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Sydney Metro opening - 26 May - YouTube

Over 100,000 people used Sydney Metro today on its first day open to the public, with no fare charged for those travelling between Chatswood and Tallawong. It was the first time in Australia that a driverless train line operated with passengers, but was not without teething issues and delays.

The trains, which travel at a maximum speed of 100km per hour, had a noticeably quick acceleration and deceleration, and complete the journey from end to end in 37 minutes. Platform screen doors are in use and the gap between platform and train is minimal. The stations themselves were modern and fully accessible.

Indicators above each train door show where the train is along the line, as well as showing how far the train has progressed towards the next station. Lights above each set of doors flash red when doors are opening or closing, light up solid green when the doors are open, and light up solid white when the doors are closed.

Some problems did occur. Mechanical failures with trains occurred in both the early afternoon and during the evening, leading to delays of roughly 45 minutes and 15 minutes respectively. With Sydney Metro controlling the number of people who could enter stations to reduce overcrowding, this led to a blowout in queues. Chatswood Station saw a conga line emerge starting from 1:30PM. Many of those in the queue had travelled to Chatswood from the Northwest earlier and were now returning home.

Inside the trains, the air conditioning seemed set to maximum and in-train indicators began having problems from early in the day and were soon turned off. As a result, there was little indication that doors were closing, besides the silent flashing lights that went unnoticed by most. This, together with shorter than normal dwell times, led some passengers to get caught by the doors (including some with prams) or unable to enter/exit in time. The dwell times were noticeably longer as the day progressed, with doors remaining open for 30 to 60 seconds at stations. This would no doubt lengthen journey durations if allowed to continue. However, the in-train indicators appeared to be working again by late Sunday evening and dwell times were back down to a reasonable length.

Trains also routinely overshot their platforms early in the day. This blog’s author counted roughly one in every two trains would stop past its platform screen doors in the early afternoon, requiring the train to reverse before opening its doors. However, this problem did not persist into the late afternoon, by when it was no longer occurring.

All in all it was not a perfect first day, but a few inconveniences should not eclipse the significance of the first complete new train line in Sydney in 40 years. Many of these teething issues, such as the overshooting and in-train indicators, appear to have been fixed by the end of the first day. Tomorrow’s morning peak hour will be a big test for the new line. If all goes well, most of today’s problems will be soon forgotten.

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NSW voters will on Saturday decide who will govern the state for the next 4 years. Both major parties have put forward plans for how they will provide for the transport needs for the residents of Sydney. This blog post will delve into those plans, as well as some recent history.

The NSW Government has spent much of the past 8 years planning and building 3 major transport projects: Sydney Metro, Westconnex, and the CBD and South East Light Rail. Other than a widened M4, none has yet been completed in time for the 2019 election. It has also seen the introduction of the Opal Card and a significant increase in public transport service frequencies.

Sydney Metro

Sydney Metro was born as the North West Rail Link and suffered much initial criticism for the decision to build it as a single deck, driverless system that would terminate at Chatswood with no concrete plans for a CBD extension. That extension was eventually locked in thanks to the privatisation of government electricity businesses, a tough sell to the public that the government received a mandate for in the 2015 election. By 2024 Sydney will have a Metro running from Rouse Hill in the North West to Bankstown in the South West via the Sydney CBD.

Many of the initial criticisms have dried up and today Sydney Metro is the government’s proudest public transport project, set to open in May of this year $1 billion under budget. It is also set to supplement this first line with two additional lines in the second half of the 2020s: an East-West Line from Parramatta to the Sydney CBD and a North-South Line from St Marys to Badgerys Creek.

Sydney Metro. (Source: Transport for NSW)

WestConnex

WestConnex, an amalgamation of the long planned M4 East and M5 East together with an Inner West Bypass to connect the two, has had more consistent controversy. Private car travel is best when it connects disperse origins to disperse destinations, so orbital “ring roads” are the ideal sort of motorways and highways. Travel into dense centres like the Sydney CBD or Parramatta, requiring high capacity transport options, is best left for public transport which does high capacity well rather than roads which do not.

By being a combination of a radial road (the M4 and M5 extensions towards the Sydney CBD) and an orbital road (the Inner West Bypass), WestConnex was an imperfect project from the start. The re-introduction of tolling, public distrust of privatisation, and opposition from inner city residents have led to loud community opposition. Unlike Sydney Metro, opposition to WestConnex has remained strong and was largely responsible for the election of Greens MP Jenny Leong to the inner-city seat of Newtown in 2015 on a commitment to stop WestConnex.

WestConnex. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Light Rail

The CBD and South East Light Rail is the smallest of the three major projects based on its budget, but probably the most high profile one given the disruption from construction along George St. Originally set to open in early 2019, the troubled project will now open in two stages: Randwick in 2019 and Kingsford in 2020. Unlike Sydney Metro, which had very limited surface disruptions during construction, is on time, and is under budget; the light rail project is running a year behind schedule, has had its cost blown out by half a billion dollars, and has fed into a broader narrative of a government that has hampered Sydney’s entertainment and night life by discouraging Sydneysiders from going out into the George St retail and nightclub precinct.

