With contracts let and tunnelling boring machines (TBMs) in the ground it is clear that the North West Rail Link (NWRL) is going to be built as a single-deck automated metro, to open between Chatswood and Cudgegong Road by early 2019 as the first stage of the Sydney Rapid Transit system.
Despite the opposition of a range of transport experts and others (and I’ll raise my hand here) the size of the TBMs clearly means that this line can never be physically integrated with the current double-deck suburban network. Despite the government’s assurances there are still some major unanswered questions about operational integration with the existing network which have the potential to be an issue for the state elections – if not the 2015 election then at the following one in 2019.
First, the impacts on the current network. The most obvious is the conversion of the existing line between Epping and Chatswood – the ECRL, which only opened in 2009 – to become part of the new metro line (see the NWRL website here and a more detailed overview here). The first effect will be the closure of the line for seven months in 2018 to install new signalling systems, power upgrades, platform screen doors and other infrastructure as part of the conversion process. Temporary bus routes will be established during this period, but the duration of this closure is going to make for interesting debates prior to the 2019 poll, even if the new line is open by then.
The longer term impact on the suburban network will be effectively a reversion to the operating pattern of services prior to 2009, with all services on the Main North line travelling to the city via Strathfield. Any of these passengers who have grown to like the direct service from the northern suburbs to the employment centres along the ECRL will have to get used to changing, while those travelling to beyond Chatswood to the lower North Shore and North Sydney will have to change twice. And it won’t just be these passengers who are affected. Services on the Western line will be impacted, particularly on the congested Strathfield-city section and through the CBD.
This scenario will provide an interesting backdrop for the 2019 election. Northern suburbs residents are unlikely to be enthused by these changes, no matter how frequent the new metro services are, while Western Sydney rail users are not going to be pleased by the prospect of fewer services and more crowded trains. Even the primary beneficiaries of the new line, the residents in the section from Cudgegong Road to Chatswood, may look askance at the lower proportion of seats on the single-deck trains and the fact that they too will be required to change at Chatswood, at least for a while.
The government will contend that these arrangements are just the beginning of the project and that everyone including Western line users will benefit from increased capacity when the metro is completed. It has already indicated it will take a commitment to the election next year to extend the metro to the city and beyond via a the second harbour crossing. My suspicion is that just as it has done with the first stage, it will try to sign contracts for the harbour crossing so the project is irrevocably committed before the 2019 elections. That way the whole of the private line would be a fait accompli years before it opens, even if the government loses the 2019 election.
As commentators and voters there is an opportunity for us to use the 2015 and 2019 elections to ask hard questions about issues such as how the interchanges between the NWRL and the existing network are going to be handled and whether and how the line should be extended across the harbour without further degrading the existing rail network but also maximising the advantages of a metro. For example the current plans (which are sketchy at best) propose that the Bankstown line be converted to metro to provide the southern arm of new line but they also suggest there will be only three new stations in the city and none between Central and Sydenham. At the very least there should be an additional station to serve the Sydney University/Camperdown area, but at a wider level converting the Bankstown line to become a metro is unlikely to bring substantial benefits to most Western Sydney residents.
There is also the wider question of whether the NWRL is a stalking horse for the eventual privatisation of the whole Sydney rail network. The more I look at this the more I think this is on the cards. The technical virtues of the new metro are not really the point – this decision is much more about ideology. The government wants to build a private line with automatic operation and low staffing costs which any future government is going to find impossible to integrate back into the current network. Instead, bits of the existing network will be converted to metro and effectively given to the operator, and I’m not sure that process will stop with either ECRL or the Bankstown line.
I think the long-term aim may be to break up the rail network and sell and/or franchise the bits to the private sector – provided in the first instance that the metro operates successfully and proves to be popular with users. And I think this will be an interesting test, with voters getting the option to respond next year but particularly in 2019 just after the service opens.
This also leaves the question of what approach the opposition should take towards the project in both the 2015 and 2019 elections. Bearing in mind that an opposition’s main job is to oppose, here a few suggestions off the top of my head for Labor:
- Commit to completing the NWRL, but defer the second stage indefinitely or at least until the operational issues on the Western line are fully resolved.
- Commit to the government’s broad plan for completing the NWRL and extending the metro south of the harbour but promise to do it faster/cheaper and/or better, for example by addressing a few of the issues raised in the comments above. I would think for example that committing to close the PERL for a shorter period of time and committing to a station at Sydney University would be two options.
- Commit to the plan to complete the NWRL but look at alternatives to the Bankstown line. One obvious contender would be for the line to head westwards under Parramatta Road to Parramatta, possibly via the redevelopment around Sydney Olympic Park.
- Here is my final and very Machiavellian suggestion – propose extending the NWRL from Chatswood not to the city but across the north side to, say, Neutral Bay, possibly as a very long-term promise to extend it to the northern beaches. This could be combined with a proposal to build the second harbour crossing as a heavy rail double-deck line to meet this “North Sydney” metro. This option would provide additional capacity for the heavy rail system along with an interchange for the private metro, but would also confine it to the north side of the harbour permanently.