approaches, I’m writing a series of posts exploring some of the ideas outlined in his 1924 engineering doctorate thesis and their relevance for Sydney a century later. Please see part 1 for the background to this series.

In his preface to his thesis for the degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering which documented his work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, construction of the underground railway and electrification of the rail network John Bradfield acknowledges the contribution of only two people.

He gives one a brief mention – Professor Warren, who taught him “the sound principles of Engineering practice” – but he is much more generous in thanking the other. After describing the establishment of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and City Transit Branch and his own appointment as Chief Engineer in 1912, Bradfield lavishes praise on the Branch’s next appointee:

The first officer appointed to the branch was Miss K.M. Butler now my Confidential Secretary: she has at all times carried out her duties with foresight, tact and marked ability. In preparing the Specification for the Sydney Harbour Bridge she was my only assistant; the technique of the Specification is hers, and I think it would be impossible to find a better arranged or better printed specification. During my absence abroad in 1922 she carried out all correspondence with tenderers throughout the world, herself; she is present at all interviews with the tenderers in Sydney and myself excepted she alone knows of the many issues involved in tendering for the bridge. Her conscientious and efficient help has materially lightened the responsibility which the design and construction of these two great engineering works have entailed, and in this Thesis I wish to place on record my sincere thanks to the lady for her invaluable assistance. (in this and all Bradfield’s quotes used in these posts his original spelling, punctuation, grammar and word capitalisation are retained)

Despite Bradfield’s generous recognition, “Miss K.M. Butler” seems to have largely slipped from public view. She doesn’t deserve this fate, not only because of her substantial contribution to the building of the bridge, but also because her story provides a fascinating perspective on the lives of working women in the early 20th Century, with some lessons for us today.

Kathleen Butler starts no. 1 compressor to commence construction of the Bridge in September 1923 (source: NSW State Archives)

Kathleen Muriel Butler was born in February 1891 in Lithgow NSW, one of seven children to an English father and Irish mother. She grew up in the Blue Mountains and attended school in Mt Victoria, where her father was stationmaster, and later Mount St. Mary’s Convent in Katoomba.* Continue reading

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Bradfield, 75 years on – part 1: the Science of Engineering

Recently I spent 10 minutes or so at Sydney’s busy suburban Strathfield Station while changing trains in the evening peak hour. As I waited I watched the synchronised dance across the station’s eight platforms as double-deck trains arrived, disgorged commuters, picked up more passengers and departed, all relatively quietly and with little fuss.

On my platform the movement was almost hypnotic, as four or five identical Waratah trains arrived in succession, stayed exactly the same length of time and then departed little more than two minutes apart. Whatever the state of the ageing Strathfield Station or the wider flaws of the Sydney transport system, the calm passage of these trains, all less than 10 years old and each carrying up to a thousand passengers, gave the impression of a reasonably modern, functional urban rail network.

My thoughts turned to John Job Crew Bradfield, the engineer whose name is inextricably linked with the development of Sydney’s transport infrastructure in the early 20th century. I don’t believe Bradfield had any special connection with Strathfield station which was opened in the 1870s, but he had a large hand in creating the electrified railway network which passes through it. He also oversaw the planning and construction of the two other key components of this network, Sydney Harbour Bridge and the underground railway in Sydney’s CBD.

Later when I was looking up some facts on Bradfield I realised that the 75th anniversary of his death on 23 September 1943 is approaching. In a modest commemoration I’ve decided to revisit not so much about the man himself, or indeed his achievements, but rather what he wrote about them. I’ll be concentrating in particular in this occasional series on Bradfield’s thesis for the degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering, which he was awarded by the University of Sydney in 1924.

Detail from the cover of Bradfield’s 1924 thesis (source: University of Sydney eScholarship Repository)

Every time I look at it (the thesis is available from the University repository) I’m struck by the extraordinary breadth of its scope – I suspect that no other thesis before or since has combined as a single subject the author’s own work in managing the planning and construction of a major bridge and an underground railway, as well as the electrification of a suburban rail network. Continue reading

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Martin Place – the “new” Sydney Central?

There have been a few developments since my earlier posts on plans for the proposed Sydney Metro West, with a strong business sector push for the metro to provide a high-speed link between Sydney CBD and Parramatta and apparent confirmation of the location of a key CBD station.

Sydney Metro West corridor (source: Sydney Metro)

I’ll deal with the high-speed metro proposal in a future article but for now I’ll concentrate on the Sydney city end of the route. The decision on CBD station location will have major implications for the CBD’s future development, centralising rail access in the city’s centre. Continue reading

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A tale of two metros: London Crossrail and Sydney Metro compared

As readers of this blog will know I have written extensively (and often critically) about the Sydney Metro. In July 2016 I published a series of articles comparing four major Australasian CBD rail projects – Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. While I plan to update this soon to reflect progress on all four projects since then, I thought I’d make a different comparison: London’s Crossrail (which will be renamed as the Elizabeth Line later this year, though I’ll use both names interchangeably here) and the Sydney Metro.

Why compare these two projects? They share a number of similarities, and of all the antipodean projects listed above, only the Sydney Metro approaches the scale of the Elizabeth Line – and in some important aspects exceeds it. And while there are a number of major metro expansion projects in other cities overseas, most notably China and India, Crossrail is one of the few that is directly comparable with Sydney’s new line (and also one of a limited number for which comprehensive information is available in English).

There are also some interesting and fundamental differences. The following discussion briefly outlines each project and their key features are also summarised in the following table.

Elizabeth Line (Crossrail)

The Elizabeth Line is 118 kilometres in length, with two branches at each end and over 21 kilometres of mostly new tunnelling. It runs from Heathrow Airport and Reading in the west through central London to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. There are 41 stations, all accessible, with 10 new ones and the remainder upgraded. Of these, 24 will provide interchanges with existing rail services.

Elizabeth Line route map (source: Crossrail)

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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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