Proposed light rail, George St Sydney

Cities are increasingly turning to buses because they’re relatively low cost and flexible. They come in small units that can be scaled right up to Bus Rapid Transit; they use existing road space; and they can go wherever they’re required, including around unanticipated obstacles.

But like all technologies, buses aren’t the right solution for all occasions. High and concentrated patronage stretches the technical limits of buses and demands other mass transit solutions.

That’s especially apparent in a dense location like Sydney’s narrow and constrained CBD. All up, more than 6,000 buses enter central Sydney each weekday.

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In the morning peak, about 20% of commuters come to work by bus. That’s over 1,000 buses between 7.45am and 8.45am.

Around 180 of those buses use Sydney’s premier civic spine, George St, in the busiest hour, equivalent to an average of three per minute.

Despite technical advances, the sorts of buses used in Australian cities are noisy, polluting, lumbering vehicles. In many situations that’s an acceptable trade-off, but not when they operate at very high frequencies in very dense locations.

The quality of the environment at street level matters in the city centre where walking is the primary mode of transport. It’s especially important in Australia’s recognised ‘global city’ – the nation’s leading tourism and business centre.

So on the information available, the O’Farrell government’s announcement last week that it will spend $1.6 billion to replace all buses in George St with light rail and extend the line to the south-east suburbs makes good sense (see press report here, and TV reports here, here, here and here).

The CBD and South East Light Rail line will run from Circular Quay to Central Station and then on to Moore Park with lines branching to Kingsford and Randwick. It will service the sports stadia around Moore Park, Sydney Boys and Sydney Girls high schools, Randwick Racecourse and UNSW.

Within the CBD, the line will remove 180 buses in the busiest hour and, combined with other network changes, facilitate removal of 220 across the whole CBD.

The vehicles envisaged for the route will accommodate up to 300 passengers (100 seated, 200 standing). Even a large “bendy” bus only takes 100 passengers.

At maximum loadings and operating at two minute frequencies, the vehicles are theoretically capable of moving 9,000 people per hour in each direction.

The business case for the line still has to be tested before the government fully commits to it. It’s intended it will be funded in part by a PPP arrangement, although taxpayers will most likely still end up carrying most of the risk and paying for it.

The estimated $1.6 billion looks a little optimistic to my jaded eye. But so long as it’s within cooee of that figure, it ought to offer great economic and political value for the money (compare it to the est $10-$13 billion for the WestConnex project or the $7.5-$8.5 billion for the North West rail link).

Apart from cost, another risk is the need for some bus users on other routes to interchange to light rail at Central station, or thereabouts, in order to get to the northern end of the CBD.

Light rail will offer high frequencies on George St, but there’ll also need to be frequent services on the feeder bus routes to minimise transfer time. Interchanging is likely to be unpopular but is unavoidable if Sydney is to have effective public transport – it needs to be made as effortless as possible.

There is a host of issues that will need to be addressed. They include:

  • capitalising on the opportunity to reimagine George St as a street befitting a city of Sydney’s world status
  • minimising conflict between pedestrians and residents on the one hand, and what are essentially short trains operating on streets, on the other
  • ensuring light rail has reasonable priority over other traffic along the entire route
  • avoiding excessive dependence on a single route in the CBD c.f. Swanston Street in Melbourne

I’d also want to see the business case before I was convinced travellers will have significantly faster overall door-to-door journey times and better predictability compared to buses operating with a similar degree of priority.

The key point about this project, though, is it’s underpinned by a sensible rationale. When the hundreds of other light rail and tram projects throughout the world are examined, not all make financial or environmental sense.

The CBD and South East Light Rail line isn’t primarily about reducing emissions or oil consumption, although there’ll likely be some benefit on those scores. Rather, the key justification is the level of projected passenger demand appears to warrant a fixed-rail solution (patronage levels will be evaluated in the business case).

The overall cost of building and operating light rail appears to be lower than continuing to run buses. In particular, the proposed solution will address the severe bus congestion and associated disamenity inflicted on the CBD.

While it has its virtues, to be frank about it, Sydney’s CBD isn’t as appealing as it might be. It would benefit from a project to clear most buses and cars out of the centre.

Like Clover Moore, Mr O’Farrell should be looking ahead to what Sydney could be. Sometimes I wonder if NSW’s leaders really believe their own rhetoric about Sydney’s leading place in the world.

Some of the many new light rail projects completed, under construction or proposed throughout the world are of questionable value. We should be wary of any project to replace one form of public transport with another.

We should also be wary of opting for high capital and relatively inflexible rail-based solutions unless the circumstances are appropriate.

However subject to the business case being tested, this looks like one of those cases where light rail really is the right way to go. The O’Farrell government deserves applause for this aspect of its new Long Term Transport Master Plan (I’ll look at the rest of it another time).


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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