JOHN AUSTEN. Pain before more pain and then no gain in Berejiklian’s growing Sydney transport mess

The NSW Government says there is an ‘amazing’ light at the end of the tunnel with the closure of the Epping-Chatswood line that is part of the Metro project.  The analogy is apt. An approaching light in a railway tunnel heralds big trouble.

 My recent posts dealt with the need for a proper inquiry into Sydney Metro as called for by John Menadue.  The reasons for the growing mess need to be understood. They cannot continue to be hidden with public relations spin.

Last week, Metro joined Sydney light rail and the stadiums rebuild as part of Sydney’s infrastructure mess

The reason for the closure of the 9-year old Epping-Chatswood rail line which serves Sydney’s second largest employment area is to assist the conversion to Metro.  It will be at least 7 months – until after the State election – before the line re-opens.  In the mean-time public transport there will be limited to buses – giving rise to fears of ‘carmageddon’.

Despite the closedown starting at a time of low traffic – school holidays – there have been plenty of grumbles, some triggered by it coinciding with the NRL Grand Final.  Media reports have delays, long queues for buses and problems faced by individuals.  There was a solitary positive comment – one young women said there will be more trains once the line re-opens.

The Government acknowledges the closedown causes difficulties.  However, according to the propaganda it is ‘worth it’ for what the latest publicist – Ms Lee Lin Chin formerly of SBS – considers the ‘grooviest’ project.  The Government assures us there is light at the end of the tunnel, even an ‘amazing light…’.[i]

The situation is indeed amazing – a nasty surprise awaits any person welcoming the prospect of more trains.

It is true more (Metro) trains will be scheduled to run on the re-opened line – at least in peak hours – than previously.  Together they will be able to carry more people than before to Chatswood.

However, many beneficiaries of this will need to change trains at Chatswood – and possibly Epping – for the first time.  And continue doing so for at least several years.

More important bigger problems relate to the Government’s key – but false – claims the relative potential of Metro and Sydney Trains. This is matter of fundamental importance to Sydney, especially Western Sydney.

The capacity of the Epping-Chatswood line as a Metro is less than that if it was to remain a Sydney Trains line.

More Sydney Trains could have run on the line than had been scheduled previously – especially if it were to have a turnback such as needed for Metro.  In such a case Sydney Trains higher seat and passenger capacity per train would more than offset the higher frequency of Metro trains.

A like for like comparison of Metro and Sydney Trains implies the future seating potential of this line – the matter relevant to commuting – would have been 50%-60% higher (than Metro) if it remained with a Sydney Trains system improved by the ‘Paris and London’ automation train control technology promised by the Premier.

Similarly, a like for like comparison implies potential passenger carrying capacity of the line – seating and standing – would have been around 20% higher if it remained with Sydney Trains.

There are even more serious matters.  One is a loss of effective rail capacity throughout Sydney due to removal of the line from Sydney Trains e.g.:

  • Across the harbour and through the CBD fewer Sydney Trains can feed into the higher capacity segment between Chatswood and the CBD;
  • From the north and Central Coast trains once routed via Chatswood will instead pass through Strathfield;
  • From Western Sydney tracks between Strathfield and the CBD will need to be shared with more trains joining from the north.

Another problem is the gravely serious question of whether these and other cuts to Sydney Trains capacity can be mitigated. It is possible that the Metro route in central Sydney will preclude another central route for Sydney Trains.

The Epping-Chatswood closedown is not temporary pain for later gain.  It is needless pain and advised against by experts.

Two ominous footnotes emerged last week.  First, while we were told 20,000 commuters would be displaced from trains, the Minister claimed 10,000 boarded buses on day one.  What happened to the other 10,000?  Did they drive?

Second, the Government is beseeching passengers to change between trains and buses at St Leonards – 3.5km from Chatswood.  The concern is about interchanging chaos at Chatswood.  The threat of chaos will continue for years after the amazing light at the end of the tunnel arrives – because Metro services feature ‘all-out all-change’ there.

