Enough with the fatuous point scoring, just fix the trains
29 May 2012
It was 8.30 on a crisp morning and I was walking with the dingo down at the park, watching the peak hour trains roll towards Central, packed to the rafters.
“Who are all those people and why are they squeezed in like that?” Jesse asked.
“Ah, they’re poor working stiffs and there just aren’t enough trains for them.”
“I never saw anything like that on the One Tree Plain”, Jesse muttered.
The standoff between the state and federal governments overnew rail infrastructure is costing us all dearly, I reflected. And now Infrastructure Australia chief Michael Deegan is casting doubt on the usefulness of the North West Rail Link and he’s preposterously exaggerating its cost. He’s right when he says that there’s insufficient track capacity between Chatswood and Redfern for an adequate number of services on the new line, but it’s a moot point serving dubious politics. Both the feds and IA are on record as supporting the Parramatta-Epping rail proposal which would complete the original Parra-Chatswood scheme foolishly truncated by Labor’s very own Michael Costa but that project is complementary to, rather than a replacement for, the NWRL, and it would also require additional capacity between Chatswood and Redfern.
The critical issue that can no longer be avoided is the need for additional rail capacity across the Harbour Bridge and through the CBD and a solution must come soon because the splendid heavy rail system bequeathed to us by John Job Crew Bradfield is effectively at capacity. The solution won’t be cheap, but with the additional tracks, the experts say we can increase services to every station in Sydney by 50 per cent.
That boost cannot come too soon because relentlessly tightening oil availability is driving up the price, not just of petroleum, but of all other energy sources. This ain’t speculation about a distant future. The dirty secret is that, in all Australian capital cities, road traffic has been flatlining for eight long years and the average amount we drive as individuals is actually falling steeply. This trend set in around 2004 – four years before the GFC – when petrol passed 90c a litre. If it weren’t for population increase, total vehicle kilometres would actually be falling. In this situation it would be madness to waste public funds on new roads.
In Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne, there’s been a sharp rise in public transport usage, because those cities had spare public transport capacity, but Sydney’s peak period trains and buses are effectively full. People are trying to get out of their cars but the lack of seats is discouraging them and, of course, vast areas of Sydney are effectively unserviced.
In the past, it was assumed a costly rail tunnel under the harbour would be needed to fix the Chatswood-Redfern choke-point, but with road traffic at stasis we can simply reclaim for rail the two eastern lanes of the bridge once used by trams.
The road lobby will howl, but pent-up demand for rail means that every additional train that passed over the bridge would replace one lane of road traffic 10 kilometres long and the harbour tunnel still has spare capacity.
North of the bridge, there’s sufficient reserved land to add two tracks on the surface between Chatswood and St Leonards. From there, it would be best to tunnel to North Sydney Station. South of the Harbour, the best route under the CBD would be the reserved corridor under Pitt Street.
All this is eminently do-able. Advances in engineering mean the work should be vastly easier (and no more expensive) than the construction of the City Circle line, which was mostly built between 1915 and 1932 using cut-and-cover techniques, day labour, and primitive equipment.
But here we encounter the greatest obstacle to Sydney’s public transport renaissance: the official habit of wildly overstating the cost of new infrastructure. According to Deegan, the NWRL would cost “tens of billions”, a nutty advance on the already-absurd $9 billion usually quoted in the media. Nine billion would put the technically unremarkable 23km NWRL in the same league as Switzerland’s A$10 billion Gotthard Base Tunnel – the world’s longest and deepest –114 kilometres of big-bore, single-track high speed rail tunnel, served by 34 km of emergency access tunnels.
If only our politicians would swear off fatuous point scoring and grapple with these practical issues. If they do not find the money for urgently-needed projects like the NWRL and more cross-Harbour tracks the economic consequences will be dire indeed.