Five reasons we should stop complaining about light rail in George Street

I’ve been fascinated by the reaction to this week’s commencement of construction of Sydney’s CBD and South East Light Rail (CSELR ) in George Street and the consequent changes to bus services in the city. While most people seem to have taken the project in their stride the response from others has been verging on the hysterical, especially on social media. Despite the extensive media campaigns there are those who are surprised that the project has actually started, not to mention those who somehow remained entirely ignorant of it.

Others are convinced that it will lead to the death of retail in George Street and gridlock in the city while some are convinced it’s all a plot by the Lord Mayor and are vigorously opposed to what they see as “Clover’s toy train”. Alongside these responses are the “should’ve” arguments from those who think the government has got it all wrong and instead should be either bringing back and expanding the monorail, or running the light rail down different streets, or building a metro or a heavy rail line, or putting in a bus tunnel, or making everyone move to the bush – or doing nothing at all.

Obviously this is a big change and there will be winners and losers both in the short and long term. There are also some aspects of the construction phase that can be handled better (for a start, not forcing those who bow have to change from a bus to a train or vice versa to pay a second fare would be a good idea). And not all opposition to the light rail can be labelled as hysterical; indeed, a number of reasonable arguments were made prior to the project’s commencement by several observers (including me) that suggested that one or two of the alternatives proposed above could have produced a better result.

Sydney's inner west light rail Central terminus (author's photo)

Sydney’s inner west light rail Central terminus (author’s photo)

It’s a different ballgame however now that construction has started, so it’s probably worth looking at what the project is meant to achieve. The following is an expanded version of a response I put on Facebook after reading dozens of largely anti (along with some pro) light rail posts, in which I outlined the aims of the CSELR, why it is being constructed and why, despite its shortcomings, it should go ahead:

  1. The project will return much of George Street to pedestrian use and in doing so help to reduce congestion. Removing both buses and cars from a large part of George Street and turning it into a light rail and pedestrian mall will be a huge step in making the city more liveable and giving its most important street back to pedestrians. And while it may seem counterintuitive, removing traffic from this corridor should help to improve congestion elsewhere in the city – perhaps not at first but in the longer term as alternative arrangements are put in place and people are discouraged from driving unnecessarily into and through the CBD. An important part of this will be the introduction of light rail as an additional means of circulation on the surface between Circular Quay, Wynyard, Town Hall, Haymarket and Central.
  2. It will reduce the number of buses entering the city. Part of the rationale for the introduction of light rail is that the city simply can’t cope with any more buses entering the CBD as the city’s population grows. Already during the morning peak large bus queues form along Broadway, over the Harbour Bridge and on other major roads into the city. To deal with this the CSELR is intended to replace most of the 220 buses coming into the city during peak hour from the south east and to provide the main form of public transport to and from residential areas around Randwick, Kensington and Kingsford as well as major traffic generators such as the University of NSW and Moore Park. In addition there will be a major interchange at Rawson Place for buses coming from the inner west and other opportunities to interchange at Wynyard and other places for buses from the north and east. The idea is that instead of reaching the city and staying on the bus for the final part of the journey north (or south) in what is increasingly a car park in peak hour, passengers will change to the light rail for the last part of their journey.
  3. The NSW Government has a mandate for its construction. Contrary to what many people appear to believe, the decision to build the light rail was made by the state government back in 2012, not by the City of Sydney and not by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. She has certainly supported the project and the council is providing some funding towards it, but in NSW major infrastructure projects like the CSELR are the responsibility of the state government, not councils. And if people don’t like the decision they should remember that the Coalition announced publicly and quite explicitly in the run-up to the last election that it would proceed with the project if re-elected. Admittedly the Labor opposition decided to actively oppose light rail in George Street only after the election, but clearly the Coalition owned this project and having won the election can argue that it has a mandate for it.
  4. While the project isn’t perfect it is better than doing nothing. As can be gathered from what I said regarding the first couple of points, I’m a supporter of the reintroduction of light rail in George St (albeit with a few qualifications). I also strongly support investing in rail-based transport infrastructure for Sydney’s south east. I am concerned however that combining the George Street and south east initiatives together in a single light rail project could raise capacity problems. I have indicated elsewhere that my preference would have been to run the existing inner west light rail through George Street and built a separate metro line to the south east, possibly connecting to the planned CBD extension of the North West Metro. Nonetheless I still believe that the CSELR in its current form is far better than doing nothing and its advantages outweigh any disadvantages. In addition the Metro extension through the CBD (due to be completed by 2024) will help to reduce further the number of buses coming into the city and provide another option for moving around within the city centre.
  5. It’s a done deal. At this stage, however, it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else think – the CSELR is going ahead. The contracts have been signed and construction is starting. There is no way of stopping the project from proceeding, so the best thing to do now is to work out how to support its implementation and make it work as effectively as possible. So instead of complaining, demanding that it be stopped or dreaming up what are now completely hypothetical alternatives, I suggest that people start thinking seriously about the public transport infrastructure projects of the future – including some options for when the CSELR does inevitably reach capacity.
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2 Responses to Five reasons we should stop complaining about light rail in George Street

  1. Teddy says:

    Yep, we’re in for another of Sydney’s infamous “whinge feasts,” most likely for the next 3 years… Recently we’ve endured these about:

    The Toaster
    The Metro (the 2010 one)
    The Metro (the present one)

    I’m not a knocker of the light rail (although a Metro to the South East WOULD indeed have been better, and a line under Anzac Pde was being planned for in the earlier Metro plan). But I’m not so sure that the benefits of a George St pedestrian mall are going to be realized, particularly in its narrow sections north of the Town Hall.

    I know the land owners have been sold that notion (yippee, much higher rents!)

    But there will be train-length trams (not Melbourne style street cars) running at 2 minute intervals down that narrow section. Unless they are travelling very, very slowly, that’s hardly a safe or even pleasant environment for casual strolling, shopping, socializing etc. How fast will the trains be going? Will there be safety barriers? A man a with a red flag and bell walking in front??

    Ok, that was facetious. But the present light rail at Haymarket has to crawl along at almost walking speed, constantly dinging its little bell.. Hardly 21st century mass transit!

    There is an issue here for the mall’s users and the retailers. The latter will have endured years of construction pain (many will have gone bankrupt) only to be presented with yet another problem.

    Many of the knockers of the Metro v2 are bringing up the issue of its private operation (e.g. the Letters page of todays SMH). This light rail is privately run too, and using public assets (George St and other roads for private profit). The whingeing on that hasn’t started yet, but it will.


  2. Pingback: What happened in StrategicMatters in 2015? | StrategicMatters

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