Labor’s different track on the Sydney Metro – part 1: politics and priorities

Recently the NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley announced that if Labor wins the 2019 State election it will “accelerate the construction” of the Sydney Metro West line and scrap current government plans to convert the Bankstown to Sydenham rail line to form part of the Sydney Metro City and South West (Metro CSW).

In essence this was the policy advocated by retired transport planner Dick Day in an opinion piece  which I discussed earlier this year. The Opposition Leader’s announcement endorses Day’s critique that the Bankstown line conversion is “a poorly thought out initiative” and offers a real point of policy difference with the Government, but its implementation raises some interesting questions.

Sydney’s new metro train – but not bound for Bankstown under Labor (source: Transport for NSW – detail)

A brief recap: why is the Bankstown Line being converted and what’s involved?

As I outlined previously, in 2006 the previous Labor government promised to build three new conventional passenger rail lines– the South West Rail Link (SWRL) from Glenfield to Leppington, the North West Rail Link (NWRL) from Epping to Rouse Hill and a new link from Chatswood through the CBD to Redfern, connecting with the Campbelltown line and SWRL. The combination of these lines would have provided an alternative route through the city for existing services, freeing up capacity throughout an increasingly-congested rail network.

Only the SWRL was commenced by the time Labor lost office. The Coalition government subsequently decided to build the NWRL from Cudgegong Road to Chatswood and extend it through the CBD as a metro incompatible with the current system. This meant a fundamental change in strategy, as existing lines diverted through this corridor now have to be converted to metro standards. This is the fate of the Chatswood to Epping link, which will shut in late 2018 for conversion and reopen in 2019 as part of the Sydney Metro North West (Metro NW).

It’s a similar story south of the harbour. There is still an intention to free up capacity on the rail network by linking the Metro CSW to an existing line. However, as this now involves an extensive conversion process the SWRL and the T2 line to Campbelltown were no longer suitable candidates and the Bankstown line was chosen instead.

Bankstown Line map (source: Transport for NSW)

The conversion will involve annual shut-downs of two months’ duration from 2019, followed by a final six-month closure in late 2023. It has been difficult to get an estimate of costs but given the scope of work involved a figure approaching $1 billion is likely. The trade-off will be modernised stations and greatly-increased service frequencies, but trains with far fewer seats. The whole Metro CSW line from Chatswood to Bankstown is due to open in 2024.

Why would Labor scrap the conversion?

Although back in 2015 the Opposition Leader implicitly endorsed the Bankstown line conversion by calling for the metro to be extended to Liverpool, Foley now claims that the proposal is “wasteful”. Its cancellation would “free up billions of dollars”, allowing a Labor government to “deliver the Metro West years earlier than the Liberals”. He observed:

The Sydenham to Bankstown corridor is already well served by the existing T3 line and is currently under capacity. Conversion to a metro line would create major disruption. Most importantly, unlike the Metro West, the conversion of the final section of the Metro from Sydenham to Bankstown will not expand Sydney’s train network.

The conversion and the associated redevelopment strategy to build 35,000 new dwellings along the corridor have also encountered opposition from local groups and Canterbury-Bankstown Council, amid reports there could be potential for as many as 60,000 new apartments. A number of transport experts have also joined Day in questioning the value of the project.

There are also ideological considerations. The current Government has made little secret of its dislike of the unions or its enthusiasm for privatisation, obviously a point of contention for Labor. The NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance told a business gathering last year that “I have a very clear view … that, into the future, government will no longer be providing services when it comes to transport – there’s no need.” He also said, “I’m not going to have to deal with the rail union any more because we’re going to have driverless trains here.”

Whatever the practical arguments, the Government is practicing what it preaches. The combined Epping to Chatswood and Bankstown to Sydenham conversions mean that over 26km of existing publicly-owned railway will become part of a separate, privately-run driverless system. Some like the Greens see this as the first step to privatising the whole rail network.

Labor has clarified its position and drawn a line in the sand. While it supports construction of a new metro to Parramatta it now clearly opposes the conversion and privatisation of existing rail lines such as Bankstown.

What about the capacity issue?

Labor’s announcement did not directly address this. If the Bankstown line is not converted there is no opportunity to free up paths on the current network by diverting trains – and the situation will get worse once the NW opens because Northern line trains will switch back to the Strathfield corridor.

On the other hand, as Day notes, the Bankstown line alone would never be able to accommodate the total additional capacity provided by the Metro. He estimates its conversion is unlikely to remove more than about 15,000 passengers per hour from the existing system. While this would still assist in reducing pressure on the current network it is less than half the potential capacity of the metro.

