2. Current passenger and freight rail operations and constraints

2.1 CityRail operations

Passenger rail services in the greater metropolitan area are dominated by CityRail services operated by State Rail.

These services massively outnumber long-distance services to and from Sydney by State Rail (Countrylink) and other passenger rail operators. For this reason, and because there are currently no proposals for competitive services to be provided by other passenger rail operators in the greater metropolitan region, the Long-Term Strategic Plan for Rail's consideration of passenger service requirements in the region is essentially based on analyses of CityRail services and, where relevant, their interactions with freight rail services.

In 1999-2000 CityRail's total patronage was 279 million passenger trips, up by 12% from the 248 million carried in 1990 and up by 21% on the 230 million carried at the end of the most recent economic downturn in 1993. On an average weekday 940,000 trips are made on CityRail services, by about 550,000 individuals each day.

CityRail has 306 stations and a fleet of 1,456 double deck electric multiple unit carriages--1,138 "suburban" carriages, 80 "outer suburban" carriages and 238 "intercity" carriages --and 44 single-deck diesel multiple unit carriages.

It operates about 3,000 train services each weekday, comprising:

Apart from some sidings and yards and some privately owned freight tracks, all rail infrastructure (track, signals, etc) in the greater metropolitan region is owned and maintained by the Rail Infrastructure Corporation (RIC), which sells access rights to rail operators.

The main passenger rail operator in the greater metropolitan region is the State Rail Authority, whose suburban and intercity services are marketed under the "CityRail" brand name and whose long-distance services are marketed under the "Countrylink" brand. Because they are widely known and understood, these descriptors are used in this report. State Rail also owns and operates the stations and is responsible for all timetabling and the control of all passenger and freight train movements on the metropolitan rail network.

RIC and State Rail objectives

Under the Transport Administration Act, RIC's "principal" objective is to ensure that the NSW rail network enables safe and reliable passenger and freight services to be provided in an efficient, effective and financially responsible manner". Similarly, State Rail's "principal" objective is to "deliver safe and reliable railway passenger services in New South Wales in an efficient, effective and financially responsible manner".

Other RIC and State Rail statutory objectives, equal in importance to each other but expressly of lesser importance than the principal "safety and reliability" objectives, are:

  • For RIC, to promote and facilitate access by rail operators to the NSW rail network in accordance with an "open access" regime established under the Transport Administration Act
  • For RIC, to maintain reasonable priority and certainty of access for railway passenger services
  • For both, to be a successful business and, to that end, to operate at least as efficiently as any comparable businesses and to maximise the net worth of the State's investments in RIC and State Rail
  • For both, to exhibit a sense of social responsibility by having regard to the interests of the community in which they operate
  • For both, to operate in compliance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development, and
  • For both, to exhibit a sense of responsibility towards regional development and decentralisation.

As part of the overall passenger transport mix in the greater metropolitan region, rail's primary role has traditionally been to carry people relatively long distances to major centres of activity.

In 1996, for example, CityRail accounted for only 5% of all the trips made by all transport modes in the region, but 10% of the kilometres travelled and 14.5% of all journeys to work.

For journeys to work at the major centres, rail is either the dominant mode of transport, with 49% of this market for the Sydney CBD in 1996 (down from 51% in 1981), or second only to private car travel, with a mode share of 40% at North Sydney (up from 30% in 1981), 28% at Chatswood (up from 14%), 23% at Parramatta (up from 14%) and 30% for the city's centres as a whole (31% in 1981).

Rail's second major passenger transport role in the region has been to provide transport for students travelling to and from schools, universities and colleges.

For both of these major roles there is a strong concentration of patronage in the morning peak and, to a lesser extent, the afternoon peak. The latter peak period has lengthened from 21/2 to 31/2 hours in the last decade.

With the growth in demand in recent years, almost all peak period trains are now operating at or near their full capacity, even though there have been significant increases in the capacity provided on CityRail trains over the last 20 years.
The constraints on CityRail's capacity

Peak patronage demand and hence the capacity provided by peak CityRail services are heavily concentrated on the main routes into the Sydney CBD on the Main West, Illawarra and North Shore lines, which combine the inputs of numerous intercity and suburban lines, as illustrated in Figure 2.1.

