Sydney Metro West’s slow unveiling: part 2 – Minding the gap

I was going to devote my second article on Sydney Metro West to the implications of Labor’s promise to scrap the Sydenham to Bankstown section of the Sydney Metro City and South West (Metro CSW). However, the question of station spacing along the Metro West corridor has been raised in responses to my last post, in particular the large distance between stations on certain segments of the line. This raises some interesting issues around station location planning, so I’ll defer my review of Labor’s policy and look at these first.

Background

Metros, subways, call them what you will, were first constructed in 19th and early 20th century inner cities in Europe and America to connect key destinations such as railway termini and to provide a congestion-free alternative to road transport. Consequently, the first metro stations were usually very closely spaced, often only two or three hundred metres apart.

Over time dense networks of lines and stations were developed in many of these centres. While this provided a very efficient and effective form of transport there were some downsides as both cities and networks expanded. Many systems experienced overcrowding and with such closely-spaced stations average speeds dropped considerably on longer journeys as lines were extended.

Later metro systems started to be constructed with wider-spaced stations, partly in response to these issues. Maximum walk-up catchment for a metro or other rapid transit stop came to be generally regarded as around 800 metres (this is a gross simplification of this issue – see these articles by Jarrett WalkerAlon Levy and Alan Davies for further discussion).

Suburban railways have always tended to have more widely spaced stops, though initially development was also confined to walkable distances from these stations. Transport planners also have to juggle many other factors which influence station location. These include geographic and geological constraints, the location of key centres, catchment population numbers and densities and, increasingly, the presence of other infrastructure such as older rail and motorway tunnels.

Several cities are now building metro lines with even wider station spacing. Some cities which already have legacy metro networks with closely-spaced stations such as Paris and London are constructing new lines to provide limited-stop express services within their city centres, as well as to connect to outer suburbs and major destinations such as airports.

Urban centres which are constructing metro systems from scratch have different imperatives. They are, generally, newer cities with suburban sprawl and lower densities. Some like many Chinese cities have access to resources which have allowed them to quickly construct literally dozens of lines, often surpassing the networks of older urban centres in terms of coverage and station numbers, albeit over greater distances.

Other cities like Sydney are constrained by limited resources and high construction costs, not to mention topography and a historic disposition in favour of motorway construction. This means there is often a temptation to try to make the resources provided intermittently for new public transport infrastructure meet a wide array of often-incompatible needs, while governments look for ways to reduce and share costs.

Consequently, metro routes and station locations are often chosen less for their potential to service established residential areas or even major traffic generators but rather for their capacity to support high-density development. There are long stretches of track without stations and even when stops are located closer together the spacing will still often exceed the walk-up catchment.

Nowhere are these characteristics more evident than in the planning for the combined 66km-long Sydney Metro North West and City and South East line, which is trying to do all things at once. The proposed Sydney Metro West is of a more modest length, but it shares many of the same characteristics while also being required to provide a second, faster route between Parramatta and the CBD.

Plugging the gap

The Government’s imperative for speed means it has proposed a fairly direct route for Sydney Metro West with a spacing average of 2.5 to 3 kilometres between stations. This is broadly consistent with the average spacing on the Metro North West currently under construction and planned in the newer section of the Metro City and South West.

The overall spacing of stations along the line is only part of the story. The proposed stations on the Metro West line are organised in three clusters – Westmead to Camellia/Rydalmere, Sydney Olympic Park (SOP) to Kings Bay/Five Dock and Bays Precinct to the CBD – within which there is an average spacing of roughly 2 kilometres. However, between each of these three clusters there are much larger gaps of around five kilometres.

In part this is due to a desire to limit station numbers and concentrate them in priority locations to reduce travel time between Parramatta and the CBD to under 25 minutes – five minutes less than the current fastest journey by rail. There is also an argument that a station is not needed between Camellia/Rydalmere and SOP given the area’s topography, current low level of development and potential to be served by the Parramatta Light rail.

However, the gap between Kings Bay/Five Dock and the Bays Precinct is much harder to justify. This is an established area with increasing residential densities reliant on congested road networks. While it is well supported by buses and in some locations light rail, these services are crowded in peak hour and in the case of buses affected by congestion.

