Labor’s different track on the Sydney Metro – part 2: possibilities and practicalities

In my last article I looked at the broader political and policy perspectives of NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s recent announcement that if Labor wins the 2019 State election it will “accelerate the construction” of the Sydney Metro West line, scrapping current Government plans to convert the Bankstown to Sydenham rail line to form part of the Sydney Metro City and Southwest (Metro CSW).

Implementing this would not just be a simple matter of cancelling one metro project to build another. The Opposition has released little detail on its proposals, but in part 1 I identified three possible alternatives:

  • Two-line option: build the two Metro lines separately as currently planned, but without the Bankstown line conversion. The key decision is around where the Metro CSW line is terminated.
  • Combined single-line option: alter the plans for the both metros to combine them into a single line. This involves deciding where the two lines would join and what changes would need to be made to their alignments.
  • Postponing or cancelling the Metro City and Southwest: the most drastic alternative which would postpone or even abandon the Metro CSW and divert all funding to Metro West. This is extremely unlikely to occur as preliminary work for the line has already started, but it is a theoretical possibility.

It’s worth having a look at these options and the practical issues involved in more detail.

Two-line option

This assumes that Labor would adopt the current plans for Metro West largely unchanged. The Metro CSW would also be built from Chatswood at least to Central with a CBD interchange between the two lines as currently planned, but without the incorporation of the Sydenham to Bankstown line.

Labor Metro Options: two separate lines, indicative routes. Metro NW and CSW (Cudgegong Road to Waterloo) – magenta, Metro West (Pitt Street/Martin Place to Westmead) – yellow, interchange at Pitt St and/or Martin Place. (base map source: Transport for NSW)

The decision about where to truncate the Metro CSW line may be determined more by the contractual arrangements a prospective Labor government faces rather than any preferences it has. Bearing this in mind there are three possible locations where the line could be terminated:

  • At Sydenham: This is the least likely option as there is little point in tunnelling from Central to Sydenham without the Bankstown line conversion, especially as no intermediate stations are planned. However, Labor could be forced to do this if the current government has already let contracts for this section by the time of the election.
  • Just south of Central Station: the Chatswood to Central section would be constructed as planned with the rest of the line including Waterloo and Sydenham stations cancelled. Eventually the line could be extended on another alignment, possibly as an alternative to extending the Metro West to the southeast.
  • Just south of the proposed Waterloo Station: As above, but with construction of the line as far as Waterloo. This seems the most likely two-line option, especially if an incoming Labor government adopted the current redevelopment plans at Waterloo. Again, this line could be extended to the southeast.

The two-line approach has the major advantage of quick implementation as current planning for both lines is largely unaffected. Metro CSW construction could continue without the Bankstown line conversion and it would be easier to bring forward the Metro West as a separate project. In doing so Labor could also decide to use different technologies, for example reverting to larger tunnels for double-deck trains.

The downside is that one or more Metro West stations would still have to be constructed in the CBD, including an interchange between the lines, even though they may end up terminating only a few kilometres apart (assuming tunnelling to Sydenham could be avoided). However, these terminating stations would provide the potential for future extensions to the southeast or elsewhere.

Combined single-line option

Connecting the Metro CSW line directly to Metro West requires a decision on the location of the junction and the associated changes in the proposed alignment of either or both lines in or near the CBD.

Labor Metro Options: single line, indicative route. Metro NW, City and West combined (Cudgegong Road to Westmead via Central) – magenta. (base map source: Transport for NSW)

Four locations suggest themselves; I’ll start with the two least likely:

  • In the centre of the CBD: While this approach retains Metro West’s alignment it would require radical changes to Metro CSW, which would no longer go through Central station. Instead, this would run as planned from Chatswood as far as the proposed Pitt Street station, but then turn west to become the Metro West. This would mean however that there would be only one, limited CBD metro-to-rail interchange, at Martin Place.
  • At Sydenham: This is the other extreme and would be considered only if contractual obligations required tunnelling from Central to Sydenham. It would retain the Metro CSW alignment as far as Sydenham but entail a considerable deviation to the south of the Metro West corridor, adding around 6km to the proposed route and requiring the relocation of planned stations east of North Strathfield/Concord West.
  • At Central: This is the most likely option. The Metro CSW would be built through the CBD as far as Central, but then become the Metro West, turning northwest to the site of the Pyrmont station and then continuing westwards as planned. Alternatively, Pyrmont could be dropped with the line going directly to the Bays Precinct (possibly via Sydney University). Or it could continue westwards on a more southerly path roughly parallel to Parramatta Road to North Strathfield, where it would pick up the remainder of the proposed route.
  • At Waterloo: From here the line would need to turn northwest on a wider arc, running under the University of Sydney. It could then head to the Bays Precinct or continue westwards following the southerly option described above.

The main advantage of the combined approach is that it would need only the planned Metro CSW city stations, removing the cost of constructing additional CBD stations for the Metro West as well as an interchange between the two lines. There are also economies in procuring, running and stabling a combined fleet of trains to service a single line.

Against this the current plans would require major alterations, especially the eastern section of the Metro West line. A combined line would also mean Labor is locked into extending the technologies which are incorporated in Metro NW, several aspects of which it has criticised.

Postponing or cancelling the Metro City and Southwest

The most extreme alternative would be to postpone or even cancel the whole Metro CSW – including the Chatswood to Central section – and divert all its funding to Metro West. Assuming that this could be achieved without significant compensation payments to contractors (highly unlikely, given that preliminary work is underway) this approach would likely provide enough resources to construct Metro West on the planned alignment.

Metro West and Metro NW would operate as two isolated lines separated by a “missing link” which could be built later when more funds become available. Interestingly there is a precedent for this in Sydney. The eastern and western sides of the City Circle, the city’s CBD underground rail loop, were both built by 1932, but the northern section connecting them via Circular Quay station was not completed until 1956.

While I don’t think this option is likely or desirable, it would open up some interesting possibilities. For example, the Metro West line could be extended through the city on the Metro CSW alignment as far as Barangaroo as a preliminary step towards a single-line solution. Another more speculative alternative would be to abandon the Metro CSW link entirely and instead look at options to join the Metro West line from its western end (from either Westmead or Parramatta) to the Metro North West at Castle Hill.

Comment

Plans for two separate lines are well advanced and an approach which simply truncated Metro CSW without altering the alignments of either metro would be easiest to implement, especially if Labor wanted to take a different technological approach with Metro West.

However, a single-line option might prove more attractive, and not only because of cost savings. Labor would be able to claim some ownership of the metro plans and quarantine the existing network from further metro conversions, though the combined metro line would have to use the new metro technology. This option would involve a redesign of alignments, especially for Metro West, but this may better suit Labor’s priorities. In this scenario the University of Sydney, a big loser under current metro plans, could end up with a station after all.

Postponing the whole Metro CSW completely would almost certainly guarantee enough funding to accelerate construction of Metro West. However it could also come at considerable cost in terms of compensation for cancelled contracts, not to mention the potential to revive unfavourable memories of Labor’s stop-start metro planning when last in office. This seems to be the most unlikely option.

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