Despite this, the benefits of a pedestrianised zone on George St are already beginning to be felt. And if the Gold Coast light rail project is anything to go by, a project that had similar problems during construction that Sydney has, then soon after opening there will be calls to extend the line out to Maroubra or further.

Sydney Light Rail. (Source: http://www.sydney.com.au)

Opal Card

An electronic ticketing system was first promised for the 2000 Olympic Games. The delayed TCard project was eventually scrapped in 2007. It was eventually replaced with Opal, which began its rollout in 2012, with all non-Opal tickets phased out by 2016.

Considering the difficult history of rolling out electronic ticketing, not just in Sydney but also in Melbourne with Myki, Opal saw a relatively painless introduction. There were concerns, principally privacy and the loss of periodical tickets such as weeklies and monthlies. Though mostly the concerns were surrounding the fare structure rather than the technology and hardware.

It should also be noted that a $2 transfer discount was introduced in 2016 and contactless payment with credit or debit cards is now available on all modes of government transport in Sydney bar buses, which will receive their rollout in the near future.

An adult Opal card. Click to enlarge.
(Source: Transport for NSW)

Timetables

Service levels have seen a significant increase in the last 8 years, particularly in the Sydney Trains network where most stations now enjoy a train every 15 minutes all day. This has been combined with a large expansion of rolling stock, allowing older train sets to be retired, with all trains soon set to be air conditioned.

This has not been without problems. A simplification of stopping patterns that came with the new timetables has been opposed by residents along stations they feel have lost out, particularly on the extremes of the T3 Bankstown Line. Meanwhile, a lack of train drivers led to a “meltdown” of the train network at the start of 2018, with insufficient staff to man the increased service levels. This required some paring back of services later that year.

Despite this, increased service levels to provide frequencies approaching a “turn up and go” service is commendable and should be further encouraged, albeit managed better to avoid previous hiccups.

Stations with a train every 15 minutes or less all day. (Source: Adapted by author from Sydney Trains.)

Government vs Opposition Plans

The common theme running through the Coalition Government’s transport projects is imperfection. All their major transport infrastructure projects have their issues, but transport infrastructure is being built. In some cases, unpopular moves like privatisation had to occur to provide the funds to build that infrastructure. It is in light of this that comparison can be made to the Labor Opposition, which has had fewer issues with imperfect projects but instead consistently promised and delivered less of it.

This can be seen most starkly in the 2015 election, where the Sydney Morning Herald described the ALP’s transport plan as “less of the same”. Now in 2019, the Opposition has promised to abandon Sydney Metro South West, WestConnext Stage 3 (the Inner West Bypass and the only portion of WestConnex that acts as an orbital ring road), the Western Harbour Tunnel, the Beaches Link, and the F6 extension. Were it not already so close to completion, the CBD and South East Light Rail would probably also be on the chopping block.

This parallel’s Labor’s last period in office, during which the Epping to Chatswood Rail Link, Airport Line, and Olympic Park Rail Lines were built. It was also responsible for delivery of the M2, Eastern Distributor, Lane Cove Tunnel, and Cross City Tunnel. However, many more projects, particularly public transport projects were cancelled. A rail line from Parramatta to Epping was announced, cancelled, announced, cancelled, then announced again in what was seen as an attempt to throw money at marginal electorates to try to win re-election. A Northwest Metro was similarly announced, cancelled, re-announced as a CBD Metro, then cancelled after spending half a billion dollars. Most of the planned T-Ways, networks of bus only roads, were never built.

The Opposition would argue that it is better to cancel a bad project and redirect resources to a good project. Specifically, it has committed to spending the billion dollars saved from not converting the Bankstown Line to metro on speeding up construction on Sydney Metro West. Their argument has merit, particularly given poor planning seems to have caused many of the headaches from the CBD and South East Light Rail.

The Government would argue that the choice is between the projects as proposed (i.e. imperfect) or nothing at all. They point to the cancelling of projects between 2005 and 2010, during which half a decade of expansion of public transport infrastructure expansion was lost because the choice there wasn’t between an imperfect project or a better one, but an imperfect project and nothing. This argument also has merit given that it’s not hypothetical, it’s recent history.

What this all means

This blog believes that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Sydney is going through a huge increase in population and infrastructure needs to keep up. We cannot afford to stop building if doing so risks doing nothing. Cancelling projects, even imperfect ones, is not what Sydney needs right now. That means giving the current government a mandate for another four years and spending those four years pressuring them to improve the imperfect rather than electing a government that will merely cancel them.

