Distance travelled by train users to get to rail stations (source data: NSW BTS)

Rail is customarily thought of as the “backbone” mode of urban public transport systems. During peak periods when demand is highest, trains transport large volumes of passengers over long distances at relatively high speed.

They can do this because they operate in a dedicated right-of-way and draw passengers from an extensive catchment. Rail lines tend to be widely spaced, both because of their high capacity and because they’re very expensive to build and to operate.

A new report released yesterday by the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics (BTS), Train Statistics 2014, confirms rail’s “arterial” role in Sydney. For example, the average train journey is a lengthy 16.7 km, with 40% of trips longer than 20 km.

And yet in another crucial respect Sydney’s trains function more like a local mode; rather than drawing from an extensive catchment, trains are largely the domain of travellers who are fortunate enough to live or work within walking distance of a station.

BTS data shows that 64% of those who use the train live within just 500 metres of a station and 76% within 1 km (see exhibit).

A huge 79% of Sydney train travellers on an average weekday access the station by walking (it’s 98% for those who live within one kilometre). Only 12% get to the station by car and 8% by other forms of public transport, almost all by bus. (1)

This high level of walking isn’t because Sydney has the sort of dense rail network that puts almost all residents within handy walking distance of a station.

A more likely reason is parking at stations is limited and/or expensive. Another reason, which I think is ultimately more significant for policy, is that connecting via a feeder mode such as a bus or bicycle isn’t an easy option in Sydney.

So travellers who use trains frequently – and “regular users” make up around 21% of Sydney’s population – tend to select residential locations close to stations. (2)

It’s unrealistic to think that Sydney can retro-fit enough new rail lines to put the vast majority of residents within walking distance of a useful rail line. Given the stratospheric cost of transport infrastructure in Australia it wouldn’t in any event be sensible policy (see also Are politicians doing what’s needed to grow our cities?).

What’s needed is a more effective use of feeder modes to get distant residents to and from the station efficiently. Above all else that means frequent, fast local bus services coordinated with train departures and arrivals. For bicycles it mostly means safe routes and secure storage at the station. (3)

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  1. For practical purposes, all public transport connections to stations are by bus. Bicycles account for a further 0.5% of trips to the station.
  2. A “regular user” of trains is someone who used rail at least once in the last week.
  3. Another approach could be to support the existing rail network with a fine “grid” of frequent trunk bus (and where justified light rail) services e.g. see How can public transport work better in cities?