the daily column

A Metro to Nowhere

A friend asked me the other day to name one thing in London that was better than it was here in Sydney. At first, I thought I could pull out a long list, having stayed there long enough to learn the city fairly well. But only one thing really stood out: the tube.

The tube is a foregone conclusion, once you’ve used it for more than novelty value. Having now been to Tokyo, New York, London and Hong Kong, the transport systems of Sydney and Melbourne are quite obviously woefully inadequate.

While Melbourne’s trams go some way to providing a metro-esque service, it doesn’t come anywhere near frequently enough and is beset by traffic. London’s buses fill the same role trams do. Both Australian cities have a commuter rail system, rather than the frequent running and closely spaced stations of the international cities.

The reason behind it might be simple practicality – density of population being far lower here – but it doens’t take away from the fact that without it, our dependence on the car is not going to be shaken any time soon. More closely spaced stations and frequent trains reduces the load on each train and platform, and nothing beats the convenience of never having to look up a timetable, or of having stations spaced close enough to be within walking distance of much more of the population.

The other issue is the Australian systems being far more “hub-and-spoke” – Melbourne particularly so. If you look at the maps (Mel, Syd), you’ll see that it’s nearly impossible to change to other lines without going all the way into the city. Sydney avoids this by having a couple of outer suburban connection points, but both are almost artistic compared to the near-chaos of the tube map.

I bring this topic up because the NSW government has just announced a plan to build a metro rail line in Sydney. They’ve certainly got one point right – frequent services. However, they fail on just about any other measure.

Stations will be 2km apart, on average, which isn’t any better than it is now. The route will service the north-west, ultimately, where population density is probably the lowest in the city. There will only be one route, which is no better than a commuter line that is merely underground. And finally, there’ll be little interconnection with existing routes, again no better than it is now. All this serves to do is facilitate the spread of the city to the north-west, and gives us another white elephant of infrastructure that doesn’t do anything useful.

What we need is something with the chaos of the Tokyo, New York or Paris systems, and bugger the cost. Something as quick, clean and efficient as Hong Kong or Singapore. Hell, something even half of what Delhi is building right now. Suburban rail systems matter, yes, but they should be secondary to getting the inner city services up to scratch, something which makes living in the city as opposed to the suburbs worthwhile. The urban is the definition of a city, and that’s without even considering the environmental benefit of having both higher-density living and efficient public transport systems taking cars off the road.

The argument will always be that it would cost too much. But how have all these other cities built their systems? What price a vision, a change to the order of things? Where once grand projects were embarked upon, government debts raised to provide for people’s needs, to hell with paying it off today, because that’s what governments do. Statesmen with vision – dare I mention a certain presidential hopeful in the US? – led countries.

We now have bean counters and middle managers working to ensure the order of things stays static, manageable and most importantly cost-effective. There’s no chance of a Panama Canal, or a Snowy River scheme being built today, or the pyramids without corporate sponsorship; the national highways built after WWII in so many countries would take 10 times as long and cost a hundred times more than in 1950. A stasis grips the vision of politicians, and we wonder why we don’t believe in their so-called leadership any more.

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