Sydney’s much hyped new light rail line between Circular Quay and Randwick opened on Saturday but the event went far from smoothly with one of the vehicles breaking down and causing delays. Teething problems are nothing new with big transport projects but what has concerned many much more is that the services are incredibly slow, taking over 50 minutes to cover the approximately 8.5km route. Apparently trams in the 1950’s did the same journey in just 26 minutes, and with more stops.

A couple of articles have helped shed light on this speed issue. This blog identifies the key issues such as:

  • A lack of signal priority
  • Long dwell times
  • Speed limits, especially on George St.

While this article also points the finger at some of the consultants involved for treating operations like long distance intercity services.

This outcome is quite different from the other light high-profile light rail new builds, such as in Canberra and on the Gold Coast where services are relatively fast. But based on the issues mentioned so far, it seems like they should be able to get speeds up a bit to bring the travel times down. It seems once again there are a lot of useful lessons from Sydney should we ever get light rail built.

Below is a guest post about the opening day from Sydney based reader Nik

In celebration of the first day of the City and South East Light Rail line, labelled the L2 line, I convinced my wife on a spot of Quaxing for Christmas shopping, along with riding the new trams. The trip plan itself was pretty simple, walk to the L1 – Dulwich Hill line, catch it to the point that it crosses over the L2/L3 line, then catch the L2 close to our destination and walk a little. The destination was on the L3 – Kingsford line, which doesn’t open until March 2020.

It all started well, we headed down to the Light Rail stop at Lewisham West and fairly quickly got onto a Central bound tram. The photo below shows one of the L1 tram units stopping heading towards Dulwich Hill. It all worked well, we decided to get off at Paddy’s Market, and walk to the intersection of the light rail tracks.

This is where things started to fall apart, I was waiting to get a shot of both new and old trams, but after 10 minutes or so I checked the Opal app to see if there were any service disruptions and there were. I tram had broken down earlier in the day and service between Circular Quay and Central had been suspended.

We decided to walk along the route to the Central stop. I took the following photo to show the layout of a light rail stop on L2/L3. Of note is the information boards, which are a great improvement on the L1 line dot matrixes, that only display the destination. These are the white signs in the midde of the platform. Unfortunately as we crossed the near end of the platform, we heard some customer service people saying something other than what was on the Opal app, potentially adding more confusion to the already poor experience. This seems to be a common compliant around communication when there are issues.

On arriving at Central – Chalmers street stop, we were greeted by two trams, both double units.

We boarded and I noticed that the units are laid out a little differently, with a hump that isn’t noticeable until you start to go over it. The display system is a lot better than the dot matrix of the trains that have them and the older light rail units.

On setting off, things moved slowly, with a delay as a car blocked the tracks at the first intersection and very slow progress through to Moore Park, where we were advised over a relatively quiet PA system, that there would be a 5 minute halt, so we got off and walked to our destination. The following photo looks down the pedestrian overpass that has been built to cross the road, allowing a range of students access to the light rail/busway, without crossing 6 lanes of traffic.

As we walked down the road, we saw a number of buses utilising the same right of way, allowing the busway to supplement the light rail. We also noticed that the footpath was a standard 2 person wide effort, which with a number of cyclists heading along it isn’t really good enough, given that it’s right next to three lanes heading each way.

The next photo I think demonstrates why light rail and PT investment in general are required. The photo shows the tram we were on, when it finally set off again, against 4 lanes of traffic in one direction and the overhead wires for the L3 line. Without investing more in PT and upgrading a little before it required, we will continue to invest in super sizing the roads we have.

After finishing our shopping, we headed back into the city on the bus and then walked back to the Capitol Square stop to head to the Fish Market for dinner, where we saw that the network was back working. The next photo talks to one of the greatest fears surrounding light rail, particularly in the city centre, where pedestrians are making some poor decisions about crossing roads. The tram in the photo is heading towards us and the pedestrian is running in front of it. I also saw people walking down the right of way when there was a tram approaching. This was taken just south of the Town Hall stop, looking south down George Street.

Overall the new tram has a smoother ride, but they didn’t really get up much speed. I doubt it was the opening everyone was looking forward to with mechanical issues suspending service for a good part of the day.