These are arguments Transport for NSW has used to justify the proposed stations at Burwood North, Kings Bay and/or Five Dock, so it’s hard to see why a similar case hasn’t been made to include this area for investigation as an intermediate station precinct. An additional stop in this segment would increase travel times by only a couple of minutes, provided the route length is not significantly increased. Some options include:

  • Callan Park Rozelle: In a direct line between Five Dock and the Bays Precinct the halfway point at 2.5km lies on the western edge of the former psychiatric hospital at Callan Park, currently home to the Sydney College of the Arts. While the University of Sydney is scheduled to abandon this site in 2019 and its future is uncertain, this is an unlikely candidate for a metro station given heritage protection issues and its relative isolation from major centres and transport routes.
  • Darling Street/Victoria Road Rozelle: A station added here on a more northern route would service both Rozelle and Balmain and provide the opportunity for an interchange with bus services on Victoria Road. It is however less than 1.5km from the Bays Precinct. Ironically this site was nominated as the terminus for the previous Labor Government’s ill-fated CBD metro. According to media reports the current government is planning to use the site acquired for this purpose as a key entrance for the construction of the Western Harbour motorway tunnel. The proximity of this tunnel may rule this site out as a potential station location.
  • Lilyfield Road Lilyfield: A southerly route would provide an option for a station to service Lilyfield and parts of Leichhardt as well as an additional interchange with the Inner West Light Rail line. However, there are no major centres nearby and it is very close to the WestConnex tunnel currently under construction, as well as the planned Rozelle motorway junction.
  • Norton Street Leichhardt: Moving the Metro West route further south would mean a station could be added in Leichhardt, a significant, established inner west residential and commercial centre which is largely serviced by buses. The station could be located under Norton Street but there are several nearby locations – for example the Leichhardt Bus Depot – which could provide temporary access for construction. A potential downside is again provided by the WestConnex corridor, which the Metro West tunnel would have to cross twice to reach a station at Leichhardt.

Sydney Metro West investigation area with proposed additional station precinct and station locations (in red). Base map source: transport for NSW

On balance Leichhardt would seem to be the best location. A station here would provide quick access the CBD, Parramatta and other locations on the Metro West corridor from a major centre currently reliant on buses and a congested Parramatta Road – though whether this is a feasible site would depend largely on whether the WestConnex issue can be resolved. It also depends on the degree to which the government manages any associated development and the community’s response, given increasing perceptions that new transport infrastructure is increasingly a vehicle for property speculation and overdevelopment.

More broadly this analysis has not considered alternative options for the overall Sydney Metro West route, for example a more southerly corridor, which I discussed in a previous article. Some of these alternatives could come into play if Labor wins the 2019 State election and implements its commitment to scrap the Bankstown line conversion to accelerate construction of Sydney Metro West, which I will consider in my next post. Readers should also consider responding to the call from Transport for NSW for feedback on Sydney West Metro by 18 May 2018.

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7 Responses to Sydney Metro West’s slow unveiling: part 2 – Minding the gap

  1. Pingback: Sydney Metro West’s slow unveiling | StrategicMatters – the home of The Strategic Week

  2. Untangled says:

    Contrary to the article, I would argue it’s not the Bays Precinct-Five Dock gap that should be filled, it’s the Camilla-Olympic Park gap that should be filled. If you have a look at the metro feedback website, there are a lot more comments calling for a station at Silverwater-Newington than near Leichhardt. The Bays Precinct-Five Dock gap will have plenty of buses (and potentially a Parramatta Rd B-Line style service) but the Camilla-Olympic Park gap isn’t served by many buses and the planned light rail through the area got diverted north.

    https://tfnsw.mysocialpinpoint.com/sydney-metro-west#/

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    • Alex says:

      Thanks for your comment. I guess a lot depends on what happens with light rail in this area and I agree that if the PLR stage 2 does run to Rydalmere there is a stronger case for a station in this gap. I also forgot to add a comment I was planning to include that provision should at least be made for a future station in this area.

      There is an argument that both gaps should be filled. I think there is going to a lot of pressure on the road network in The Bays Precinct Five Dock area even with a BRT on Parramatta Road and a metro station at or near the Leichhardt bus depot could provide a useful interchange to reduce the number of buses going into the CBD. However my real preference would have been for a Sydney Metro West alignment further south or for the Metro City and South West to run further north with a station on either line at the University of Sydney

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  3. Adam says:

    I know they have done geotechnical drilling on Balmain Road near Cecily St and on Frazer St Lilyfield so I think they have Lilyfield in mind for a potential route/station. Maybe Orange Grove is the most likely spot for a station along that northern alignment.

