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

  1. Russell says:

    Two long posts about something that will not happen… not now that Luke Foley’s recent comments about race and planning issues demonstrated that Labor would not be in power after March 2019 (at least under his leadership). But both interesting, I’m not complaining – its always fun to speculate and draw lines on maps. I guess a lot of people (including me) will go on doing that until the West Metro’s route is finally announced. And just on that – I spotted a new drilling worksite at Robson Park Haberfield yesterday morning, right on the corner of the City West Link and Boomerang St near the UTS clubhouse. That’s another in the straight line from the Bays to Five Dock.

    Anyway, NSW Labor’s opposition to the Bankstown conversion was a question I put to a metro staffer at their recent “consultations.” He was quite relaxed (well, I wasn’t expecting anything but a guarded response) about the line terminating somewhere before or at Sydenham. He merely said “there would be a cost, but we’d adjust.” No details of course. “But the good thing,” he went on to say, “is that both parties were on board the Metro project.”


    Well, I hope so too, but I’ll reserve my judgement about that… Labor does not have a great track record on public transport delivery, especially during its infamous “Sydney is full” Carr era and its disastrous aftermath.

    Then there’s the question of funding: Will they have the stomach for the development-driven “value-capture” model seemingly favoured by the coalition? If not, how will they pay for the West Metro they say they’ll fast track?

    One of the Greens’ anti-metro slogans on a sign at Rozelle near the 2010 proposed station was “Smell the stench of developers’ dollars!” Given that the people who build our housing are constantly demonised as villains, what political party, scrabbling around for every marginal vote it can get, will respond with sound planning and policy fortitude in the face of populist nonsense like that? Well not NSW Labor anyway, they proved that.

    And its interesting to note in passing that the site of that “stench” on Victoria Rd Rozelle is still – to this day and 8 years after the 2010 station was canned – a derelict ruin.

    Anyway, rant over (sorry for highjacking your excellent analysis). For at least another year we can only wait, and watch…

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    • Alex says:

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments Russell. It looks like we are definitely getting the straight-line option, regardless of the consultation process.

      I also agree that on current form Labor would struggle to win office. They also seem unable to capitalise on issues like the light rail rollout debacle, and outside of parliament have said very little about the huge implications of the new metro corporation. The ECRL conversion and associated shutdown probably aren’t going to play well for the government in the run-up to the election but this is unlikely to affect the outcome. Labor is no doubt hoping that the impact of this won’t be lost on voters along the Bankstown line but again I suspect not enough to swing the result. You never know however, though if there were to be a change in government it would likely be because the Coalition lost the election rather Labor winning it.

      Like the metro plans themselves, the government will have the new metro corporation in place as a vehicle to help fund Metro West by the time of the election. If Labor wins they will have to decide what to do with it – and I haven’t seen a statement on that. I suspect they will be tempted to keep it in a truncated form so they can retain some elements of the value capture model.

      I take your point about the capacity for excessive populism to overwhelm rational planning, but ignoring community concerns entirely (or worse, pretending to incorporate them through dubious “consultation”) while rolling out a corporatised metro integrated with excessively high dwelling targets in specific locations is just as bad. I’m also concerned that the outcomes of this cynical process give public transport infrastructure a bad name. People increasingly oppose metro stations especially in middle-ring suburbs because they fear massive overdevelopment, whereas we should be building more metros and not less in these areas. This would support a gradual and more even spread of redevelopment and densification in these areas.

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  2. Rob says:

    Thoughtful analysis and a well deserved read Alex, however given the current developments a Part 3 analysis is now warranted. The overwhelming assumption here is that the metro can/should be terminated well before Sydenham, that is now manifestly no longer the case as it will go ahead irrespective of the government of the day.

    Significant progress has already been made at Sydenham, 2/5 contracts have already been signed and no doubt all 5 for the Sydenham to Bankstown line conversion will be signed before the Mar-19 election. On my daily commute between Marrickville and Town Hall to get to my workplace in the CBD the progress of the tunnel dive site adjacent to Sydenham station is for all to see, and the TBMs are will be in place ready for tunnelling in a mere few months.

    I look forward to see a Part 3 analysis with the explicit assumption this time that the metro will continue to Sydenham.

    What are the options from there? Terminating metro at Sydenham is a white elephant political suicide stunt, it’s right under a flight path with few residents – consider the mass population from Marrickville to Bankstown deprived of the metro on our doorstep but residents from Sydenham public transport rich yet population poor?

    Also consider that the Metro West under the Liberals have considered it’s extension to the south east, so metro south west diversion to south east rules that out.

    I look forward to your response, insightful as it is, it needs an update in light of current developments.

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