Saturday marked the opening of the new L2 Randwick Line of the Sydney Light Rail network, as the first stage of the CBD and South East light rail project. Despite getting off to a smooth start at 10am, it wasn’t long before the day was derailed by a long string of unfortunate events that put a dampener on festivities.
The line is timetabled to take around 45 minutes from Circular Quay to Randwick, with the trip taking 20 minutes from Circular Quay to Central and another 25 minutes between Central and Randwick. This is an improvement from the rumoured 51 minute travel times before the opening, but is much slower than the initially promised faster than the buses trip, which would require a sub 35 minute travel time.
On opening day, it was taking around 55 minutes for the non disrupted services to travel the route. Despite this, there were reports that some services took nearly two hours to travel between Randwick and Circular Quay and that a number of services held passengers hostage between stops for up to 45 minutes. These extra long travel times are hopefully just anomaly that can be put down to teething problems and shouldn’t be experienced in revenue service.
There were a significant number of problems that all seemed to compound on Saturday afternoon, leading to many passengers dubbing the system “Sydney Light Fail” and even spawning a satirical twitter account. The delays included:
- Tram suffers electrical failure at Royal Randwick. Blocks tracks for 10 minutes.
- Passenger suffers stroke on tram at Haymarket. Tram taken out of service for cleaning, blocks tracks for 40 minutes.
- Tram suffers break and traction failure on Crossovers at Circular Quay, blocking all three platforms. Trams truncated to Town Hall for 90 minutes. Passengers trapped between stations for over 45 minutes.
- Signalling problems at Town Hall forces every second tram to terminate at Central for an hour.
- Randwick Terminus overwhelmed with trams forces trams to terminate at UNSW High Street. Up to 3 trams waiting along High Street to access Randwick terminus
- Tram dwell times at stops in excess of 10 minutes due to signalling failures and headway problems.
All of these problems compounded to create quite an embarrassing situation for the government. This led Transport Minister Andrew Constance to compare the days dilemma as akin to “giving birth to child” and suggested that “birthing pains” were to be expected. This appears to be a pattern for new transport openings, given that Sydney Metro also suffered a series of problems on its opening day.
The line appeared to operate more trouble free on Sunday, with consistent travel times of around 50 minutes from end to end, which appears to again have been decreased to 45 minutes in the Monday AM peak hour. The government and the operate have both promised to work on providing a sub-40 minute travel time once the L3 Kingsford line opens in March and the service is fully bedded down.
The sub 40 minute travel time promise will be disappointing to thousands of South East commuters travelling through Randwick to the CBD each day. To be quicker than the slowest Randwick to Circular Quay bus in the peak, the line needs to be achieving a sub-35 minute travel time. Once you factor in people connecting from feeder buses, the line realistically needs to travel between Circular Quay and Randwick in around 30 minutes. This is achievable based on observations of similar tram lines around the world, but will need some will from the private operator. Transport Minister Andrew Constance has stated that be expects the trams to get faster “I would hope they will start to speed up as people get used to them but it’s not going to happen on day dot,” he said. “People need to get used to pressing the buttons on the doors – it’s not like a bus.”
If the tram line genuinely cannot be faster than the bus services it is designed to replace, then we need to take a hard look at the business case itself. Is the line economically viable if it is not going to be able to convince bus passengers to transfer at Randwick? Who is actually going to catch such a slow tram? The line will fail at its main objectives of reducing bus traffic into the city and providing a faster and more comfortable journey between the South East and CBD. Given the significant cost over runs, the people surely would expect to get what they were promised, and not the slowest tram network in Australia and one of the slowest in the world. Labor’s transport spokesman, Chris Minns, said people would be “scratching their heads wondering why $3 billion has been spent on a project that is so slow. When you consider it’s quicker to get from Penrith to the city, than from Randwick to the city, you have a major problem,”
The one place this line needs to succeed even if it fails at everything else is operating counter peak journeys to UNSW. Replacing the current dedicated express services was one of the major justifications for the construction of the line. Currently it takes around 20 minutes on the 891 bus between Central and UNSW. Under the current tram timetable, the journey between Central and UNSW would take 22 minutes by tram. This is comparable, but hopefully should be improved on as time goes on as we reach a sub 40 minute travel time end to end. If the line can get between Central and UNSW in less than 20 minutes, then on that front the line could be successful.
We probably need to wait until the entire CBD and South East light rail network is open, and people are used to catching and being around trams before making a final judgement on the success of the line. Early problems for Sydney Metro haven’t stopped it from becoming a runaway success. If travel times can be reduced significantly to make the line competitive with bus travel and the teething problems can be ironed out, then this line could end up proving highly successful. If not? We have over 3 billion reasons to get rid of this government, just like the locals along the line did to their local Liberal MPs in frustration over the problematic construction that has disrupted the past 4 years of their life. The locals of the South East deserve something that works, lets hope they’ve got it!