I’ll finish off with the photo I was trying for earlier in the day, an old and a new tram crossing, with old in the foreground and new crossing to head up George Street.

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  1. Yes, it desperately needs to speed up – a shame that it is only half as fast as it was in the 1950s. But that is the reality of trying to push a Light Rail through a busy street system, instead of running on its own separate pathway. Them’s the breaks. You want faster LR? You know what needs to be done. Separate.

    1. @Guy M, the funny thing is that this new LR does have sections of dedicated RoW which the original teams didn’t have. Couple that with faster acceleration and better brakes (as well as the mentioned fewer stops) and you really have to wonder what the hell is going on.
      I think the Sydney experience is exactly the reason why the Superfund bid is getting serious attention here – far less disruption both during construction and in service, faster service, driverless/automated etc

      1. The article explains why: they had heavy rail engineers design the operating procedures like it was a mainline railway.

        1. Oh and you’re crazy if you think building tunnels and underground stations in town and concrete viaducts with elevated stations across the suburbs is going to be less disruption than street level.

        2. Last I heard the tunneling idea had been scrapped so just pylons which means not ripping up huge sections of road or even closing large sections of road for long as the pylons can be built and beams installed at night.

      2. I’d agree. I can jog faster than 8.5km in 50 mins. 26 mins is slower than cycling.
        Penny pinching to the point where the services are slow and unreliable is a waste.

        1. There wasn’t penny-pinching in Sydney. This boondoggle was gold-plated with its own dedicated corridor.

    2. I agree.
      But they’ll need to pay someone from Europe to come and take a hard look and overhaul their entire operating protocols (and shred the current ones). That will push the budget for this to over 3 billion Australian dollars.

    3. That why light rail in Dominion road sharing with traffic will be very slow.

      Despite the business case say fast journey time compare to Heavy Rail;
      In reality based on other non-right of way examples on oversea, this is difficult to achieve that advertised journey time.

      1. In reality any discussion about PT on Dominion Rd will be between LR and buses, there isn’t a hope in hell of a grade separated line in this corridor.

      2. Kelvin – I agree with. Any street running even with dediacate ‘tram only’ lanes, will be slow due to traffic and pedestrian inference and/or blocking. Dominion Road will be issue for speed for the City to Mangere line.

        Own right of ways does make LR services faster.

  2. This is a new project and service that Sydney has not experienced since 1961 when the previous tram services stopped operating so its going to take at least 6 months to fine tune the L2 Circular Quay to Randwick services and L3 Circular Quay to Kingsford which starts March 2020.

    The videos I have seen, the slowness especially along George and Bridge Streets in Sydney CBD is due to idiot motorists blocking key tram/traffic intersections, people walking on the tracks especially through the pedestrianized sections of George Street, Bridge Street and Circular Quay paying no attention to the trams, traffic lights that are not properly phased to give trams more priority at traffic intersections and at dedicated pedestrian crossings, passengers having to manually have to open doors and cautious tram drivers is causing current tram delays.

    It seems, unlike in Melbourne where trams have more priority over cars, cars still have priority which both the NSW State Government and NSW Police need to address.

    The L2 line uses alot of dedicated street track and on reserve track which is good. Auckland would need to take note.

    The only problem I see, is the APS or third rail system through the CBD which may cause operational issues. At least the traction poles are there, if they need to string up some overhead to replace APS system

    1. I agree with most of this, any transit system needs a good six months to bed in.

      Although I find you comment about tram priority in Melbourne perplexing. Melbourne has zero tram priority at traffic signals except for a handful of T phase lights, and about 80% of their network runs in mixed traffic.

      1. Between the PTV and Vicroads, Melbourne trams has been given more traffic light priorities and more dedicate ‘tram only’ right of ways of street operation especially those routes that pass through the older inner suburbs, giving trams quicker operating speeds. I was there October this year, riding the network.

        Melbourne is not immune to idiot motorists who will go out of their way to use the dedicated ‘tram only’ street right of ways or block intersections, as there is this love hate relationship between motorists and the trams.