What are Labor’s options?

While Foley’s announcement implied that Labor would still build the Chatswood to Central section of the Metro CSW line, he provided little information about this or Labor’s plans for Metro West. It may be the Opposition cannot say more until it clarifies the contractual agreements the current Coalition Government has signed relating to these projects.

What then are Labor’s options should it form office? Broadly there are three alternatives:

  • Two-line approach: build the two Metro lines separately as currently planned, but without the Bankstown line conversion.
  • Combined single-line approach: alter the plans for the both metros to combine them into a single line.
  • Postpone or cancel the Metro City and South West: the most drastic – and unlikely – alternative which would to abandon the Metro CSW and divert all funding to Metro West.

I’ll consider these options in more detail in my next post.

What are the potential downsides?

There are four major issues for Labor has to contend with in implementing this policy:

  • Inherited contractual obligations. These could make Labor’s policy either unfeasible or very expensive. Even if it can scrap the Bankstown line conversion, Labor might still have to build Metro CSW either as far as Waterloo or even Sydenham.
  • Cost. The Bankstown line conversion may be expensive but cancelling it will save only around a billion dollars. Granted, if a Labor Government can cancel the tunnel to Sydenham as well (and avoid compensation payouts to contractors) it would save a few more billion more. This would reduce the total cost of the combined metros but to accelerate construction of Metro West Labor would also have to find additional funding soon after taking office.
  • Capacity. This is the biggest issue from a transport planning perspective. If conversions of existing lines such as Bankstown are ruled out, no future metro line will be able to absorb the train paths of existing services. Bringing forward Metro West may be a first step but Labor will need to develop a comprehensive alternative strategy to meet growing demand, extend the rail network and reduce congestion, particularly in the CBD.
  • Image. Labor will have to overcome its legacy of announcing, cancelling and then reannouncing various metro projects during its years in office, none of which were ever built. Ultimately this earned it the reputation of having a do-nothing response to transport issues. By contrast the current government will claim it has invested big in transport – even if many of its projects have been strongly criticised and the implementation of some such as the light rail has been bungled.

If (and it is a very big if) Labor can resolve these issues then cancelling the Bankstown conversion, bringing forward construction of the Sydney West Metro and confronting the network capacity problem directly may present an attractive alternative. In my next post I’ll look at the practicalities and implications involved if a prospective Labor government implements this policy.

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2 Responses to Labor’s different track on the Sydney Metro – part 1: politics and priorities

  1. QPP says:

    Why are you speculating about potential fundamental alignment changes and debating what compensation payments may be involved “if contracts are signed before the election”, when the relevant contracts are already signed and in some cases have been for some time?

    The TSE contract for the tunnelling was signed last year, as was the Sydenham station and junction remodelling contract. Central station contract signed earlier this year. This project has already gone a lot further than “preliminary work” and by the time of the election, TBMs will have been in the ground for a few months and tunnelling, and the Central station box dig will be underway. As such, truncating the CSW anywhere other than Sydenham is not a realistic option, still less changing the alignment completely to a “one line” option

    What you don’t examine anywhere is what Labor think they will realistically be able to save by cancelling the Bankstown conversion, nor what can feasibly be done to “accelerate” Metro West. It’s currently slated for construction commencing around 2022, why don’t you take your readers through the processes that have to be gone through in order to get there and discuss what can actually be accelerated and how

    Personally I think Foleys statement was a foolish one based on politics without an understanding of what the implications are or what can be done on Metro West. By the time of the election the Bankstown contracts (TSOM, SSC and LWW) will have been signed, so cancellation is not going to come for free.

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    • Alex says:

      Thanks for your comment. While I understood that work had started on Central station and in the CBD, at the time of writing I wasn’t aware of the level of progress between Central and Sydenham – though I indicated there was a distinct possibility Labor might still have to build Metro CSW either as far as Waterloo or Sydenham. Given how far things are advanced, I agree this is the only option that is now feasible – and even then any incoming Labor government would likely incur compensation payments for cancelling any contracts signed for the Bankstown line conversion.

      I also noted in my post that the amount saved through cancelling just the Bankstown line conversion – even if there were no compensation payments – would be at most $1 billion, which is hardly enough to make a significant contribution to any acceleration of Metro West. However, while I agree Labor’s rationale is arguably more political than practical, there does appear to be a lot of local opposition to the Bankstown conversion and in particular the development plans associated with it. At the end of the day the “acceleration” may turn out to be less significant than the cancellation.

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