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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Sydney Metro West geotech digging reveals potential stations – including a new “super Central”

In 2018 I published a series of articles speculating on the likely route and station locations for the proposed Sydney West Metro. In the final article I concentrated on the CBD, commenting that geotechnical investigations for the project may provide some clues regarding potential station sites.

That work has continued, and now the Sydney Morning Herald has mapped many of the locations where geotech activity has taken place, revealing areas of concentrated investigation along the route. Meanwhile the Minister for Transport has indicated that there will be a maximum of nine stations.

While there have been no formal announcements regarding specific locations, the options seem to be narrowing. They suggest that my previous comment that Martin Place station could become the “new” Sydney Central could well be an understatement, with an underground walkway set to provide a potential corridor across the CBD, potentially linking up to five CBD metro and rail stations.

Sydney West Metro Potential Route and Stations. Sources: Transport for NSW geotechnical location data, SMH, Google My Maps

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New NSW regional train fleet – a solid choice or missed opportunity?

In signing a $1.26 billion contract with the Momentum Trains consortium for a new regional train fleet to be operated by NSW TrainLink the NSW Government seems to have learnt a few things from its chastening experience in selecting Hyundai Rotem’s offering to replace the intercity trains.

As part of the deal Spanish manufacturer CAF has been contracted to supply 29 trains based on its Civity platform. Unlike the intercity fleet, these trains will involve some local manufacture and assembly and will be maintained in rural NSW, with the bulk of the remainder of the $2.8 billion contract covering a new service facility to be located in Dubbo and maintenance of the trains for 15 years.

The government also appears to have avoided two other key aspects of its mishandling of the intercity trains agreement – at 2.88m width, the regional trains do not appear to require any major changes to rail infrastructure, and unlike the unpopular fixed seats in the intercity trains, seating in the regional trains will be reversible.

CAF also seems to have had a lot more experience in manufacturing the train it is contracted to provide than its Korean counterpart has had with making double-deck intercity trains. However, key questions remain – are the new regional trains going to be the best ones for the job and will the new fleet support the network’s future development?

Artist impression of the new CAF Civity train, bound for NSW. Source: Transport for NSW

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