    2. I road one on the opening day on Saturday. It was just slow, I got that horrible feeling as it slowly approached the platforms at Central and then very slowly negotiated it’s exclusive uninterfered corner to the front of Central station and then crawled across in front of the station (where there’s a barrier preventing any jaywalker).

      It’s slow because the project is a balls-up from the useless liberal party government. They awarded the tender for the “shadow operator” when planning the system to a completely unsuitable British firm. The stupid useless woman ultimately responsible has since become NSW state premier and they actually voted her bungling back in last year.

      1. Being the first day of operation, trams drivers will be overly cautious, as it their day carrying passengers not sandbag dummys. You can not blame the state government or the project itself for the initial delays.

    3. Kris, its not the first tram in Sydney since 1961. I’ve seen a lot of commentary about this being the return of trams to Sydney but we’ve had trams back since 1997.

      The L2 is definitively slow and i think they are using block signalling like its a train, but its also being driven very cautiously. I suspect travel times will get better as they bed it in, but will remain slower than the buses it replaces.

      Almost a week in, patronage, except for lunchtimes, seems quite low.

      1. It’s a bit of a stretch to call either system “trams” when they don’t share the streets with private vehicles.

      2. Brian Smith – I am aware that the L1 route Central to Dulwich Hill started in life in 1997 with most of the route on the former Metropolitan Goods railway line corridor except street operation from between Central Station and Darling Drive.

        The has been no tram services along George Street since 1961 until the introduction of L2 services on 14 Dec 2019.

    4. I am guessing they prioritised looks over functionality. They try and make the pedestrianised streets look like a pedestrian mall instead of looking like footpaths with a transport corridor running through the middle. It looks great but the issues they are having seem pretty obvious. Instead they need a curb and the light rail area to be a different colour / material.

  3. This is a real step forward. It means that in 30 years when these trams a totally clapped out we will be able to buy them for Auckland.

        1. Yeah but that was Perth in Western Australia. This is Sydney in New South Wales and run by total imbeciles.

        2. It is a cruel and nasty place run by cruel and nasty politicians elected by people who, under a thin veneer, are cruel and nasty.
          The only positive thing is at least their version of democracy works.

        3. That’s a bit of a gross generalisation there. Sydney and New South Wales have a population of more than 8 million people across more than 800,000 square kilometers. It’s got its all-sorts.

          What it does have is political apathy and as a result: Morons in charge (politically). Just watch some interview videos of NSW elected officials or their parliamentary debates and you’ll see what I mean. It’s hard to believe many of them have an IQ in triple figures.

        4. One of the 1200 reasons NZ didn’t join the federation?

          Auckland should thank Sydney for it’s instructive failure.

          On the bright-side, when your service speed is 14 km/h or less, the only way is up. I expect that they will get the Central to Randwick section down to a 15 min journey which is not far off Bondi Jct to Central timewise (13 min).

          Then it will be a useful service.

        5. Kevin – it’s not going to get anywhere near 15 mins. The original plan was for 38 – 40 mins, while they are now saying they will endeavour to get it is ‘as close to 40 mins as possible’, which could mean 47 mins.

          It has a familiar sniff to the promises to have electric trains in Auckland reducing the journey time from Swanson and Papakura by 10 mins, those savings never eventuated.

        6. I’m not talking about George St to Circular Quay as it’s a pedestrian mall now and will never be fast.

          The only slow section from Central to Randwick is the Surrey hills section. Beyond there it is mostly off-road with a few intersections.
          A 22 km/h service speed should be possible, which is what it would take for a 15 min journey.

          For instance, Lille’s trams have a ~22 km/h service speed.

          No excuses, really.

        7. Oh, they could probably visit Bordeaux to see how they achieve a 14 km/h service speed in theor UNESCO listed historic core to speed up service on George St.

        8. If Auckland’s going to learn any lesson from this debacle: It’s how to NOT introduce a light rail service in general where it gets to the stage of needing changes to its operation after introduction.

          Get it right the first time.

  4. At least they got Light Rail. All we got was empty promises and the uber useless Phil “the cheques in the mail” Twyford!

    Ironically Miffy’s thing about 30 years may be right because that is probably the time frame for the next opportunity for Auckland.

