Posts Tagged ‘sydney’

Wastelands, or just a waste of space?

November 28, 2011

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.

The importance of effective communication in transport systems

August 31, 2011

I have just returned from Sydney a couple of days ago and have to share with the readers of this blog about an experience I had with the commuter rail system operated by CityRail. Locals in Sydney often complain about the rail system and how poorly it is run. I can now understand why.

On Monday I was waiting to take a train from Town Hall station in the Sydney CBD to Newtown several kilometres just west of the city centre. The indicator boards on the platform were showing that the approaching train was stopping at all stations to Strathfield (including Newtown). So I boarded the train.

As I boarded the train, the guard made an announcement: “Please disregard the indicator boards, this train will be terminating at Central”. Central is the next station along the line from Town Hall.

Upon arrival at Central station, it became apparent that the indicator boards at Central were still showing that the train was proceeding to Strathfield. As was the automated announcement: “The train on platform 19 goes to Strathfield…”

As I was disembarking from the service others were boarding the train unaware that the train was terminating. Then transit officers walked through the train and kicked everyone off on to the platform. The indicator board then changed and the automated announcement followed: “The train on platform 19 terminates here. Would all passengers please alight from the train. Please do not join this train”.

About a minute later, the indicator board changed yet again showing the train was heading to Strathfield. By now, even the train driver who was standing outside his cab looked confused as to what was happening. Then came an announcement, this time manual: “This train service has been altered and is now going to Strathfield.”

And so a few hundred angry passengers re-boarded the train which was already running late and holding up the train services which were queued up behind it.

Ideally, this should not have happened in the first place. Somewhere along the line, it’s obvious that someone responsible for monitoring train services made an error in telling or not telling someone about a change in the planned route of the train.

Speeding up commuter rail services without providing excess capacity

July 15, 2011

With increasing passenger numbers using the commuter rail networks in Australia’s major cities, a great deal of attention has been aimed at providing upgraded and new infrastructure to cope with the increasing stress on the networks – particularly in Melbourne and Sydney.

In many cases the new infrastructure is necessary and the investment is well justified. But in many cases all the new investment does is exacerbate an existing problem elsewhere on the network, or create a lot of spare capacity in the process. This is certainly true of the rail networks in Australia’s metropolitan areas.

Think of your typical suburban railway corridor that runs through most Australian cities – two tracks, one serving trains travelling in each direction. Most lines that fit this description are in Melbourne, but can be found in every one of Australia’s five major cities. Some of these lines are very long and become very crowded near the city end of the line during peak hours.

No one wants to be sitting on a crowded train from the city to reach their outer suburban terminus destination that stops at every station along the way. But with only one track serving trains in each direction, how else can the services be run?

Many of these longer lines in Australia run a mix of slower and faster services. However, with limitations posed by having only two tracks there is a tradeoff between the speed of the services and the frequency of the services provided. More faster services means a larger required gap between services to prevent faster services becoming stuck behind slower services – as there is no way for services to overtake each other.

A typical solution used to allow for more services and express services to overtake slow all station services has been to upgrade corridors to three or four tracks and dedicating one or more tracks to the express services. The four track setup with a slow and fast track in each direction can be found on the East Hills Line in Sydney between Wolli Creek and Kingsgrove. The less common three track setup is found on the Belgrave and Lilydale Line corridor between Burnley and Box Hill in Melbourne, with one track serving trains in a certain direction according to time of day.

The four track setup used on the East Hills Line in Sydney (left), and the three track setup used on the Lilydale Line in Melbourne (right).

While the above solutions certainly allow express trains to overtake slower trains on the longer lines, is building long sections of duplication of existing track necessarily the best way to deal with this issue? In the East Hills Line situation, where the line was converted from two tracks to four at the turn of the millennium, the capacity of the corridor is effectively doubled. Suddenly, there’s a whole lot of spare capacity on the network while junctions further along the corridor at Glenfield and Wolli Creek continue to restrict it! By international standards, almost none of Australia’s commuter rail lines run what can be classified as “frequent services” which is a train at least once every 10 minutes during the day. Even in Australia’s largest city, the trains certainly don’t run that frequently.

So how else can commuter rail services be sped up without providing long sections of duplicated line that can require large numbers of compulsory property acquisitions, new bridges and tunnels, rail and other associated electrical and civil works? My inspiration comes from how the Japanese run their trains. The western rail corridor between Redfern and Strathfield out of Sydney has six tracks and carries over half a million people daily. The Hanwa Line out of Tennoji terminal in Osaka’s southern suburbs moves almost as many people with only two tracks, runs trains every few minutes all day long and still runs a variety of faster and slower services. How?

Efficient track layout and infrastructure usage.

Traditionally, passing loops have been used on the long distance freight lines operated by the ARTC to allow trains to pass trains travelling in the opposite direction. But in Japan, they are sometimes used to allow trains travelling in the same direction to pass other services. And the location that this is technique is most often implemented is at stations.