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The 2017 timetable changes to Sydney Trains saw a massive expansion of the all-day 15-minute frequency network, from 88 stations (49% of stations) to 126 stations (71% of stations). This level of service requires a minimum of 4 trains per hour in each direction, spaced evenly throughout that hour. This level of service has been deemed “tun-up-and-go”, where passengers need not worry about a timetable.

Stations with a train every 15 minutes or less all day. (Source: Adapted by author from Sydney Trains.)

However, there are several sections of the network with more than 4 trains per hour all-day: 14 trains per hour in the city and even 10 trains per hour outside of the city on some lines, in many cases with wait times of less than 10 minutes. This post will investigate which portions of these lines enjoy these higher frequencies and identify which lines are approaching an improved turn-up-and-go service. The weekday timetables from roughly midday are used for this, which are slightly different to the weekend timetables.

There are 3 lines whose inner-city sections contain high frequency services, with maximum wait times of 10 minutes between trains: the T4 Line between Bondi Junction and Sydenham, most of the T1 Line between Chatswood and Redfern (excluding Waverton/Wollstonecraft/Artarmon as not all trains stop at these stations), and the T8 Line between Wolli Creek and the City Circle.

Lines with a train every 10 minutes or less all day. (Source: Adapted by author from Sydney Trains.)

But looking at the maximum wait times can be misleading. As an extreme example, imagine a line with trains every 6 minutes during the first half of each hour, then no trains during the second half of each hour. Even though the maximum wait time in this situation is 30 minutes, a passenger arriving at a random moment during the hour is just as likely to wait a maximum of 6 minutes as they would 30 minutes. By taking the (weighted) average of these two times, that being 18 minutes, we get a more accurate idea of what is known as the expected maximum wait times.

Maximum wait times assume a passenger always arrives just as a train is departing, which is rarely the case. So, dividing the expected maximum wait time in half gives the average wait time, in other words, a passenger arriving at a random moment in a given hour would be just as likely to have a longer wait time as they are to have a shorter wait time.

Based on this calculation, T1 has the shortest average wait time. T1 has an average wait time, depending on the direction of travel, of 3:22 or 3:28 (wait times measured in minutes:seconds). This means that a passenger’s next train is more likely than not to arrive within 3 ½ minutes. Next shortest is T8 with, again depending on direction of travel, of either 3:46 or 3:54. The longest average wait of the 3 lines is T4 at 5:00, regardless of direction of travel.

Lines and stations with a train every 10 minutes or less all day. (Source: Adapted by author from Sydney Trains.)

Many lines maintain high frequencies beyond the 4 per hour required for maximum 15-minute wait times but a mix of express and all stations stopping patterns mean that only a few individual stations have average wait times at or below 5 minutes. Two stations that do this are Strathfield and Newtown, although both do sometimes have a maximum wait time of 11 minutes, which is above the 10 minute cut-off mentioned above. The shortest average wait time of these two is on T1 from Strathfield to Central of 2:58. Next shortest is T2 from Newtown to the City Circle with an average wait time, depending on the direction of travel, of 3:54 or 4:34.

Expanding the turn-up-and-go network

There are several ways to improve services to achieve turn-up-and-go status: even out spacing between services to reduce bunching, increase train frequencies, and extend existing services beyond their terminating station.

The first, even out spacing, should be a low hanging fruit for Sydney Trains as it does not require any additional services being run, only an adjusting of existing services. However, this is not always possible due to conflicts with other trains as several branches join up in the central core of the network.

The second, increase train frequencies, works best when a marginal addition leads to a large reduction in maximum wait times. For example, going from 6 or 7 trains per hour to 8 can reduce gaps in service from 15 minutes down to 8 or 9 minutes.

The third, extend existing services requires sufficient turn-back capacity at stations further down the line. A lack of such facilities can hold up trains, resulting in delays. However, if possible, this is often a cheaper way of increasing frequencies than adding a whole new train service.

Potential lines and stations with a train every 10 minutes or less all day. (Source: Adapted by author from Sydney Trains.)

On example of where this could be achieved is the T2 Southwest and T5 Cumberland Lines, between Leppington and Merrylands, which currently see 6 trains per hour. Adding an additional 2 trains per hour on T5 and adjusting its Leppington bound trains to depart 2 minute earlier would see the maximum wait time drop from 15 minutes to 9 and the average wait time drop from approximately 6 minutes to under 4 minutes. This would be the first high frequency line on the Sydney Trains network not centred around the Sydney CBD; instead this would be centred around the Liverpool CBD.

Another area for investigation could be to extend intercity services from the Central Coast and Blue Mountains out to North Sydney, rather than terminating at Central Station’s Sydney Terminal. This is complicated by the availability of paths due to converging branches of different lines and the 190m long V-Sets that operate on many intercity routes. If these are replaced by OSCARS or the new intercity trains that are set to enter service next year, both 160m long and able to operate in the shorter underground stations of Sydney the CBD, then this may be possible. Doing so could reduce average wait times on T1 stations between Central and North Sydney from the current 3 ½ minutes down to 2 ½ minutes.

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