Route of proposed eastern suburbs light rail line

As a former resident of Surry Hills, I sympathise with those who live on narrow Devonshire St. They’ll have the O’Farrell government’s new eastern suburbs light rail line running by their front doors when it becomes operational later this decade.

While they’ll be compensated, I also feel for the residents of Olivia Gardens who will have their apartments demolished to make way for the new line.

NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian made it clear at a public meeting this week in Surry Hills that she’ll negotiate on the number of stops and the timing of construction work, but she won’t budge on the need for the Devonshire St alignment.

Residents aren’t happy. While I expect a good proportion like the concept of light rail in the abstract, they certainly don’t want it in their front yard.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the reaction to Ms Berejiklian of Venietta Slama-Powell, a founder of the community organisation opposing the proposed line:

Please don’t offend us in the future and suggest it is a consultation. It is not consultation.

It’s doubtless easy for Ms Berejiklian to stand her ground. The O’Farrell government has a landslide-sized majority in the NSW Legislative Assembly. Nor is it likely to be concerned about a seat it couldn’t reasonably hope to win. This is the seat formerly occupied by Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

But the Minister is right to hold fast on this one. Other options are either too steep for safe operation of light rail, don’t service the major sporting event complex in Moore Park, or don’t provide the crucial connection with Central station.

Those options would reduce patronage significantly and limit the usefulness of building a light rail system before it even got started.

The only real alternative to Devonshire St is a tunnel. However it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than the surface option. Moreover, it would need to be so deep that Surry Hills itself wouldn’t have any stops.

The pressure to underground the line is a good example of how infrastructure costs can escalate. It’s an issue I’ve discussed a number of times in these pages before e.g. Why is infrastructure so bloody expensive?

The key point about light rail is that it usually operates on the surface and in existing street space.  Indeed, traditional variants are known as street cars in the US. (fn 1)

The reason 12 km of light rail can be built in Sydney for the relatively modest cost of $1.6 billion is because it uses existing street space for its entire length. That imposes operational constraints, but it also reduces the cost by an order of magnitude.

Compare it to the proposed 18 km East-West Link freeway in Melbourne – it’s mostly tunnel and is variously costed at between $10 to $15 billion. Or compare it to the proposed 9 km Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, likely to cost an estimated $9 billion.

Operating at street level confers other benefits too. It means the connection with land uses – which are the drivers of patronage – is more direct than it is with subway systems.

Light rail can be integrated with a Swanston St or a George St in ways that aren’t possible with underground operation e.g. closer stop spacing. Connections with other light rail services are easier as well.

There are circumstances where technical or operational demands mean that short sections of a light rail system would function best underground. But Devonshire St isn’t one of them.

In this case, the pressure to go for a tunnel is political. Indeed, undergrounding would create technical problems in effectively serving the Surry Hills area and, of course, would increase the cost significantly.

Other light rail lines are currently under construction in Sydney and the Gold Coast and it’s a fair bet more will be built in Australian cities in coming years.

The principle that light rail operates on the surface and occupies road space (in its own right-of-way and with priority at intersections, where possible) needs to be established clearly and adhered to.

The way the SMH framed the story, I get the feeling some residents only regard consultation as legitimate if the ultimate decision goes their way. Residents and Council should turn their minds to ways they can make light rail work best to improve Surry Hills.

Devonshire St residents could have a moral case, though probably not a legal one, for some measure of financial compensation if they contend that light rail/tram lines are customarily built on arterial roads.

They could argue the narrowness of Devonshire St means it wouldn’t set a precedent for the rest of the light rail network. There’s a chicken and egg argument there (did light rail make roads major?) and the benefits they get would have to taken into account too.

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(fn 1) Sydney’s Inner West light rail line (and the extension to Dulwich Hill), was built in a former rail alignment. It’s the exception not the rule.