An example of a passing loop used at a suburban train station.

There’s a number of additional benefits from operating services in this manner other than allowing for a mix of fast and slow services. It makes for much more efficient use of the existing infrastructure. It also allows cross platform interchange for passengers to transfer between faster and slower services. This gives opportunities for passengers travelling to and from minor stations served by only slow services to change to a faster service at a major station (where the passing loops could be installed) instead of wasting time on a slow service for the entire trip. It also reduces the potential disruption that would otherwise occur for a track duplication.

One place where this could be implemented is along Adelaide’s Gawler and (newly extended) Seaford Lines. These two lines are Adelaide’s longest and busiest rail corridors, with many stations and a variety of train services. With proposed peak hour frequencies as often as every 7 minutes during peak hour on the Seaford Line when it is commissioned, and more frequently between Ascot Park and Goodwood where the tracks are shared with the Tonsley Line, something will need to be done to the rail corridor to make this frequency sustainable. And with the corridor hemmed in by homes for much of its length, I believe that implementing passing loops at a number of stations will help the situation.

Is this passing loop solution always better than the duplication alternative? Absolutely not. By allowing trains to run more often on existing tracks, there is the potential to create long delays at railway crossings and there are still capacity restrictions posed by having only two tracks. To make it work properly, the trains have to run on schedule otherwise any delays will create knock-on delays across other sections of the network. Running longer trains or duplicating corridors can still be better choices than implementing passing loops.

I thought I ordered standard brakes and air conditioners with my new trains and trams…

March 15, 2011

In our modern day and age where technology advances as quickly as the bullet train flies, you would think that working brakes and functional air conditioning systems would be the norm on any new vehicles being delivered on our public transport systems.

Not so.

As Australia’s public transport systems and associated infrastructure undergo their biggest investment in many decades, the largest number of new trains and trams have entered service in the past decade than in any decade previously. With more vehicles entering service, it seems that an increasing number of them have technical difficulties or faults. Sydney’s Millennium trains were plagued with electrical and mechanical difficulties for several years following their introduction in 2002. Melbourne’s Siemens trains, also delivered in 2002, continue to have braking problems while Adelaide’s Flexity trams (2006) have inadequate air conditioning systems.

Sydney's energy thirsty Millennium trains.

Siemens train overshoots the end of the line at Sandringham, Melbourne. (Source: Herald Sun)

Getting quality trams on Australia’s light rail systems has been an issue since we stopped manufacturing trams after World War II. All of the new trams operating in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney are European built, and have been built to European standards rather than Australian standards as a result. Adelaide’s Flexity trams are built with the same air conditioning systems as those built for Frankfurt, which has a colder and milder climate than Adelaide does, clearly not the same operating conditions!

It seems that Australia has lost its ability to manufacture rail vehicles of a decent standard.

Actually, that’s not completely true. The Millennium trains were manufactured in Australia. They function properly now, but only after many years of causing frustration to Sydney commuters. The narrow gauge systems in Brisbane and Perth are supplied by mostly trouble-free trains built in Maryborough, Queensland. However, the notorious Siemens trains were manufactured in Austria while the Flexity trams were built as a piggyback order along with new trams in Frankfurt, Germany which have the exact same design specifications. The issue relates more to the lack of proper due diligence in the design of the vehicles rather than poor quality construction. Of course, when politics comes into the picture getting brand new glamorous looking vehicles on to the system as quickly as possible takes precedence over getting the important basics in the vehicle design right.

The other problem is that the quality of Australia’s rail infrastructure is still substandard due to the lack of proper maintenance and investment in the systems between World War II and the turn of the 21st century. Some Melbourne train drivers have described the Siemens trains operating on Melbourne’s rail network as “space-age technology on caveman infrastructure”. They continue to face speed restrictions while a growing number of them overshoot the end of train lines such as the incident at Sandringham on Wednesday the 9th of March where a Siemens set crashed into a Bendigo Bank branch. In Sydney, the new Millennium trains continued to break down as the existing electrical systems could not cope with the high electrical demand of the trains and eventually needed to be upgraded. With lagging investment from decades of neglect and growing passenger demands, upgrading rail infrastructure in Australia to meet the needs of today and tomorrow has become a game of catch up.

And so we as travelling commuters continue pay the price for unreliable vehicles in the form of delays, cancellations and uncomfortable trips, time that could have been used more productively but we cannot gain back. As great as it is to have governments investing in new trains and trams, more attention needs to be paid beyond simply dumping shiny new multi-million dollar chunks of metal on our tracks to other things that are expected by commuters. We need to demand that our governments give us more than just new vehicles, but vehicles that are adapted and suitable for the conditions that they will operate in and the infrastructure that will support the reliable operation of these vehicles.

Sources:

Herald Sun – Spaceships on Chariot Wheels

The Age – Metro Train Crashes Off Rails into Bendigo Bank