Taking the train downtown – how four Australasian cities are embracing CBD rail

First, an apology. A number of technical and other issues made it very difficult to post to this blog when I was travelling overseas and some of these issues have also complicated the resumption of regular The Strategic Week posts now that I have returned. I am also investigating alternative options for the TSW format but until a decision is made on whether or how to resume TSW I will post some articles on individual topics, including this look at Australasian CBD heavy rail projects.


In a remarkable show of synchronicity, planned substantial investments in three Australian cities, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney along with New Zealand’s capital Auckland will create major new heavy rail corridors into their downtown areas over the next decade. All these projects are set to commence construction in the next 12 to 18 months (work on Auckland’s City Rail Link has in fact started) and are scheduled for completion by the mid-2020s. Each project will dramatically increase rail capacity which means that thousands of commuters, inner-city residents and other CBD users all stand to benefit.

These projects are not just about improving access to the respective city centres. The new CBD lines will also provide the basis for the further outward expansion of each of the rail networks involved. In all these cities the rail systems were slow to expand in the decades after WW2, failing to keeping pace with urban growth as private car use dominated both suburban transport and government planning. In recent years though there has been a major shift in thinking which has seem these systems extended and modernised, resulting in significant increases in patronage.

This outwards expansion has however been largely unmatched by growth in the capacity of the inner city networks to which these suburban lines are connected. Building new rail infrastructure in any city CBD is an extremely expensive business and is dependent on the commitments of increasingly reluctant governments to provide the huge capital investments involved. This in turn requires selling the concept of these expensive inner-city rail lines to sceptical, public transport-starved outer suburban electorates, a process which many governments have also avoided.

The consequent underinvestment means that the inner city rail lines in these cities are either already overcrowded or will become so in the next five to ten years, to the extent that capacity issues are already starting to affect decisions on how or even whether the current networks can be expanded. While improvements in signalling, investment in other modes and the development of orbital links between outer urban centres will buy some time, the relevant government agencies have all decided to make a major, expensive and in some cases controversial step change – the construction of major new heavy rail corridors through and under their city CBDs.

The following discussion outlines the four projects and their key features are also summarised in the following table.


Auckland city-rail-link-route

Auckland City Rail Link route. Source: Auckland Transport

Website: https://at.govt.nz/projects-roadworks/city-rail-link/

While Auckland’s City Rail Link is the smallest of the four projects and has the lowest projection of additional patronage it is potentially the most transformative relative to the scale of the city. This is because it is the only one of the four cities in which the CBD is not currently serviced by any form of through rail link.

For decades all the city’s suburban lines ended at a central station well to the east of the CBD. In 2003 the network was extended to a new terminus at the Britomart Transport Centre on the northern end of the CBD. This combined with increases in service frequencies, modernisation of the network and, more recently, the electrification of the system and the acquisition of a new train fleet all contributed to a dramatic increase in rail patronage, from 4 million trips annually in 2005 to 16 million in 2015.

While the Britomart terminus is better located than its predecessor it is still not particularly central to the CBD and in addition still requires that all trains be turned around. This acts as a major constraint on further expansion of the network and also means that most of the CBD currently has limited opportunities for transit-related development.

The NZ$2.4 billion 3.5 kilometre City Rail Link will resolve these issues by extending the line from the Britomart terminus southwards directly under the CBD with two new city stations, reconnecting with the rail network at Mt Eden station. This will eliminate the Britomart dead end by creating a loop similar to that in Sydney and Melbourne which will allow trains to run both in both directions, effectively doubling network capacity into the CBD. This means that unlike the other projects the extension is likely to be used by services on all the existing lines, though with different operating patterns.

Despite its somewhat fraught funding history the City Rail Link is the first of the four projects to commence. Preliminary works have already started though more substantial construction will begin in 2017 with completion due by 2023. The current rail fleet which is comparatively new will continue to be used but no information has been provided about whether additional rolling stock will be required.


Brisbane Cross River Rail route. Source: Queensland Government

Brisbane Cross River Rail route. Source: Queensland Government

Website: http://www.crossriverrail.qld.gov.au/

The following discussion relates to the Cross River Rail project. Brisbane City Council is also developing a proposal for a “Brisbane Metro Subway System”, effectively a seven-kilometre light rubber-tyred transit system based on the core of the city’s existing busway network. Because this project is fundamentally different to the other heavy rail projects examined here and is also yet to receive final approvals and funding commitment it is not discussed but may be the subject of a future post.