If Metro is indicative of what Governments consider ‘worth it’, Australia has a very serious infrastructure problem ahead: grandstanding and misuse of enormous sums of public money on bad projects for (probable) clandestine motivations whose important issues are covered-up. Is the secret agenda the privatisation of Metro?  The failure of ‘independent’ advisers to publish proper reviews aids and abets these serious concerns.

The $8bn or so financial cost of the North West Rail Link (which incorporates the Epping-Chatswood line) is merely a first instalment of a Metro plan costing $66bn or more. There has not been any proper assessment of any part of this – let alone its totality or impact.  It can only be assumed to be a gigantic boondoggle, at best.

The widespread credibility problem with official infrastructure statements and ‘analysis’ is nowhere worse, or more consequential, than for Sydney Metro. A proper public inquiry is needed now.

John Austen is a happily retired former official living in Western Sydney. Details will be at

 [i] Daily Telegraph, 1 October 2018


John Austen is a happily retired former senior official of Infrastructure Australia living in Western Sydney. Details are at

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5 Responses to JOHN AUSTEN. Pain before more pain and then no gain in Berejiklian’s growing Sydney transport mess

  1. Avatar Richard Ure says:

    In addition to urging passengers to change at St Leonards, those travelling from Epping to Chatswood have been advised to travel by train the whole distance via Hornsby adding considerably to the previous time to travel direct.

    To avoid criticism at least in the school holidays, the bus service was copiously provisioned. Will we ever learn the (unnecessary) cost of the pink buses and all the extra staff directing passengers and logging the arrivals and departures of buses during the changeover period?

  2. My assessment:

    Sydney playing risky and costly metropoly games amid oil price fears (part 1)

