The great dividing line
September 28, 2010http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/the-great-dividing-line-20100927-15u5x.html
Getting the transport system right for the south-west corner of Sydney requires more than money and sensible engineering, writes Andrew West.
Glenfield railway station on the south-western fringe of Sydney is roaring with activity. Bulldozers and earth movers are clearing land, their reverse lights beeping incessantly. Foremen in hard hats and yellow vests climb over dirt mounds to survey the route of the planned rail track.
The station will be the junction of five rail services: the existing services via East Hills, Bankstown, Lidcombe and Granville, and from 2016, the new south-west link from Leppington.
The south-west line - along with the inner-west light rail - is one of the few good stories the Keneally government has to tell about public transport. Sure, it has doubled in price, from $688 million to $1.3 billion, since it was announced in 2004 but it is finally - and seemingly irrevocably - going ahead.
But as with other NSW public transport initiatives of the past 20 years - such as the agreement with private station operators on the airport line that makes tickets prohibitively expensive, or a politically motivated redesign of the Chatswood-Epping line that doubled the cost of the project - there could be a big hitch.
Rail experts warn that the south-west link is a poor fit with the plan to build a ''CBD relief line'' for CityRail trains using a corridor under Sussex Street.
When the government announced the $4.5 billion relief line in February as part of its ''transport blueprint'', it argued that in the peak hour the line would bring eight extra trains into the city from the western suburbs, on the main line via Blacktown, Parramatta and Strathfield. But experts say it would be better to build the central business district relief line in a corridor under Pitt Street to accommodate up to 20 trains an hour from the south-west coming through Sydenham station.
''A connection to a new CBD relief line that fed trains via Sydenham would allow more network-wide growth than any alternative,'' a rail industry source said. ''This is because the network could allow more trains to approach the CBD from the south west via Sydenham than from any other feed.
''A new connection to the western line will only allow growth from the west and will only allow about half as many additional trains into the CBD, compared with a connection via Sydenham. Growth from the south-west towards the CBD and the north shore will have no direct route towards the city unless a connection via Sydenham is implemented.''
The Pitt Street option would also allow for the expansion of Martin Place station, taking pressure off Town Hall station, where passengers from the eastern suburbs and Illawarra lines transfer to trains for the north shore.
In a nutshell, two critical pieces of infrastructure - a line to relieve rail congestion under Sydney and ultimately enable a second rail harbour crossing, and a line to the booming south-western suburbs - could in effect cancel each other out within a decade if the government chooses the wrong route under the city.
Appearing before a parliamentary estimates committee last week, the Minister for Transport, John Robertson, said the government had not decided which corridor, Sussex Street or Pitt Street, to use for the relief line, but would finalise plans by the end of the year. Much hinges on his decision.
By the mid-2030s, the population of south-west Sydney will surge from about 55,000 now to almost 300,000. The hills that are now home to horse studs and dairy farms will be swallowed up by an estimated 110,000 new houses, ranging from large homes with five or six bedrooms on single blocks, to medium-density flats built around courtyards near town centres.
The mayor of Camden, Chris Patterson, says that the shire that now has a two-storey height limit will have buildings of five and six storeys. This is not necessarily a problem, he says, but will certainly be a culture shock. ''People here accept that there will be change but the scale is astronomical,'' he says. ''Traditionally, this has been an area for quarter-acre blocks and much bigger. The more diverse the releases of land, the more diverse the people.''
The 11.4-kilometre rail line between Glenfield and Leppington, with a stop at Edmondson Park, will be the main artery of the new development. Without the line, the region would choke on its own traffic congestion. Patterson says the Camden Valley Way - just one lane each way - is already inadequate.
The line will bring locals not only to jobs in the city but in the decentralised centres of Liverpool, Campbelltown, Bankstown and Parramatta. It will also change the social composition of the Macarthur region.
Gabrielle Gwyther, a research fellow at the University of Western Sydney who has studied western suburbs communities, says the existing rail line through Glenfield, Macquarie Fields, Ingleburn and Campbelltown before stopping at Macarthur has influenced the profile of the area. ''People along the rail line tend to be from lower socio-economic groups,'' says Gwyther.
''There are quite a lot of poorly designed townhouses that are home to recently arrived migrant groups and, since the demolition of the housing commission estates, lots of first-home buyers.''
As these residents become wealthier, they move further south and west, into places such as Narellan and Camden, where there is no rail service. ''People moved there knowing that and, to some extent, they like it that way,'' says Gwyther.
''They become car-based households, often because they become self-employed as contractors or skilled tradies, and they're on the road as part of work.''
The M5 motorway has become the social dividing line, says Gwyther, with the classic ''aspirationals'' living on the western side.
Stephen Albin, the chief executive of the Urban Development Institute of Australia, quotes institute research showing that south-western Sydney residents tend to trade up as they become more prosperous, but largely within the Macarthur region. Developers report that much of their sales volume is to families that already live within six to eight kilometres of their new houses. ''There's a very strong identification with the area that can extend over a lifetime,'' Albin says.
By contrast, families flood into the north-west from all over Sydney to acquire bigger blocks.
The self-contained nature of the Macarthur region - with residents conceivably going from a townhouse-style first home to stand-alone house to retirement unit - highlights the need for the government to provide infrastructure, says Albin. ''It's not good enough for the government to just release land, lower stamp duty then walk away.''
As Brendan Gleeson, the centre director of Griffith University's urban research program, says, the planned diversity of the south-west growth centre will increase reliance on the rail line. ''Public transport is used disproportionately by particular households such as singles, childless couples, the elderly,'' Gleeson says.
But as the recent VAMPIRE (''vulnerability assessment for mortgage, petrol and inflation risks and expenses'') study found, the trend towards increasing fuel costs will start to hit the car-happy, self-employed aspirationals that Gwyther has identified. ''They can make a lot of money,'' she says, ''but they're also aware they are very vulnerable because they're contractors. They, too, know they may need government services.''
Which makes the case for getting the rail line right even more important.
Rail experts say there will need to be about 20 trains an hour out of the south-west, serving not only city-bound commuters from the Macarthur region but passengers along the way. As Gwyther says, the routes serve different clientele and trains from Glenfield are already packed at peak hour.
The East Hills line, through Narwee, Beverley Hills and Kingsgrove, tends to draw more professional passengers. ''They're often office workers with jobs in the city, often in suits and more formal clothes,'' she says. ''People potentially on the way up.''
On the line via Liverpool, Cabramatta and Bankstown, the passengers are more likely to be from first-generation immigrant, non-English-speaking backgrounds. ''They rely more heavily on the rail line for the daily transport needs, for a variety reasons, including not yet having a car or driver's licence,'' says Gwyther.
''There are cheaper units around Cabramatta, Carramar and Villawood, which tend to be entry suburbs for many new migrants. Their first jobs are more likely to be in places like Bankstown or Parramatta, and then they move up. That's often part of the migrant trajectory.''
All of which makes the decision about how to link south-western Sydney to the CBD a matter of demography, not only engineering.