Unlike Auckland, Brisbane currently has a rail line running through its CBD, though there are only two CBD stations. This line is also the only link between the city’s northern and southern suburban rail networks.

Cross River Rail involves a $5.4 billion 10.2 kilometre rail link connecting Dutton Park on the Beenleigh line in the south to Bowen Hills in the north, with a 5.9 kilometre tunnel under the Brisbane River and CBD. It involves five new stations with an interchange at Roma Street and a new CBD station at Albert Street. Despite the considerable financial support provided by the State Government it appears that federal funding will be required to complete it. As a result a final commencement date has yet to be set but it is anticipated that construction will commence by 2018 and be complete by 2023.

The new line will significantly boost rail capacity in the CBD. The following comment in the project’s latest newsletter summarises the capacity issue as it affects the South East Queensland (SEQ) rail network but it is also applicable in a broader sense to all the projects described here:

Over the last 15 years, rail projects in SEQ have focused on improving connections to the outer suburbs of Brisbane through the construction of new infrastructure such as the Moreton Bay Rail Link, the Springfield line, the extension of the Gold Coast line to Varsity Lakes and the delivery of new generation rolling stock.

With no major rail infrastructure investment in inner-city Brisbane since 1996, and no new inner-city river crossings since the construction of the Merivale Bridge in 1978, there is significant pressure on the congested inner-city network. (Cross River Rail April 2016 Newsletter)

There is still some degree of uncertainty regarding the project as the business case is yet to be released and the funding finalised. In light of this and the fact that the proposal went through several iterations under successive state governments before the recent announcement of the current project, there is relatively little information publicly available on issues such as exactly how the line will be integrated with existing lines or the level of additional capacity that will be added. It is also unclear whether additional trains will be required but it is likely that the line will use at least some of the New Generation Rollingstock (NGR) trains currently being delivered.


Melbourne Metro Rail route. Source: Victorian Government

Melbourne Metro Rail route. Source: Victorian Government

Website: http://melbournemetro.vic.gov.au/

Melbourne’s current inner-city rail network is more developed than those of the preceding cities, incorporating a CBD rail loop with a number of access points where services on connecting lines can enter and exit. While this provides operational flexibility it also leads to complexity and a high level of interaction between services on the various lines, which means for example that a breakdown on one line can affect the whole system.

As in the other cities the rail system is also experiencing capacity issues as the city’s population continues to grow. Some peak hour services on the busiest lines already suffer from overcrowding and unreliability and by 2031 average weekday boardings are expected to double from 750,000 to 1.5 million.

The Metro Rail Project involves construction of a $10.9 billion nine-kilometre link under the CBD from Kensington to South Yarra which would connect the Sunbury and Cranbourne/Pakenham lines to form a single standalone line through the city running from northwest to southeast. The line will incorporate five new stations and be operated by the fleet of 65 new High Capacity Metro Trains (HCMT) currently on order. Two stations will be constructed in the CBD, CBD North and CBD South, but these will provide direct interchanges with Melbourne Central and Flinders Street respectively.

While the initial additional capacity estimates for the new line are relatively modest they are expected to grow as further improvements are made. Of equal benefit will be the role of the project in freeing up capacity on the existing loop, allowing for the reconfiguration and simplification of services into four independent groups, as well as releasing a line between South Yarra and Flinders Street for use by V/Line (regional passenger) and freight services. The project is due to commence next year and be completed and operational by 2026.


Sydney Metro: Chatswood to Sydenham section. Source NSW Government

Sydney Metro: Chatswood to Sydenham section. Source NSW Government

Website: http://sydneymetro.info/home

Although it is part of a larger project, the 16.5 kilometre Chatswood to Sydenham section considered here is the subject of a separate Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). It is also the section of the line which is most directly comparable to the other projects discussed in terms of providing rail additional capacity and other benefits in the CBD.

This link is one part of the Sydney Metro City and Southwest project; the other is the conversion of the existing Sydenham to Bankstown line to metro standards. The combined 30 kilometre City and Southeast line running from Chatswood to Bankstown will in turn be linked to and integrated with the Sydney Metro Northwest metro currently under construction to form a combined 66-kilometre line running from Cudgegong Road in the northwest to Bankstown in the southwest.