The factors affecting passenger rail system capacity on any particular section of the rail network, and hence CityRail's ability to meet rapidly increasing patronage demand, include:

The breaking down of "sectorisation"

Since the 1980s State Rail has attempted to operate CityRail services in three discrete rail network "sectors", so as to minimise the impact of any service disruptions in any one sector on the rest of the metropolitan rail system (Figure 2.2):

As illustrated in Figure 2.2, while Sector 1 is still largely discrete, the growth in patronage (and hence train services) in recent years has led to considerable interaction between Sector 2 and Sector 3 services along the Main West line corridor between Granville and the CBD, and even in the case of Sector 1 rapid growth in patronage on the Illawarra line has forced some diversions of Sector 1 train services onto the City Circle, which was previously reserved for Sector 2.

This problem reflects the fact that in the last 50 years there have been almost no track amplifications on the metropolitan rail network. This means all types of services--fast and slow, and to and from a wide variety of locations via a wide variety of routes--are forced to share the same overcrowded tracks, with few if any overtaking opportunities and with major congestion at the routes' various junctions.

The system is rapidly approaching gridlock, as there is a finite limit on how many trains can reliably and safely use each track and, even more significantly, on how closely they can follow each other through multiple congested junctions and/or wait their turn.

The forced breakdown of "sectorisation" as train numbers have increased beyond the capacities of any one sector has been one of the factors contributing to the increased sensitivity of CityRail peak services to disruptions in recent years.

The restoration and strengthening of "sectorisation" operational approaches is therefore one of the main emphases of the Long-Term Strategic Plan for Rail, both in the short and medium terms and in the longer run (see sections 3, 4 and 5). This will need to involve both increases in the inherent capacity of the rail infrastructure--the equivalent of road widening programs--and the physical separation of the tracks and routes used by trains operating on different existing and new operational sectors. Figure 2.1. Current peak passenger demand is heavily concentrated on the Main West, Illawarra and North Shore lines into the Sydney
CBD. In this computer modelling diagram the thickness of the lines is 
proportional to current morning peak passenger flows.
Mixtures of service patterns

As already indicated, within each of the current three main operational sectors there is a complex mix of "fast" ("express" and "limited stop") services--generally those travelling longer distances, including intercity services--and slower trains with a variety of station stopping patterns, including trains which stop at all stations on their routes.

This mixture of services reflects the need for CityRail to accommodate three types of demand on the one network: relatively long-distance intercity and outer suburban demand, short-haul suburban demand and "inner city distribution" demand.

It also reflects the strong desires of commuters, who often prefer to stand for long distances on crowded faster trains than have a seat on slower trains, even when the difference in total travel time is only a few minutes.

In some cases the different services are able to be segregated from each other on four or six track sections of the network, allowing the faster services to overtake. In most cases, however, the almost total absence of track amplifications and junction grade separations in the last 50 years means this option is not available, and complex and disruption-sensitive timetabling is required. Figure 2.2. Current CityRail operational sectors, showing the interactions between the theoretically isolated sectors forced by recent increases in patronage demand and the resultant need to increase train numbers beyond the capacity of lines within the sectors

As the number of trains has increased, the operational robustness of timetables with complex mixes of types of services has declined.

Again, the segregation of services to overcome this difficulty is a major focus of the Long-Term Strategic Plan for Rail (see sections 3, 4 and 5).

Other operating constraints

The other principal constraints on current CityRail operations, described in detail in the Long-Term Strategic Plan for Rail, are (Figure 2.3):

In summary, the metropolitan rail network is now so congested that peak CityRail operations are extremely finely balanced, with minimal margins before delays occur and escalate.

The Long-Term Strategic Plan for Rail explicitly addresses all of the factors described above, along with other major factors in poor on-time running performance: rolling stock failures, the increased frequency and severity of rail infrastructure failures, and limitations on incident response and recovery capabilities.

Service reliability and on-time running performance

The principal measure used by State Rail to monitor the punctuality or "on time running" of CityRail services is the proportion of peak services arriving at their destination within 3 minutes of the timetabled time in the case of suburban services and within 5 minutes in the case of intercity services. Figure 2.3. Overview of operating constraints in Sydney.

Since 1993-94 the target for this measure has been 92%. Although on-time running has generally improved over the last 25 years (Figure 2.4), it declined in 1999-2000 to levels not experienced since the late 1980s, and despite a strong recovery during 2000-01 on-time running is still only about 90%, below State Rail and customer expectations.

On-time running performance is affected by:

2.2 Freight operations

Most of the railway lines used by freight trains in the greater metropolitan region are shared with passenger services, although there are dedicated freight lines between North Strathfield Junction, Flemington Goods Junctions, Chullora, Sefton Goods Junction, Enfield, Rozelle and Port Botany (Figures 1.1 and 1.2).

