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)

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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.


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. Continue reading

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Sydney Metro West’s slow unveiling

The State Government’s continued gradual unveiling of station options for the Sydney Metro West line between Parramatta and the Sydney CBD is slowly revealing the final route, suggesting a middle path between a high-speed line and a traditional frequent-stopping metro.

While it is easier to see the final shape of this corridor, one factor could force a further revision – the March 2019 state election. The Opposition has promised to scrap the Bankstown Line conversion and commit instead to bring forward construction of Sydney Metro West. This raises a number of different scenarios for the final route, particularly at the eastern end.

This article will discuss the Government’s latest proposals while a future post will look at how Labor’s commitment could be implemented and the implications for plans for this corridor.

Sydney Metro routes. Source: transport for NSW

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The Sydney Metro – a better option?

After spending a large part of 2017 writing about transport issues and in particular the Government’s metro strategy, I had hoped to start 2018 on a different note. Retired transport bureaucrat and planner Dr Dick Day’s thoughtful opinion piece on these plans published last week has caused me to change my mind.

Day’s initial comments are similar to the criticisms I made in my last post and earlier articles about the Metro, in particular the inappropriateness of metro technology for a low-density corridor and the hidden and exorbitant costs of converting existing rail lines to metro operation. He also notes the disruption to the existing rail network that these conversions will cause.

Day’s main concern is the point raised by the submission he helped to write to the State Government in 2015 which was obtained by Fairfax late last year: the metro will do little to solve the existing network’s capacity problems between Strathfield and Central, even with the expensive incorporation of the Bankstown line. As Day puts it:

The Bankstown Line metro conversion represents a poorly thought out initiative that will incur considerable expenditure and disruption yet is incapable of being used to its full potential to relieve congestion on the rest of the network.

This is because in Day’s view the Bankstown line will never be able to use the considerable additional capacity provided by the Metro (unlike the original heavy rail plans which would have directed this additional capacity to relieving pressure on the congested Main South and East Hills lines). Day estimates that converting the Bankstown Line to metro operation is unlikely to provide more than about 15,000 passengers per hour even after major residential redevelopment.

Day has offered an interesting alternative. Assuming the Metro is extended through the CBD as currently planned, he has proposed that the Bankstown line conversion to metro be abandoned. Instead he suggests the Metro West line to Parramatta (currently planned as a second metro line after the entire North West to Bankstown line is built) be “reprioritised” and connected directly to the CBD Metro line.

Source: Transport for NSW

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A 60th anniversary salute to Sydney’s Great Experiment

I can’t let 2017 pass without paying a slightly belated tribute to the 60th anniversary of a book which has influenced me for many years. Sydney’s Great Experiment: The Progress of the Cumberland County Plan written by Denis Winston, was published in 1957 and presents not an academic analysis but a highly readable account of Sydney’s first metropolitan-wide comprehensive planning scheme completed in 1948 and its initial implementation.

Apart from the overview it provides of the history of planning in Sydney and the description of the Cumberland County Plan itself, Winston’s book provides a fascinating perspective on first attempt to create a whole-of-city planning and governance system in which local government representatives played the primary role.

With hindsight we can all look back now and point out the plan’s shortcomings and where it subsequently failed, but the influence of Cumberland County Council and its plan on Sydney’s development was profound. It is also insightful to realise that in the late 1940s Sydney’s Councils were given a much greater responsibility for the city’s planning than they have enjoyed before or since.

I wish Strategic Matters readers a happy Christmas and all the best for 2018.

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Counting the cost of the Sydney Metro

The latest warning over the impacts of the Sydney Metro currently under construction on the rest of the city’s rail network doesn’t say anything particularly new. What makes it special however is that it was written not by committed lobby groups or disgruntled academics but rather by some of the state’s most senior and respected former transport executives. More importantly it lays bare the mounting costs of the obsession of successive state governments with the metro concept.

According to the Fairfax article the analysis (obtained by Labor under freedom-of-information laws) was actually completed as a submission in July 2015 by a group including Ron Christie, former State Rail Authority CEO, John Brew, a former State Rail chief executive, Bob O’Loughlin, a former State Rail director of rail safety and operations and Dick Day, a former head of planning and timetables at RailCorp. According to the article their submission warns that the metro plans “will result in ‘degradation of the robustness and reliability’ of Sydney’s existing heavy rail network, and ‘ultimately lead to the total network becoming gridlocked and unworkable’”.