Sydney already has the most extensive CBD rail infrastructure of any Australasian city, with the City Circle loop and two additional lines running through the city. Despite this there are significant congestion and capacity issues as the city continues to grow upwards and outwards, with overcrowding occurring both on trains and in some CBD stations such as Town Hall. Over 310 million train journeys are made in Sydney annually and it is estimated these will increase by 40 per cent over the next 15 years.

The CBD capacity issue came to a head with plans to build the Northwest Rail Link to serve part of the city’s expanding urban area. Numerous proposals to construct this line in various proposals were made and subsequently dropped by the previous state government; after the current government was elected with a policy to build the link as a conventional heavy rail line it made the controversial decision to construct it as a standalone, driverless privately-operated single-deck metro which is completely incompatible with existing rail infrastructure.

The project, renamed the Sydney Metro Northwest, will open in 2019. The government subsequently decided that the metro will be extended through the city to Bankstown as a second-stage project, Sydney Metro and Southwest. Combined the two lines represent the largest urban rail project in Australasia. Even the Chatswood to Sydenham section is by far the largest of the four CBD rail projects discussed here. It involves tunnelling not only under the CBD but also the Harbour, along with the construction of seven new stations of which four will be in the CBD. Two of these at Martin Place and Central will provide interchanges with existing stations.

The size and composition of the complete train fleet has not been announced though given the very specific requirements of a driverless metro it is highly likely that the fleet will be very similar to and integrated with the 22 six-car Alstom Metropolis trainsets currently on order for stage one.

Even when the claimed peak capacity of over 30,000 passengers per hour each way is discounted to around 20,000 to allow for current Bankstown line users, it is by far the highest of all these projects. The whole City and Southwest Metro will cost over $11.5 billion but will be funded largely by the State Government’s leasing of electricity assets. The line is planned to open in 2024.


Table - Australasian CBD heavy rail projects key features July 2016 v1The table above (click here for PDF version) demonstrates the range of commonalities between the four CBD rail projects which will all be delivered over the next decade. All of these links will greatly increase capacity not only through the inner city but also throughout each of the networks, allowing the systems to be extended at the urban boundary. In addition service frequencies, journey times and reliability will be improved. The construction of new stations particularly in the CBD will also stimulate and focus commercial and residential development.

There are also significant differences. In Auckland the CBD link will be the city’s first, while in Brisbane the new CBD line will relieve congestion on the city’s only existing north-south link. Melbourne and Sydney already have several CBD corridors; as well as complementing these the new infrastructure will also link existing suburban lines to create upgraded and operationally separated “metro” corridors. Sydney is taking this approach the furthest by creating a completely standalone metro line which is technically incompatible with the existing network.

Two final points need to be made. The first is that there is a surprising variation in the level of information publicly available about these projects and the way in which data about basic aspects such as peak hour capacity, numbers of additional services and even details such as individual train crush capacity levels are calculated. It would be helpful if a body like Infrastructure Australia could prepare a standardised template to be used by all systems in presenting proposals for new heavy rail and light rail projects.

The second is that it is important to understand what this additional infrastructure will not do. Despite the use of the term “metro” in a number of these projects (and in the Brisbane City Council proposal) they will not operate in the same way as more traditional metros and subways do in European and other countries. While they will add a small number of extra stations and respond to the capacity constraints of their respective heavy rail networks, none will provide a dense, integrated system of lines linking the CBD and inner-city areas of these cities. It appears that this is a task which will continue to be left to buses, trams and light rail to perform in all Australasian cities.

In future posts I will look at other aspects of these projects and also compare Sydney Metro to another major overseas project which has some surprising similarities.

This entry was posted in Growth, Infrastructure, Public Transport, Sydney metro area, Transport and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Taking the train downtown – how four Australasian cities are embracing CBD rail

  1. Pingback: Taking the train downtown part 2 – will we be sitting or standing, and why? | StrategicMatters – the home of The Strategic Week

  2. Pingback: Counting the cost of the Sydney Metro | StrategicMatters – the home of The Strategic Week

  3. Pingback: A tale of two metros: London Crossrail and Sydney Metro compared | StrategicMatters – the home of The Strategic Week

  4. Pingback: Meet REM: Sydney Metro’s Canadian twin | StrategicMatters

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