Rail freight services within and through the greater metropolitan region comprise:

Rail freight operations in the greater metropolitan region are severely constrained by a long-standing "curfew" on freight train movements during weekday commuter peak periods --6 to 9 am and 3 to 6 pm--on lines which are also used by CityRail trains in Sydney and as far north as Wyong.

The effects of this curfew are most critical on the Main South line between Macarthur and Sefton Goods Junction, part of the main routes connecting Melbourne and Adelaide with the Sydney freight terminals and ports and Brisbane, because the busiest times for freight trains arriving from Melbourne coincide with the busiest times for CityRail commuter services from Campbelltown and Liverpool to the city.

On the Main North line to Newcastle (and on to Brisbane) the constraint is less significant, because there are fewer freight trains and operating patterns are different. For this corridor it is likely that a guarantee of two freight train "paths" per hour for 22 hours per day in the contra-peak direction--i.e. with a two-hour peak direction "curfew"-- would suffice to meet anticipated freight demand, and even this is regarded by Rail Infrastructure Corporation as a long-term target, rather than one to be achieved in the metropolitan area in the short to medium term, because there are other, more severe constraints on Sydney-Brisbane freight services further to the north, on the single-track North Coast line. Figure 2.8. Trends in rail infrastructure failures delaying peak CityRail services, 1995-96 to 1999-2000.

Investigations over the last four years have identified the most cost-effective ways of progressively reducing the curfews on the Main South and Main North corridors, including the construction of a new bidirectional track from Macarthur to the Sydney side of Cabramatta Junction for use primarily by freight services. These works, which are now the subject of detailed design and environmental studies but will proceed only if Commonwealth funding is provided, are discussed in sections 4.4 and 5 below.

Other constraints on rail freight services in the greater metropolitan region include:

Rail Infrastructure Corporation has recently commenced the development of an over-arching Metropolitan Rail Freight Strategy to address these and other rail freight issues.

2.3 Rail infrastructure maintenance and reliability

As indicated in section 2.1, the reliability of metropolitan rail infrastructure has fallen in recent years, increasing both the absolute and proportional contribution of infrastructure failures to CityRail train delays.

One of the main factors in this degradation was the downgrading of many "major periodic" maintenance programs during the 1990s. Although reductions in major periodic maintenance expenditures (Figure 2.9) were intended at the time to be at least partly counterbalanced by efficiency gains, and funding levels were reduced in this expectation, in practice the anticipated gains were only partially realised, even on lines maintained by the private sector after competitive selection processes. Because of the reduced funding, and also because other projects were regarded as having a higher priority at the time, the scope of major maintenance programs was severely curtailed.

These programs--which can be traced back to upgrading works initiated around the time of the Granville disaster-- included a track strengthening and concrete resleepering program, a signalling modernisation program, an overhead wiring modernisation program, a junction renewal and upgrading program and ballast cleaning, track tamping, rail grinding, timber resleepering and rerailing programs. The recent construction of a grade-separated route for freight trains 
under the passenger lines at Flemington Junctions leading to Olympic 
Park is an example of the type of projects required to reduce 
conflicts between freight and passenger train movements in Sydney. 
These conflicts have long necessitated curfews on freight train 
movements during the commuter peaks, greatly handicapping the ability
of rail to compete with road freight.

The downgrading of these major periodic maintenance programs has now resulted in a serious maintenance backlog, degraded asset quality and reliability and increased day-today routine maintenance costs.

Even with increased funding, this backlog will be difficult to overcome, as Rail Infrastructure Corporation's major plant items are old and incapable of meeting production requirements (many of the items which will have to be used over the next couple of years have been taken out of "mothballs") .

The actions and expenditures required to redress this situation are discussed in section 4.10 of this report.

2.4 Safety

The December 1999 Glenbrook accident and a series of other derailments and "signals passed at danger" incidents in recent years have highlighted the importance of a more concentrated focus on rail safety issues.

The major deficiencies in metropolitan rail safety systems, almost all of which have been or are now being addressed, have been:

Much of the signalling control technology used in the greater 
metropolitan region is now extremely dated and offers few of the 
capabilities available with modern systems. (The mechanical and 
electric relay-based systems shown here, at Gosford (above), Sefton 
(below) and Strathfield (left), date back to the early 1900s, the 
1920s and the 1970s.) The equipment and facilities stand in stark 
contrast to the modern equipment and high-quality facilities used for 
monitoring and controlling road traffic flows in Sydney, even though 
the road monitoring and control systems are not primarily concerned 
with safety.