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OPINION: NWRL - that boring question

posted Saturday 14 July 2012
The NSW government's plan that single-deck trains will run on the north-west rail link (NWRL) from Chatswood to Rouse Hill when it opens in about 2017 raises at least as many questions as it answers.

The intention is to tunnel 15km from Epping to about Kellyville and construct 8km of line above-ground. The existing tunnels from Epping to Chatswood will be "converted to single-deck". In the fullness of time, a totally new line will be built from Chatswood to about Central, with stations at St Leonards and North Sydney and perhaps two other CBD stations. The single-deck trains will then run from Castle Hill to Chatswood along this new line and then to Hurstville or Cabramatta or Lidcombe via Bankstown, after "conversion" of the existing tracks to single-deck.

Apart from lower costs, the advantage of single-deck trains is that they can have more than two doors on each side of every carriage. That, and the absence of narrow internal stairways, greatly speeds up loading and unloading in peak hours, permitting more trains per hour than would be possible with double-deck. The interiors have wide aisles which further assists loading. While there will be fewer seats than on current double-deck trains, there could still be over 500 seats per 8-car train. However, it is not clear that single-deck trains can carry many more passengers per hour than double-deck. Olympic Park station successfully handled over 20000 passengers per hour during the Olympic Games, even though fed by only one track.

Single-deck trains are at their best on lines where the stations are close together, perhaps every 1200 metres or so. But stations on the segment from Chatswood to Epping average over 3km apart and on the NWRL will average about 4km. Why has the NWRL been chosen as the first line to have single-deck?

Next, we haven't been told how long the conversion from double-deck line to single-deck will take. If the Chatswood-Epping section can be converted in a couple of weeks, preferably in the quiet of January, that might be acceptable. But if it takes several months, thousands of passengers will be forced to ride a substitute bus service. As seasoned rail commuters already know, the buses fill up easily, are delayed at traffic signals, and occasionally get lost due to drivers who don't know the area. Adding insult to injury, drivers generally play "entertainment" over the loudspeakers and many freeloaders ride without tickets. How long will it take to convert Central to Cabramatta?

Again, we have been told that 15 different schemes were analysed and compared before the announcement was made. Did any of those schemes consider deferring the NWRL until more cross-harbour capacity was available?

Finally, why are the NWRL tunnels being bored with a diameter of 6.1 metres? That's almost big enough to carry existing double-deck stock. However, it's far more than has been found necessary elsewhere. Some rail tunnels under London have diameters less than 4 metres. Construction costs of narrow tunnels are lower but, once built, widening them is infeasible.

It looks as if the government's insistence on a totally new system is more about reducing costs than about building a better service.

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