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COMMENT: Can overcrowding on the Western rail lines be relieved?

posted Monday 15 July 2013
Many Sydney train commuters would have noticed that platform 3 of Town Hall railway station was recently altered to be a "Fast Track Platform" so that passengers need not be near the edge of the platform to see the platform destination indicators. Extra indicators have been installed, easily visible from the back of the platform which admittedly is not very far back.

The official account of these works is to help manage crowds on the western lines. During the morning peak, trains from the west disgorge large numbers of passengers at Town Hall platform 3 and it is difficult to deal with 20 trains per hour. The opening of the North West Rail Link in 2019 should see a number of passengers transfer from the western lines to NWRL services but not enough to remove the problem.

Also, two Tangara carriages have been reconfigured for a trial commencing in early July. Formerly, the upstairs and downstairs compartments had seats arranged across the car, with rows of two seats on one side and rows of three seats on the other, separated by a narrow aisle. On one trial carriage, the 2+3 seat rows have been replaced with 2+2 seats; the wider aisle will allow more passengers, albeit standing instead of seated, and should speed up loading and unloading of the train at busy stations. On the other carriage, the rows of 3 seats on one side have been replaced with a single bench along the length of the compartment, with its back to the window. There is a much wider aisle (although it will have a few protruding ankles), again allowing more (standing) passengers. In each car, 16 seats have been removed and there is thus floor space for about 32 extra passengers, all standing.

This trial will determine whether reconfiguring double-deck carriages can help deal with the overcrowding which is well-known to western suburbs peak-hour passengers.

While the Western lines' problems are well-known, the same trains cross the Harbour Bridge and service the North Shore. Once the NWRL opens in late 2019, possibly 5000 passengers per hour will arrive at Chatswood in the morning peak and want to transfer to lower North Shore services. Success of the platform and seating reconfiguration described above will be crucial if the NWRL passengers are to be carried in acceptable conditions. So will the transfer arrangements at Chatswood - the document "Sydney's Rail Future - Modernising Sydney's Trains", released in June 2012, promises simple cross-platform transfers at Chatswood and does not hint that there may be serious overcrowding.

Another change, which has not received very much publicity, is that the Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Canberra trains are to be re-routed with effect from October. They will no longer travel via Strathfield. They will use the East Hills line which is slightly faster but importantly takes them away from suburban track earmarked for eventual conversion to metro-style single-deck services. Their only stop in the Sydney suburban area will be at Campbelltown.

Meanwhile, there has been no announcement of how long the conversion of Epping-Chatswood tunnels and three stations to NWRL single-deck will take. Presumably buses will have to take over the load, which will not be easy e.g. 10000 passengers per day each way at Macquarie University station not including a significant number of passengers riding direct between Epping and Chatswood. There won't be enough room for these buses to use the existing bus platform in front of Macquarie Centre and there certainly won't be space for bus stops handy to the railway stations at Epping and Chatswood. Even though the displaced passengers will be promised a wonderful rail service when the NWRL opens, they won't like the temporary buses.

Now, either the last two stages of Sydney's Rail Future will be completed or they won't. For the fourth stage, will the NSW Treasury really come up with enough money for:

Unless Treasury does find the money, the lower North Shore might be carrying all those extra passengers indefinitely.

And for the fifth and last stage, we further ask whether State Treasury would agree to:

and then, closing the Bankstown line while:

Even if Treasury finds the funds, no-one in the affected districts will be happy about a long shut-down for conversion. The politics then will be quite different from converting Epping-Chatswood, even if the O'Farrell government is still in office and essentially unchanged. It will be well-known in advance that conversion will take a long time and that it will be very disruptive. With Epping-Chatswood, the separate EIS for the tunneling was accepted BEFORE the need for conversion emerged; the tunnel bore was reduced from 7 metres to 6 metres later with minimal publicity.

And even once the conversion is over and the new service is operating, one suspects that Liverpool people won't be happy about changes at Cabramatta nor will Bankstown people be very pleased about forced changes at Lidcombe. Note that all trains to the CBD through Glenfield (including trains from Campbelltown, Macarthur and Leppington) will have to travel via East Hills or Granville, which is longer. Any passenger wanting to go to Bankstown will have to change and perhaps also Sydenham.

So completing the plans of Sydney's Rail Future might be politically impossible for the reasons above. And until all stages are completed, western suburbs residents will continue to suffer unacceptable crowding in their trains.

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