    1. The NSW government paid almost 3 billion Australian Dollars for this boondoggle. And it slipped abysmally behind schedule (putting some retailers out of business).

      What could that kind of money buy for Auckland?

        1. Or the simple extension fo the Onehunga line (which everyone claims is too expensive) and probably a Southern link back to the NIMT.

        2. I think HR via Onehunga is out of the question now with the design of the Kirkbride Rd interchange.

        3. Why does this interchange necessarily have to have any effect whatsoever on any mainline link?
          You’ve got how much space of low-value land to work with?

        4. If the route uses the available corridor along SH20 and SH20A then the interchange will definitely have an effect. If you are thinking of an alternative route then you are correct.

        5. Nothing simple about replacing the old single track branch line or extending it.

          You’d be lucky to build the airport tunnel and station for three billion, let alone the rest.

        6. I don’t want to go into a tangent here.
          But any Auckland airport rail link is going to be costing billions regardless.

        7. Yes it will cost billions. But there is a very big difference between three billions and ten billions.

        8. So John D:
          How much in total has the CRL, with its expensive inclined tunnels and underground stations, cost? Was it about ~$3NZ billion in total?

          Why would ~$3 billion Australian dollars only pay for the one airport station and the tunnel it would need?

    2. I think the ironic thing is that Twyford’s ineptness has saved us spending $6B ++ on a lame duck of a transport system. Having watched interviews with a number of users of the new light rail in Sydney, most of them are going straight back to using the bus as it’s a lot quicker. We should learn this lesson, ie upgrade our buses and bus network, build a dedicated bus lane to the NW and if we do light rail, limit it to the length of Queen St. This could all be done for a lot less money and be up and running within the next 5-7 years.

      1. It’s very early days, but so far Sydney’s new line is averaging 80,000 trips a day. That’s about the same as all of Aucklands rail lines and the busway put together.

        So perhaps a tad premature to call it a lame duck.

        Skip the vox pop who gong in the media, they do it for every project regardless.

        1. That was over the weekend when it was free. Come Monday morning and reports were there was barely anyone on it.

          Regardless, the service does need to bed down and be fine tuned before a true read on journey times and patronage can be assessed.

        2. “Sydney’s new line is averaging 80,000 trips a day”
          How can that be accurately assessed when it hasn’t even been in service a week yet?

          Maybe 80,000 trips… …on its opening day…

        3. It can be very accurately assessed, they know exactly how many people have been using it, and over the first few days that was an average 80,000 trips a day.

          What you really seem to be asking is how confident we can be using the first few days results to precisely predict the long term trend. The answer to that is: not very confident of course.

          But I wasn’t claiming it would always get 80k a day, just that 80k a day on the opending weekend suggests that it isn’t going to be a lame duck. Even if it only gets half of that on a normal day it will still be busier than any rail line in New Zealand.

        4. What’s your source for the 80,000 average over the days there John D?

          Because the only source I can find for any patronage statistic is (unsurprisingly) only on media reports the opening day. And that’s also the only place that mentions the (estimate of) 80,000 people.
          And furthermore; this estimate is also noted as being BELOW expectations. All the media reports since have said that the patronage so far has been low.

          So let’s see a source. Hmm?

      2. You are right, the new Sydney line that has just opened is the only light rail system in the world and as such, and even though its only been open a few days, we should base all our assumptions, business cases and modelling on it. Thanks Matthew, great input.

      3. Why would you build LR only along Queen Street? What would be your business case for that and justification of cost, considering the new CRL stations at Aotea and K Road.

        1. Hi Joe, I’m no transport expert but I did visit Jersualem earlier this year and they have a very effective light rail that runs the length of the Main Street (think Queen St). It makes for a very pedestrian friendly city centre.
          I read that buses are reaching peak congestion in Auckland, so my thoughts are if various bus routes can drop commuters close to the CBD, then perhaps a light rail running the length of town can keep the buses to the perimeter allowing for PT up and down Queen Street.
          In saying I’m no PT expert, I do know enough to realise that light rail to the airport is a complete waste of hard earned tax payer money and it really disturbs me to think that this was ever considered to be a serious option.