This is because the conversion of the Bankstown line for metro operation will diminish the network’s capacity, removing a “relief valve for the network” and leaving “no escape route”. In addition, the authors claim that the line “will do nothing to relieve” the bottleneck at Strathfield where Western and Northern line trains merge.

They authors state that the $17 billion cost of the metro would have been money better spent on improving the existing rail network and that there is likely to a “voter backlash” to the new single-deck trains which will provide significantly fewer seats than double-deck trains (and fewer proportionally than any of the other Australasian CBD metro projects currently under construction). Continue reading

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Sydney West Metro and Parramatta Light Rail revisited

Last year I outlined some of the route options for the Sydney Metro West following an NSW Government announcement of the project that was extremely short on detail. Earlier this year I also examined the decision to build Parramatta Light Rail in stages, taking a close look at the proposed route for stage 1 and indulging in some speculation on the likely stage 2 route.

I thought I would revisit both sets of articles following a recent government announcement about the preferred route for the latter – and a leak last month of a Cabinet paper which suggests the choice of route options has narrowed for the former. This article also examines the relationship between these projects. Continue reading

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Back to the Future? – Sydney Region Plan and Transport Strategy (part 1)

For anyone who has been involved with metropolitan planning in Sydney for any length of time there is a whiff of familiarity surrounding the release by the Greater Sydney Commission and Transport for NSW of a suite of documents outlining a vision for the city’s next 40 years.

This is not just because the draft Greater Sydney Region Plan (GSRP) and the Future Transport Strategy (FTS) join a long line of planning strategies that stretches back nearly 70 years to the 1948 County of Cumberland plan. They also are the latest entrants in an ongoing and never entirely settled debate about the spatial nature of the city and the number and designation of major centres of activity outside the CBD, especially in Western Sydney.

The acknowledgement of the need to support such centres started patchily and belatedly in the 1960s and 70s with the then largely symbolic recognition of Parramatta as the city’s second CBD. The twin horses of suburban growth and car dependency had already bolted and the notion that this designation would require the substantial reallocation of resources to actually mean something took a while to catch on. Continue reading

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Parramatta Road: light rail shelved but is “intermediate transit” still on the table?

A $150,000 contract let to consulting and services firm GHD in May this year suggests that the NSW government is still pursuing “major public transport initiatives” along Parramatta Road, despite media reports that it has scrapped detailed plans for a light rail line from Burwood to Sydney’s CBD.

Transport NSW has commissioned GHD to undertake a project titled “Transport Planning Analysis and Drafting Support – Parramatta Road Intermediate Transit”. GHD is expected to “Develop an overarching analysis and narrative that will bring together the major public transport initiatives currently being investigated for the Sydney to Parramatta corridor.”

Parramatta Road proposed light rail route (source: SMH)

The contract commenced in May and is expected to run until February 2019. No other detail is provided in the contract announcement but the specific use of the phrase “Parramatta Road Intermediate Transit” (PRIT) in the title is intriguing because it links the contract specifically to the road. The same phrase – followed by “Light Rail” in brackets – was also used in the title of some of the working documents on the light rail plans obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald.

It’s worth exploring the implications of the development of the light rail proposals and their scrapping by the government, as well as the significance of the subsequent decision to commission GHD to undertake further work on the intermediate transit project. Continue reading

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Sydney Metro – a brief guide to a complex history

In researching an article on the implications of the Sydney Metro for the existing suburban rail network, I realised how difficult it was to understand, let alone explain, the very complex way in which the metro concept developed. There were at least half-a-dozen iterations of the proposal, with different modes and several route variations, before the current project was announced in 2012 – and even after that it has continued to evolve.

I decided it would be useful to develop a summary timeline of the project’s history. I have drawn from several sources, including several useful Wikipedia articles on proposed and implemented rail projects in Sydney, State government reports and media releases, the government’s Metro site, the Transport Sydney blog, my earlier posts on the metro and media reports. A PDF version of the timeline is available here.

Sydney Metro alignment (source: Sydney Metro website)

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