Light rail: the breakthrough
14 June 2010
“Ohhh, look down there. There’s Leichhardt, and Dulwich Hill over there, and I can see where the light rail’s going to run”. I craned my neck and peered past Joadja through the tiny cabin window. It was a bright Sunday morning and we were flying into Sydney after leaving Sodom-On-The-Swan at the ungodly hour of 5.45am.
Yes indeed, there it was, the old Rozelle Goods line, beside the Hawthorn Canal, crossing over Parramatta Road and under the Main Western Line, heading south towards Dulwich Hill station. Sometime early in 2012, we’d be seeing trams scooting down that line.
How ironic, I mused, that such an important breakthrough should come in a dysfunctional and unloved government’s last months in office – with Macquarie Street haunted by The Living Dead – yet here it was, the most exciting public transport breakthrough, since, well , the sorry day back in the 1950s when some idiot decided to close down Sydney’s historic tram system.
“Yep”, I replied, “It’s been a hell of a fight, but the logjam’s been broken and suddenlythere’s a light rail bidding war. Everybody who ever had a vision for a tram line is seeing the possibility of it happening in the medium term and trying to get it on the agenda”.
Out in the inner west, Neil Kenzler, a Labor councillor on Canada Bay council, was pushing for a branch line from the forthcoming Dulwich Hill extension out to Five Dock. He’d barely issued his media release when the Mayor of Ashfield announced that he’d rather any addition to the system went via a different route and serviced his area. Meanwhile, down south, Cherie Burton, the state Labor MP for Kogarah, was calling for the light rail to be extended from Dulwich Hill station, down to Tempe, another line from Cronulla to the CBD. That’s the one EcoTransit have been pushing for ten years, the one they call the Bay Light Express. Actually you wouldn’t terminate a line at Tempe station, you’d push it across the Cooks River, to Wolli Creek Station. By doing that, people could connect with the East Hills line and the Illawarra line, and then you’d push it a bit further to the east and link it to the Bay Light Express.
The extension to Dulwich Hill is going to go easily enough, because it’s all off-road, but the really big development is going to be in the CBD where construction is most unlikely to start before the Keneally government loses office.
As the plane banked, I got clearer view of the light rail line. Soon there’d be a shared path alongside it for cyclists and pedestrians, and, over time the ribbon of green on either side – now mostly weeds – would be transformed into a migration corridor for native birds and a refuge for the famous ‘yuppie bandicoots’ of the inner west.
“How long can it be before somebody pushes for a tram line from Central to the south-eastern suburbs, down the old tram easement along Anzac Parade?” Joadja asked.
“It’ll happen any day now. It’s another no brainer. You know, I’m old enough to remember that line. I even rode in it when I was just a little possum.
“But I still worry. Sydney isn’t going to be safe for light rail until the last of the hidebound bureaucrats who opposed it for so long, retire or are driven out of the transport and infrastructure ministry. The political change of heart isn’t enough. With all the new proposals for light rail lines, we really need an expert light rail group in the bureaucracy. We need professionals – probably from Europe – to assess all these proposals, prioritise them, and develop real construction plans that can be contracted out. And these boys and girls will need to be protected from any counter-offensive by the old anti-light rail bureaucrats.”
There was a scream of air and a bump as the wheels went down. Sydenham flashed beneath us. As we braced for landing my thoughts turned to getting home. We could, of course, take the train, except that another idiot political decision had left the stations on the Airport line in the ownership of the construction company who were, even now, ten years later, charging such huge ‘surcharges’ for entering their stations that it was cheaper for the two of us to catch the cab. It was another legacy of the insane ‘public-private partnership’ era, another silly anomaly that would have to be corrected sooner or later and at the cost of another standup political fight. In Sydney, nothing comes easy.