Wastelands, or just a waste of space?

In the short space of a few years, the level of investment in major infrastructure projects into Adelaide’s public transport network has increased several-fold. This includes a $2.6 billion upgrade to Adelaide’s rail network which involves electrification to allow the operation of electric trains, sleeper and track replacement, signalling, station and crossing upgrades.

A number of stations have been rebuilt or upgraded across the network in the past few years – Oaklands has a brand new station and the stations at Blackwood and Hallett Cove have been tidied up and provided with proper shelters. Several more along the Gawler Line are presently in the process of being upgraded or rebuilt.

However, the vast majority of stations have missed out on funding for upgrade and remain little more than deteriorating shelters on platforms that would not even pass as being adequate for a bus stop, let alone a train station.

Understandably, government funding is limited and is usually directed to the most urgent of projects. A single station upgrade can easily cost up into the millions of dollars. But if the SA Government is serious about getting bums on seats – those of trains and buses preferably, not cars – it needs to provide better train stations in addition to the new trains and tracks that already have funding.

If the government can’t and won’t invest in the upgrade of stations, why not provide commercial opportunities and let the private sector invest in them? I can’t say that this is an idea that will work, but I believe that it is worth exploring.

The train stations on any network that are busiest are usually those that are within close proximity to major commercial areas or are major interchanges between different lines or modes of transport. But some stations on the Adelaide rail network serve next to nothing.

Islington Station in Adelaide’s northern suburbs is a great example of this. It is surrounded by empty fields and lands previously part of the Islington railyards that are no more. There is a new industrial park being developed to the north-east, but this by and large has it’s back turned to the train station and the other empty land is unused space begging to be developed.

Islington Station and surrounds - currently there are large empty tracts of land around the station. (Source: Nearmap)

Having just returned from Japan, the country with the mother of all large rail networks, there’s some clear patterns as to why the rail network is so busy and why the stations are as well – the railway companies often own the office, hotel and retail buildings surrounding the stations as well! In other words, the commercial operations surrounding the station draw people into using the system and the stations are true destinations in themselves.

There is a key difference between the Adelaide rail system and those in Japanese cities though. The Japanese systems are owned by their operators, whereas the Adelaide system is in government hands. And I don’t any commercial sense in the Adelaide rail system becoming privately owned.

However, I do believe that are opportunities for developers to be involved in the improvement of the rail system through better stations in the form of public private partnerships (PPP). In exchange for the rights to develop land around and above train stations, developers could also contribute to the upgrading of the train stations to make them safer and more user friendly facilities. The presence of more people using the train station resulting from increased development near stations also provides a form of passive surveillance.

Developing over train stations in this manner isn’t exactly new, it has been done before in both Melbourne and Sydney. At Chatswood in Sydney, the station was redeveloped to accommodate the new Epping to Chatswood rail link (ECRL) and includes a new shopping centre and (yet to be built) apartment towers. It also provided new public spaces in the area around the station.

Proposal for CTI - The new station and shopping centre have been completed, but the apartment towers remain to be built. (Source: InDesign)

The Chatswood example is a very large undertaking and is not of the scale I would imagine currently feasible in Adelaide. There are three proposed apartment buildings up to 42 levels tall at CTI which is excessive for any suburban train station in Adelaide considering that no buildings of this height currently exist even in the centre of Adelaide. It could work for smaller scale undertakings though such as smaller office and residential buildings with ground level retail.

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