The French city of Valenciennes, right up in the north of the country, is about a 30-minute drive to Lille, which is about an hour north of Paris if you travel by train.
You probably would travel by train because the trains tend to be pretty good in France. Paris and Lille are about the same distance from each other as Sydney and Canberra; the trip here takes four times as long as over there.
They take trains seriously in France. They put money into them and they keep buying and building new trains and new train lines.
And what they’re doing in France might be an example for the haphazard standards of transport planning and development in Sydney – if only the bureaucracy and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s government were not so determined to do exactly the opposite.
This is a story about the government’s radical plan to remake Sydney’s train system that has experts in the field unnerved.
They are unnerved because of the plan itself.But they are also disturbed because the government has done so little to justify proposals which, in a decade or so, would have Sydney’s train system broken up, at least half of it privatised, and a new system using smaller trains introduced that will offer fewer seats for commuters travelling to work from far out in the suburbs.
The fear is that decisions are now being locked in that could unnecessarily retard the development of Sydney’s train system for a half-century or more.
The assertion by Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian and her department is that they are paving the way for the future the city needs. What becomes apparent at Valenciennes, or in a factory on the outskirts of the city owned and operated by the industrial conglomerate Alstom, is that all sorts of trains can be built to do all sorts of things.
At Valenciennes, which Fairfax Media toured at the expense of Alstom, they make ‘‘tram trains’’ for the city of Nantes that run slowly through the city centre, speed up when they hit the suburbs, and are some of the few trams in the world to have toilets on them.They make single-deck Metro trains that run without drivers on Line1 in the centre of Paris. This is the line with the most bustle in the city – trains need to run every two minutes in the peak hour lest platforms become overwhelmed with passengers.
But they also make the large double-deck trains, similar to the ones we catch in Sydney, that are also used in Paris. These trains are used on a different line – the RER A line – that reaches deep into the Paris suburbs and takes its passengers on longer journeys. In other words, the type of travel many Sydney commuters undertake.
But in Sydney, this system is to be ripped apart.
The newest extension of Sydney’s train system, the north-west rail link heading out to Rouse Hill, will be dug with tunnels too small to ever fit double-deck trains. In time, the O’Farrell government wants to link this north-west rail link to lines south of the harbour that connect to Hurstville and Cabramatta. This means that, should the government fulfil its plan, these sections of the Illawarra line and the Bankstown line will be run by the same private operator as the north-west line, and will be limited to offering smaller trains with fewer seats.These small tunnels in the north-west – we are talking about a metre or so difference here – demand that people from Cabramatta and Hurstville will one day be travelling on smaller trains.
Keith Still is an expert on managing crowds, and consulted to RailCorp when it was planning what sorts of trains to run during the Sydney Olympics. As part of this work, he was asked to build models to show the relationship between how long trains spent at a station, their dwell time, and whether they were single deck or double deck.
Professor Still, from Bucks New University in Britain, said he found double-deck trains more efficient, having better ‘‘dwell times, more seats, more comfort for longer distances,’’ on his modelling.
It is ‘‘crazy that they are going to exclude the double-deckers if they build the tunnels for single-decker only,’’ he said.
Professor Still might be wrong. But what infuriates many in the industry as well as public transport advocates is that Berejiklian and Transport for NSW have never tried to prove their own case with anything other than bald assertion.
‘‘When you change things in a fundamental way you have to be open about it and show the economic evaluation,’’ said Neil Douglas, a transport economist who worked on the original appraisal of the north-west rail link.
‘‘There seems to be a degree of secrecy in terms of appraisal processes,’’ Dr Douglas said. ‘‘Surely the whole idea of doing an economic evaluation is to present the results to the public – ultimately they’re the people whose values an economic evaluation is built on.’’
There is also growing local disquiet. A survey by the Beecroft-Cheltenham Civic Trust showed 97 per cent of respondents thought the north-west rail link should be fully compatible with the rest of the train network, and 96 per cent thought the tunnels should not be too small for double-deck trains.
In a response for this story, Transport for NSW said it ‘‘conducted an extensive study of existing train operations in Sydney, particularly how dwell time at stations limits double-deck train capacity’’ in developing its rail plan. But it would not provide any supporting documentation.
It says Sydney’s new single-deck trains will be able to carry ‘‘up to 1300 people’’ each and the system will be able to run at 30 trains an hour. In contrast, it says, the ‘‘brand new Waratah double-deck trains can currently carry about 1200 people at up to 20 trains per hour’’.
A visit to Valenciennes makes it difficult to accept these numbers.
The single-deck trains Alstom is making for Paris’ Line1 at Valenciennes, which have very few seats, carry about 720 people in six cars, with fewer than 150 sitting.
Meanwhile, the double-deck trains it is making for the RER A Line – the one that takes people from the suburbs long distances through the city – carry 2600 people, with about 950 seated. (There are fewer seats on Paris’ double-deck trains than in Sydney, because each carriage has a third door on each side to make it easier for people to get on and off. Nevertheless, a recent survey of commuters on RER A found 88 per cent thought the newest double-deck trains were more pleasant than other types of rolling stock.)
In other words, if Transport for NSW is to be believed, the trains it will buy for the north-west rail link will carry almost twice the number of people as the busiest single-deck train on the Paris Metro.
And even Berejiklian’s new head of Sydney Trains does not accept it is possible to run 20 only double-deck trains an hour.
‘‘Let me be a little bit controversial here, because you’ve got to be a bit,’’ Howard Collins, the Londoner newly installed to run Sydney’s train system, told a business lunch last week.
‘‘Double-deck trains – go to Paris – see how the RER pounds those trains at 24 trains an hour,’’ he said. ‘‘The design is different, they’re still double deck, but there are solutions.’’ Collins commutes to the city from Woolooware in the Sutherland Shire. The hour-long commute might explain his growing affection for trains with more seats.
‘‘I thought initially, what are they doing with all these double-deck trains? I’ve sort of become a little bit warm to them already.’’
So why, then, is Berejiklian and her department so determined to break up Sydney’s train system and install smaller trains?
She says the answer is that it will eventually deliver a capacity increase.
‘‘Fast, single-deck trains with three doors per carriage can load and unload people a lot faster than double-deck trains – that means we can run more trains, run faster services, and carry more people per hour than with double-deck trains,’’ Berejiklian said.
Sandy Thomas, a long-time consultant to Sydney’s transport bureaucracy, says the the push for single-deck trains reflects a long-time fascination among many public servants and consultants.
Thomas warns the decision to restrict services on the north-west rail link to small trains will be remembered with the same disdain as the 1855 decision to set up different rail gauges in each Australian colony. It will destroy the ‘‘future cohesion, interoperability, integrity, reliability, capacity and efficiency of Sydney’s rail network,’’ says Thomas, who says he was asked to fudge the figures on single-deck trains while working for the department in 2009.
But Berejiklian is not for turning.
‘‘The north-west rail link and the new rapid transit network – which includes a second harbour rail crossing – are being built to cater for Sydney’s future growth and will deliver major flow-on benefits for the entire Sydney rail network well into the future,’’ she said in an emailed response for this story.
In Valenciennes, meanwhile, they are working on a prototype for a new double-deck train to run on Paris’s RER E line, where the single-deck trains are becoming overcrowded.
‘‘The good thing about Paris is that some people thought way ahead and we had the tunnels ready to accommodate for double-deck trains,’’ an Alstom employee, Olivier Quindos, said on a recent site tour of the factory. ‘‘Moving to double-deck trains is a bit of a relief for the commuters.’’