  3. Avatar j austen says:

    Mr Lee, thank you for those thoughtful comments.
    Regarding this and previous posts, I have relied exclusively on material in the public domain.
    The most recent, which rekindled the question of a public inquiry, were reported claims by the NSW Premier and Transport Minister implying Metro is inferior – on even the Government’s criteria of passenger capacity per line – to a Sydney Trains system improved by ‘Paris and London’ technology. The trialling of precursors to this technology since the early 2000s raises the question of whether this was known at the time Government made its initial ‘Metro’ decision.
    Much of the material from the Government is contradictory or implausible e.g the alleged inability to run single and double deck trains the same track. The Government has not referred to material from some authoritative sources including work done for it.
    Details, including references are at, under the Metro heading.
    Underlying my points is a difference between capacity (potential) and reality (train operations). The comparisons Government put in the public domain are of theoretical Metro capacity versus Sydney Train current reality. This is not consistent with at least some expert advice to Government organisations which is in the public domain.
    On some of the specifics:
    . while good road access is a highly plausible reason for the use of St Leonards during the closedown, this may not be the only reason. Since 2012 concerns have been raised about what might happen at Chatswood as a result of train to train transfer;
    . the removal of a line from a rail system directly reduces its capacity;
    . the rerouting of trains that used this line reduces the residual – effective – capacity available on other lines;
    . the removal of a junction (or one of two routes) decreases the effective capacity of the (single) line leading into the junction by reducing the capability of recovery from incidents beyond the junction. In the case of Sydney Trains this effect may be increased by train operating capacity already exceeding (the supposed) 20 train per hour between CBD and Chatswood;
    . increased use of Epping-Chatswood would arise from its extension to the north-west. Conversion to Metro, in the absence of evidence that it induces higher demand than could be achieved with Sydney Trains (with change to the Sydney Trains schedule on the line), has no positive impact on use. The issue of usefulness – of future capacity, entailing flexibility of operational plans – is quite different raising questions such as completion of the earlier Sydney Trains scheme to Parramatta;
    . similarly, any relief in pressure on the Western Line, in the absence of evidence etc, should not be considered a feature of Metro but of new rail services;
    . for the North West rail there will be an increase in Metro capacity (an enormous increase!) and a decrease in Sydney Trains capacity. One would hope this yields a net increase in rail capacity, but this has not been demonstrated – in fact reported Government claims indicate otherwise (see introductory remarks above);
    . Sydney Metro extension entails a higher probability of a decrease in future potential rail capacity because of network effects eg. small tunnels issue and CBD route question;
    . Metro will increase CBD rail capacity, but that is only the start of the story. Does this come at the expense of capacity elsewhere? Could another option increase capacity by more? Or offer more appropriate capacity? Is it the most cost-effective option? Does it preclude opportunities in the future?
    . operational speed is not an end in itself – in some cases it is useful to cut speeds to balance directional demand. One possible concern is that (end to end) journey times for passengers on Sydney Trains will in some cases be reduced to make Metro more attractive. there is also the point about constant long term travel times;
    . the relevant comparison is not Metro against current Sydney Trains but against ‘Paris and London’ enhancements and different carriage configurations such as contemplated by RER in Paris; noting that Metro lacks many characteristics of rapid transit and appears to be an attempted creation of a commuter rail system;
    . Is there any evidence that relevant improvements to Sydney Trains would be more financially costly (or disruptive) than Metro? Such a proposition is counter-intuitive;
    . the point about ‘necessarily integrated’ is questionable. It mistakes infrastructure configuration with operations – confusing the network with how the network is used. It is used by various proponents via misleading statements such as: the ‘network is tangled’ (when in fact the schedule/routing decisions lead to trains being tangled on the network); ‘we need a single deck rail line’ (no such thing); ‘a single line is more reliable’ (in principle a network is more robust than a single line because it allows diversions). A long single line is likely to be more fragile than a short one which should be a concern for Sydney Metro given its unusual length.
    The last point is why I say the public evidence points to a desire to play trains on ‘their own train set’. A separate system – and small tunnel size – is not necessary for any other discernable purpose, and conflicts with the original Government announcement.
    Where I land is the public evidence points to a disgraceful mess, at extraordinary financial and capacity/connectivity cost without plausible explanation, without any proper public review and in which the Government frequently contradicts itself on fundamental points. This, and the disputed deeply held opinions about what should be factual matters, can only be resolved by an open public inquiry where claims are tested.
    As in the case of Newcastle containers, I do not advocate a particular outcome, but a principle that significant executive Government decisions – such as affecting the structure of Sydney – need thorough airing. This is not just a transport issue.
    Thanks again for the comments.

  4. Avatar Robert LEE says:

    John Austen’s commitment to good transport policy is commendable, but I am afraid many of his assertions are tendentious. In particular, there has been no loss of effective rail capacity across Sydney as a result of the temporary closure of the Epping-Chatswood line. Trains which previously served it have merely been rerouted, at the Epping end to form a continuation of the traditional and pretty much identical services (off-peak every 15 minutes) from the city via Strathfield which previously terminated at Epping; at the Chatswood end by running them through to the ideally laid-out centre road terminating track at Lindfield.

    The reason for encouraging commuters displaced during the reconstruction to change at St Leonards rather than Chatswood is road congestion at Chatswood. It”s nothing to do with the rail facilities at Chatswood, which are perfectly designed (two island platforms, with the busiest connections simply across the platform) for fast and efficient transfers between Sydney Trains and Sydney Metro after the conversion is completed. Longer terms, once the Chatswood-Sydenham section is opened, there will be no need for most passengers to change at Chatswood.

    Every one of the three dot points is simply wrong: (1) there is no reduction in Sydney Trains capacity between the CBD and Chatswood and I simply cannot understand the least basis for stating this (in fact overall train capacity will be doubled when the second stage of the Sydney Metro from Chatswood to Sydenham opens); (2) there is only a limited peak-hour service between the Central Coast and the CBD via Chatswood, and most trains (all off peak and weekend trains) between Sydney and the Central Coast run via Strathfield; and (3) there are very few more trains from the north running temporarily via Strathfield because services previously terminating at Epping now and in future will run through to and from Hornsy, as they did before the Epping Chatswood line was opened.