        2. Most buses will not use Queen Street once Albert Street is back up and running not to mention Queen Street will be closed to cars at some point soon so it’s a moot point. Building a small track 1.5km in a straight line to shuttle a people up and down a street, not to mention people having to get off their bus to get on a Tram for a short journey is nonsense.

          So you are not an expert, you haven’t seen the business case yet you know know that LR through some of the largest growth areas in the Auckland (Roskill and Mangere) then onto the Airport is a waste of money? Oooookay

  5. The Onehunga Link can’t be built now thanks to NZTA cleverly building the Kirkbride Road underpass too small for HR (we were lucky to even get LRT provided for, they weren’t going to do it originally). So the only HR link will be via Puhinui at the new interchange when it opens in 2021. When A2B is finally complete at least it will give some form of rapid transit from there.

    1. “The Onehunga Link can’t be built now thanks to NZTA cleverly building the Kirkbride Road underpass too small for HR”
      No personal offence intended but that is absolute bollocks. It is entirely physically possible to extend the Onehunga branch to Mangere and it’s what was planned for.
      And it’s going down a tangent that’s off-topic and which I wish to avoid.

  6. Sounds like passemger numbers are low would it be quicker if they only ran single instead of double at least until they get it settled down. Only half the time through intersection that sort of thing.

    1. It’s cars blocking intersections and pedestrians and cyclists who got used to having George street to themselves and walking wherever they wanted which are assessed as the issue.

      Vehicle length has an impact but not as much blocking delays.

  7. As others have said trams in other jurisdictions, including Canberra and Gold Coast in Australia, are a lot faster. Modern street running trams in paris (same rolling stock) average 19 to 20 km/hr, at which speed they would do this 12 km in 35 minutes, not 50. Even 40 minutes is slow. Signal priority should be a given, as it is in Canberra and Gold Coast. Better operational protocols and driver training would reduce stop times to 20 to 25 seconds each. Cars blocking intersections require enforcement of traffic rules. Also the 10 minute frequency is well below the four minutes promised and ridiculous considering they have a fleet of 60 Citadis (presumably 30 x 2 car sets) to run on 12 k of track.

        1. On the plus side all of this is fixable without any additional physical works. Signal priority is software programming and the rest is training and operational practices.

  8. Hasn’t the planned extension of Sydney’s light rail been cancelled and will be replaced by trackless tram instead,which seems a far more practical idea especially as trackless tram technology is now evolving at pace ,with much longer trackless vehicles under development now in Germany . This should be what Auckland puts in, not LR as such too massively expensive and disruptive not to mention the time it takes.

    1. The next bit of light rail is the Parramatta Stage 1, for which construction has started and the vehicles selected are Urbos 3, similar to the L1 vehicels, although longer at 45m.

      I’m expecting that the work that caused all of the drama with L2/L3, the service relocation work, after 200 years of paving over (also the kiwi way) will be better scoped in other projects.

    2. I’m not sure what you’ve heard where Peter.
      But this L2’s branch will be opening. And the eventual planned extension further down ANZAC parade is still on the long-term cards.
      There’s been ideas of branching the long-established L1 into Glebe for a long time but nothing’s ever been planned.

      And the L3, the light rail for Parramatta is already going ahead.

      1. Sorry, should read:
        There’s been ideas of branching the long-established L1 into Balmain for a long time but nothing’s ever been planned.

      2. The L3 is a branch from the L2 that goes to Kingsford, it is currently under construction. Parramatta LR is separate again.

  9. Didn’t you get the memo they said that the Trams were going to go slow for people to get used to them for the first few weeks… You need to pay attention

  10. I outpaced a tram near circular quay the other day – I waited at pedestrian crossings and even then the tram is literally no faster than walking.

  11. Thanks for post. Yes I can see that new cautious drivers, lack of signal priority, drivers blocking intersections, users not knowing to press the door buttons & walking in front of trams as they are so slow have all added up to a very slow journey.

    I’d expect it to all pick up given time.

  12. It’s worth noting that 8 months down the track, the journey times have been sped up to 38 minutes.

    Lower dwell times and better traffic light priority seem to have been the biggest improvements.

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