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    • Alex says:

      Thanks for this – and the more I look at the map the more I think you may be right, assuming there is to be a metro station in this section at all.

      These drilling locations suggest almost a straight line from the Five Dock/Kings Bay proposed station through Lilyfield to the Bays Precinct and Pyrmont, avoiding the WestConnex corridor (though it would still have to cross the Iron Cove and proposed West Harbour road tunnels). A station at Orange Grove would be just over halfway between Five Dock and the Bays precinct and would be close enough to Callan Park and the Sydney College of the Arts site to support any redevelopment there after SCA move out in 2019.

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  4. Russell says:

    In the last two weeks I’ve seen drilling at Callan Park near Balmain Rd and Alberto St (half way between Rozelle and Orange Grove) and in Timbrell Park near Rodd Point. This suggests a straight line from the Bays Precinct to through to Five Dock-North Burwood, precluding any deviation to Norton St (which I agree would make a lot of sense)

    I amused myself for a while with the idea a station at Callan Park (well, there’s plenty of room!) – as you have (speculatively) done above Alex… but then found myself laughing so hard I had to go dry my eyes. There will be no development there after SCA moves, in fact Sydney Uni are abandoning the site because that can’t do anything with it. Heaven knows, they tried… Callan Park has defenders so vocal and hyper-vigilant I’m surprised Sydney Metro was even allowed on the site at all. Previously if anyone so much as cuts a blade of grass in the local’s sacred great big dog park the whole area and its local council goes into collective meltdown. In fact that’s what happened when the previous government proposed a metro station at Rozelle too. The then mayor (now local Greens) MP organised demonstrations against it and very stridently stated that “the community” did not want a metro in their backyard.

    That position has not changed, in fact anti-building-anything-at-all sentiment has probably strengthened. And the Greens – who now represent both Balmain and the electorate around Sydney Uni, are very actively opposed to to the building of metros. I suspect Sydney Metro won’t want a fight, and will not propose any stations in places where it meets organised local political resistance. Certainly the present government shows no signs at all that it has the stomach or ability to defend itself in these matters – or for that matter, even plan in a logical way that makes strategic sense.

    So that rules outs any intermediate nations between The Bays and Five Dock (where it will be hugely welcomed btw – its near where I live). That could be (part of) the reason why Sydney Uni missed out this time – and back when the Waterloo route was chosen for the SW line.

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    • Alex says:

      Thanks for your comments Russell. Of course, drilling in specific locations along a corridor doesn’t necessarily mean that a line will follow that specific route or indicate where stations where will be located. However, it seems more likely given the locations that you and Adam have reported that the government favours a straight line run from Five Dock to the Bays Precinct.

      I’ve got a thoughts on this which I might discuss in more detail in a future post, but for the moment:

      1. While it is unclear if this is the only specific route being investigated, it would be very disappointing if that were the case. This would mean that the consultation process which has identified and sought responses across a much wider corridor would have been largely an exercise in window-dressing by the government.

      2. However, I can see why the straight line option for this corridor – without a station – might be favoured. Basically the government wants a semi-express line so it can ensure that the metro is faster than the fastest trip now possible, and preferably under 25 minutes.

      3. Having said that, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a station in this section entirely. I agree that it probably wouldn’t be under Callan Park (which I’ll come back to in my next point) but something around Orange Grove would be possible. As you say a deviation via Norton St would make a lot more sense but unfortunately I suspect it’s not being considered because of the travel time issue and also possibly because it would involve crossing the WestConnex corridor twice.

      4. I have heard that argument that the Callan Park supporters have a stranglehold over any changes to the buildings and grounds and I also agree that a station directly underneath it is highly unlikely, but I still think its eventual privatisation at least in part as, say, a boutique hotel or executive apartments (or both) is a distinct possibility. The university is getting out of the site for a number of reasons (not least because it wanted, at least initially, to get rid of its art school) and I think the government is now playing the waiting game. The site will continue to deteriorate, then the government will receive an “unsolicited offer” form the private sector to “save” the buildings, albeit for private use. Most of the grounds will likely stay in public hands but the buildings are much more likely to end up being leased. After all, isn’t this the fate of most government-owned sandstone buildings in Sydney?

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