    The Sydney Metro trains will amply be able to handle capacity on the Epping Chatswood line for the next few decades at least. Under Sydney Trains it was operating well below capacity because the demand did not require a more frequent service. With the conversion and extension to the North West, an underutilised railway becomes a far more useful asset carrying far more passengers and trains. Those passengers will partly be diverted from bus services, partly from the existing main Western line, partly from car travel and partly be new travel altogether because of the opportunities offered by the new services.

    The new Metro, when opened in about seven months, will immediately relieve pressure on the busiest of Sydney Trains’ lines, the Western line, by diverting some of its traffic from the existing Western line to the broadly parallel but rather to the north Sydney Metro line. Some passengers will also use Sydney Metro rather than the Northern line.That’s a massive increase in capacity and a considerable relief of pressure on Sydney Trains’ network; and it’s only seven months away. The argument that Sydney Metro’s trains will not be as comfortable as Sydney Trains’ double deckers when operating at crush loads has some point. However, Sydney Metro’s trains will have the edge in other respects including reliability, frequency and speed because of its automated operation, quick loading and platform doors. However, crush loads and operation of the new line at capacity are still many years if not decades away. Sydney Metro has only ordered sufficient trains to run at about half the line’s capacity, because it believes these will be adequate for the traffic. More trains can be ordered at any time as demand increases.

    In terms of the more remote future than seven months away, the extension of the Sydney Metro line from Chatswood to Sydneham and conversion of the Bankstown line to a Sydney Metro operation, will lead to an enormous increase in rail passenger capacity in central Sydney. It will be comparable to the impact of the opening of the Eastern Suburbs Railway in 1979 and the consequent ability to remove all Illawarra line trains from the City Circle. This in turn freed up capacity on the City Circle for new services on two new railways, linking Campbelltown via East Hills and the Airport to the CBD. Similarly, removal of Bankstown line trains from the City Circle will free paths for more trains from other lines. That will increase Sydney Trains’ capacity to serve the CBD.

    It is arguable that the Bankstown line was possibly not the best option for conversion to Sydney Metro operations south of the Harbour. Personally I thought that conversion of the Airport line and the slow tracks from the Airport via Wolli Creek to Revesby would have had greater benefits. In particular, (1) residential densities are still fairly low between Wolli Creek and Revesby, so conversion would help house more people in quite convenient suburbs; and (2) the option would remove double-deck trains from the Airport services, where they are most inappropriate for passengers with luggage. (I travelled on this line just this morning, so this point is very fresh in my mind.) However, the government chose the Bankstown line. I’m sure it had its reasons. I would have liked to hear them though (as we heard the reasons why it chose to route the Central to Sydenham Sydney Metro line via Waterloo rather than the University of Sydney.

    While no one railway building scheme meets every travel need perfectly in terms of either route or rolling stock or operations, to suggest that the Sydney Metro project is all pain for no gain is simply ridiculous. The gains will be very great indeed. It is arguable that building the new lines to Sydney Trains standards would be just as good, even a better, an option. It is true this would deliver potential capacity of more seats per hour (but not more trains nor more passenger capacity), but it would be more expensive to build and operate; slower in operational average speeds; necessarily integrated with the existing system and hence less reliable since delays on one line inevitably spread to others; and lack the operational convenience of automated single deck trains with platform doors. Sydney Metro’s automated standards are far more in tune with the future of urban railway operations. This is not a criticism of Sydney Trains, which does a good job in the face of many challenges, including operating rains of highly variable stopping patterns and speeds, not to mention intercity and freight train on its network. Sydney Metro will have none of those operational disadvantages.

  5. Avatar roma guerin says:

    I do hope Daniel Andrews is following your comprehensive coverage of the Sydney experience.

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