Sydney Goes off the Rails

17 February 2009 (Last Updated February 17th, 2009 18:30)

It has long been recognised by Sydney's population that the city is fast outgrowing its limited rail infrastructure. Following the news that a number of high profile rail projects have been scrapped, frustration is understandably rising. Alex Hawkes investigates.

Sydney Goes off the Rails

In 2008, the New South Wales (NSW) Government's controversial decision to shelve the AU$12bn North-West Metro and the $462m South-West Rail Link dealt a severe blow to commuters reliant on Sydney's already-insufficient rail infrastructure.

In a tentative global financial climate, a lack of funding for the projects seems understandable but the move also marked the latest in a long line of failed rail-related promises from the NSW Government.

Development of Sydney's main rail infrastructure began in the 1920s and evidence of its evolution continued until the 1950s, when the two Central Business District lines were linked via the Circular Quay viaduct thus allowing services to make a continuous run through the city.

Since then, however, progress has been poignantly stunted and critics have been quick to highlight that Sydney's local government area has just 23.5km of rail infrastructure. This compares poorly to Paris's city centre which is of similar size and has 200km of track, or London and New York which both have 180km.

Yet, recognising the disparity between present rail infrastructure and the accelerated growth of the city and its population, in 1998 the NSW Government pledged to construct a heavy rail link to the north-west suburbs by 2010. Despite delaying that completion date, by March 2008 details of the new $12.5bn "European style" metro had been made public. Just seven months later, however, the project had been completely scrapped following a mini-budget meeting. The second phase of a planned expansion to the commuter rail network to the south-west of Sydney was also scrapped during the meeting.

Developing Sydney's business platform

For the Sydney Chamber of Commerce – the city's voice of corporate business for more than 175 years – the time for significant progress to Sydney's rail infrastructure must be now. "Sydney's rail network must be front and centre of the government's plans to tackle congestion and increase public transport patronage. Standing still is not an option," says, executive director Patricia Forsythe, Sydney Chamber of Commerce.

"Sydney's rail network must be front and centre of the government's plans to tackle congestion and increase public transport patronage."

"If Sydney is to achieve its full potential as an economic powerhouse there has to be a significant investment in rail infrastructure, both new and upgraded rolling stock, improved maintenance, new signalling and new a commitment to metro lines. The focus has to be on freight as well as moving people."

According to the business entity, Sydney has the highest public transport usage in Australia – with roughly 25% using public transport as their main for travel to work or study – but large areas of the city remain poorly connected.

"Many Sydney commuters have limited public transport options and we believe that more needs to be done to encourage public transport use," Forsythe says.

"In recent years, as rail has become less reliable due to poor maintenance, the government's solution has been to run fewer trains with more stops - which has achieved nothing in terms of improving the attractiveness of the rail system."

While in support of initial proposals for the North-West Metro, the Sydney Chamber of Commerce also highlights the need to create a metro network that is fast, efficient and unaffected by other transport systems. "We need the Government to commit to a project and follow through. Metro will complement the existing suburban rail network," Forsythe says.

"Commuters living in the north-west area will now be completely reliant on bus services for journeys to Sydney's CBD."

"There are large swathes of Sydney, such as the rapidly growing north-west, which have no rail services and limited public transport - this has resulted in car dependency and all the problems that brings. Key growth areas and new employment lands in the south-west and north-west are being developed without a clear indication of when public transport will be provided."

With 30% of new housing in Sydney expected to develop the areas mentioned by Forsythe – particularly in north-western communities such as Baulkham Hills Shire and Rouse Hill – inadequate transport links is a problem that looks set to swiftly escalate.

Originally the North-West Metro was designed to cater for the population of 760,000 that lives among the rolling hills of Sydney's north-west fringe through a 38km, 17-station rail service running to the city centre. The majority of the line was planned to run underground with 12 of the stations offering interchanges with buses, existing CityRail services or the Light Rail system.

Instead, commuters living in the area will now be completely reliant on bus services for journeys to Sydney's Central Business District – a fact which has unsurprisingly been met with much negativity by existing residents. With another 300,000 people projected to move to the area by 2030, the Sydney Chamber of Commerce also has concerns over the environmental impact not having such transport options will impose on the city's future.

