Staying on track - Australia

Focus now on underground networks

The Sydney Rapid Transit.
The Sydney Rapid Transit. PHOTO: NSW GOVERNMENT

India, Thailand and Australia are aiming to modernise their railway systems with new lines to cater to growing demand

Australian cities have rolled out a series of light rail systems in recent years but the country is now shifting underground, with plans to embark on massive metro train networks.  The country's two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are both planning large- scale networks as they seek to address population pressures and growing traffic congestion.

Sydney is planning a A$4.5 billion (S$4.6 billion) rail tunnel under the harbour, and is due to start construction next year. The line will form part of a new standalone, above- and below-ground network that is set to be able to carry an extra 100,000 train customers an hour during peak periods.

The first phase is a A$8.3 billion series of stops across the city's north-west starting from Chatswood, a northern suburb sometimes referred to as a "mini-Chinatown". The north-west line, due to open in early 2019, includes twin 15km rail tunnels, the longest-ever built in Australia.

 
 

The network will eventually continue under the harbour to the city's south-west, covering about 65km of rail line. The city and southern sections are due to operate from 2024.

Analysts say the new Sydney network is long overdue and crucial to ensuring Australia's largest city does not become dysfunctional. Sydney has the country's longest commuting times, with residents averaging more than an hour to and from work each day.

FUNDAMENTAL TRANSITION

It has become obvious to every Australian that you need a competitive rail system to make a city work. Sydney and Melbourne are our two major global cities. They have already reached their limits. They will only function if they have rail.

PROFESSOR PETER NEWMAN, from Curtin University, who is one of Australia's leading experts on transport planning.

One of Australia's leading experts on transport planning, Professor Peter Newman, from Curtin University, welcomed the country's recent investment in rail, saying big cities were undergoing a "fundamental transition".

"It has become obvious to every Australian that you need a competitive rail system to make a city work," he told The Straits Times.

"Sydney and Melbourne are our two major global cities. They have already reached their limits. They will only function if they have rail." 

Melbourne, with about 4.4 million residents, compared with Sydney's 4.8 million,  is also building a new large-scale metro rail system. The A$11 billion project includes twin 9km tunnels underneath the central business district and the Yarra River, as well as five new underground stations. Construction is due to start in 2018 and finish by 2026. The system is expected to handle 380,000 people a day by 2031, with an extra 20,000 using the system per hour during peak times.

According to the State Premier of Victoria, Mr Daniel Andrews, the project will ensure that Melbourne can "take advantage of growth rather than grind to a halt".

Other big cities such as Brisbane and Perth are also investing in rail networks. The projects follow a period of nationwide investment in light rail, which has been built or proposed in big cities such as Sydney as well as smaller cities such as the Gold Coast and Canberra.

But it has proven more difficult to persuade cash-strapped state governments, which oversee urban public transport, to commit to large-scale rail projects.

New South Wales helped to fund the Sydney rail project by partially privatising the state's electricity network. Victoria has urged Australia's Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, to help fund its project. His government is considering the request.

But the rise of Mr Turnbull has given fresh hope to advocates of public transport.  A former investment banker, he became leader last September after ousting Mr Tony Abbott, who strongly backed big road projects in Sydney and Melbourne. In contrast, Mr Turnbull has often proclaimed his passion for public transport and regularly tweets images of himself on trains and buses.

Prof Newman said investment in transport was vital to ensuring that cities "keep their young people" and remain attractive locations for the global workforce.

"It is all about making cities competitive and preventing them from becoming dysfunctional… Peak car has happened. Rail is taking over." 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'Focus now on underground networks '. Print Edition | Subscribe