"In the current economic climate a North-West Metro or a North-West Rail Link for Sydney is not a financially viable option."

"The environmental consequences of a car-dependent society are increasingly evident and public transport is an effective policy response to this challenge," Forsythe says. "The further the distance a person lives from their place of work has a direct correlation to car usage over public transport because we have few options for many commuters. Improving public transport is the first step to getting community usage.

"There remain a number of metro options on the table but the State Government must finalise its plans and work with the private sector for delivery. Unless the private sector can get its own project off the ground, it's likely that the Federal Government will have to provide funding."

Building on a budget

The decision to scrap the North-West Metro hinged heavily on a mini-budget meeting in November 2008. According to the NSW Government's Transport Minister David Campell, current financial restraints meant the local authorities were faced with no other option but to indefinitely defer the project. "The Government faced tough decisions as part of the mini-budget process last year and deferring the North-West Metro was one of them," Campbell says. "In the current economic climate a North-West Metro or a North-West Rail Link is not a financially viable option. Proceeding with a project on that scale would have meant doing nothing else – no extra money for hospitals, schools or other essential public transport."

However, the decision is one that seems to sharply contradict a strategic document created by the NSW Government in December 2005 that outlines a future vision of Sydney for the next 25 years. The Metropolitan Strategy is particularly focused on new growth areas such as those found in the north-west and south-west of the city.

"The Metropolitan Strategy remains a key government planning document," says Campbell. "The strategy's North West Subregion Plan is still in draft form, and in light of the mini budget process we are working with the Department of Planning to address changes in infrastructure investment. We know that north-west residents have concerns, which is why we will continue strengthening public transport infrastructure in the north-west."

"A $2.35bn link from Epping to Chatswood is scheduled to begin operations in February 2009."

The NSW Government hopes to achieve this primarily by improving existing road infrastructure and expanding current bus services. Over the next three years, local authorities will deliver 113 extra buses for use in the north-west, which will be complimented by the North West T-Way – a bus rapid transit line that includes a 17km link from Parramatta to Rouse Hill Town Centre and a 7km link from Blacktown to Parklea. The government is also currently studying proposals to widen the M2 – a motorway in north-western Sydney that forms part of Sydney Metroad 2 and the 110km Sydney Orbital Network.

On the rail front, a $2.35bn link from Epping to Chatswood is scheduled to begin operations in February 2009. The government hopes the new route - which will include three new stations and is expected to put about 12,000 extra passengers on the CityRail network each day - will provide more choice and flexibility for the people of the north-west.

The line, however, has also had its fair share of controversy. Originally intended to begin operations in 2006 and run between Chatswood and Parramatta, the project was delayed and shortened then beset with additional problems such as unacceptably high noise levels and land gradients too high for trains to use.

Large hope is now pinned on proposals for a $48bn CBD metro – a planned underground railway line designed to cater for growth areas in Sydney's Central Business District. The 9km track will run from Rozelle and Pyrmont to connect with Wynyard, Town Hall, Barangaroo and Central, with the possibility of another station at White Bay. Construction of the project is currently expected to begin in 2010.

"The NSW Government has allocated $1.8bn over the next four years to a Sydney metro system."

The CBD Metro is also seen as a potential replacement for the North-West Metro, with the NSW government eager to secure funding to extend the project to the west and north-west of the city. "The NSW Government has also allocated $1.8bn over the next four years to a Sydney metro system," says Campbell. "This money will be used to kick-start the CBD Metro, which will be the spine of a future metro system to the west. We will continue to negotiate with Infrastructure Australia for them to provide funding for the CBD and the Western Metro."

A tentative track forward

There is no denying that the future of Sydney's rail infrastructure now balances delicately with the alternate options the NSW Government have been forced to fall back on in times of grave financial uncertainty. With a long history of failed promises and costly errors, pressure is firmly mounted on local authorities to at least deliver the above solutions - which for much of the population already seem inadequate.