The Lower Hunter Councils Transport Group ( which comprises officers and Councillors from the five Lower Hunter Councils of Cessnock, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Newcastle and Port Stephens) has prepared the following paper, looking at the main options for the rail line and how some of the impacts of the options might be mitigated.
On 26 May 2009, the NSW Government released reports commissioned by the Hunter Development Corporation (HDC) on proposals to revitalise the Newcastle City Centre. One of these reports, by consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB), advocates the termination of the Newcastle City rail line at Wickham, west of Stewart Avenue. The statements in the PB report relative to the contents of this Information Paper are shown in italics.
Newcastle City Centre
The future of the heavy rail line into Newcastle City Centre is an issue which has been debated on and off for decades. In that time, the State Government has supported both retention and removal of the line. Since 2003, with the establishment of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group to investigate replacement of the line with a “superior” bus service, the State Government’s acceptance of the Working Group’s findings to remove the rail and then its subsequent decision to retain the line, and more recently, GPT’s statement of its preference for removal of the line as critical to redevelopment of the City Centre, the issue has been highly topical.
The PB report treats the passenger rail line in the Newcastle City Centre as an “offshoot” that it “inherited” in 1857 from the port’s freight rail lines, and is now a “historical accident”. It uses this concept to consistently denigrate the role and location of the current rail line as being inappropriate, ineffective and in the wrong location. Given the narrow space between the harbour foreshore and the steep hills to the south, there is no other possible location for the rail line. Although the line was used by freight trains until 1987, it has also been used from its inception as an important passenger train link initially to Maitland, Upper Hunter and New England Regions, and later to the Central Coast and Sydney. The two-storey railway station at Newcastle was built in 1878 in recognition of the importance of the rail line for passenger traffic. It continues to be used by suburban and inter-city passenger trains.
Newcastle has evolved as the ‘capital’ of the Hunter Region and today provides many services and facilities enjoyed by both residents of the City and visitors. An underpinning ideal of the Newcastle Urban Strategy, which was adopted by Council in March 1998, is to make sure the infrastructure and services that make Newcastle ‘special’ are maintained and enhanced. The Newcastle Urban Strategy is designed to reinforce the City Centre as the prime centre of the Hunter. Provision of safe, efficient, high frequency public transport to the City Centre is vital. There is clear recognition that the City is the focus of future population and employment growth, and will remain the Hunter Region’s primary centre for regional economic activity, cultural facilities, entertainment venues and public transport within the region and beyond. The revitalisation of the Newcastle City Centre as the capital of the Lower Hunter Region will occur through planning for 10,000 new jobs and 6,500 new residents by 2031, growth outlined in the Lower Hunter Regional Strategy and reflected in the Newcastle City Centre Plan. The rail transport system that serves the City Centre has the capacity for a significantly larger transport demand than the current. Council’s land use strategies for the City Centre support higher density and a mix of activities. A long-term view of the issue is essential.
The PB report does not undertake any quantitative analysis of the impacts of the daily travel patterns of these additional workers and residents.
This regional role of the Newcastle City Centre is supported by the State Government’s Metropolitan Strategy, which nominates six regional centres: Sydney City, Chatswood, Parramatta, Liverpool, Wollongong and Newcastle, all of which have rail access to the centre of the city.
The PB Report does not acknowledge this Metropolitan Strategy.
The issue of the future of the inner city rail corridor is not just a transport issue, but a major urban design and planning issue and needs to be examined in this holistic context. The urban form of the Newcastle area some 20-50 years from now is a critical ingredient in a transport plan aiming to change the community’s travel behaviour and to encourage public transport usage. This has been lacking in most of the studies to date. Further, the rail line issue is not one just for residents of Newcastle - the line is a critical access corridor for residents of the Lower Hunter, many of whom have firm views regarding its future. Many of the workers who will take up the 10,000 new jobs planned for the City Centre will live throughout the Hunter and Central Coast Regions, and direct rail access to the City Centre will be a significant factor in attracting them to travel to these jobs by train, thereby reducing the number of cars and congestion on the roads and also reducing the all-day parking demand in the City Centre.
The study brief specially states that “the possibility exists to refocus some agencies/employment opportunities to Newcastle, thereby redirecting Central Coast commuters to Newcastle rather than Sydney”. The PB report does not take this into consideration in its assessment of the future use of the inner city rail line.
A vital factor for the revitalisation of the City Centre proposed in the HDC Report is the creation of a University Campus in the Civic Precinct with some 6000 students. Rail travel by university students is the largest single factor in creating increased use of public transport in the region, as demonstrated by the success of Warabrook Station at the Callaghan Campus of the University of Newcastle, which is used by up to 1500 students a day. The PB report takes no account of the impact of cutting the rail line on travel by students to a future Civic Campus.
The Newcastle City Centre has unique natural assets that make it more than just a commercial and residential centre. This has been demonstrated by research showing the priority of places for visitors to the City Centre: Harbourside, Foreshore, Mall, Nobbys Beach, Breakwater (Scape, 2009). Apart from the Mall, these destinations cannot be relocated in any City Centre plan. The ability for people to access these places by rail will increase their popularity without increasing traffic, congestion and parking.
This has been shown in the growth in rail passengers on Sundays since the introduction of the $2.50 Family Funday ticket in December 2008. CityRail has reported that on Sundays, trains arriving from Sydney are full (500 – 1000 passengers per train) with families taking the day out in Newcastle. On weekdays in off-peak times during school holidays, on any day during summer holidays, and when there are special events in the City Centre, large numbers of people from both the Central Coast and the Hunter Valley by train. This patronage is not shown in official average patronage statistics.
The PB report has taken no account of how these large surges in train patronage would be handled by the replacement bus services between Wickham and the eastern end of the Newcastle City Centre, nor has it assessed the impact that changing to buses would have on discouraging these people to travel by train.
The rail infrastructure in the Newcastle City Centre is potentially a very valuable economic, environmental and social asset. It is the type of transport infrastructure that many cities wish to have, and in some case have paid dearly for its removal, and even more dearly for its later re-instatement.
A significant difficulty with the Newcastle rail line is the way it is used, rather than the fact that it exists. The trains on the line do not run to a regular frequent timetable throughout the whole week, and the stations that the trains go to in the suburbs are not well connected to the places where people live, work and study. Limited locations where people and vehicles can cross the line in the City Centre, and unreasonable delays at locations where they can cross, create a perception that the rail line is a barrier to access between the City Centre and the harbour foreshore.
The PB report treats the rail line as a means of transport for moving people within the City Centre, and considers that because of the long spacing of the stations it is not suitable for this purpose. A more accurate fact is that buses perform the function of passenger movement within the City Centre along Hunter Street, and will continue to do so. The rail line in the City Centre has the function of moving people from throughout the region to this regional centre, and it is in this role that its future needs to be assessed, rather than in the role portrayed by PB.
Unless an equally convenient alternative to the railway is identified, more people will be inclined to use their cars to travel to the City Centre with a consequent increased demand on the inner city road system and car parking.
The key to any revitalisation of the City Centre is the attraction of more people to visit it every day. Any increase in traffic congestion and parking shortages will detract from this objective. Hence the most effective way to achieve more people in the City Centre is to increase the numbers who use public transport: trains, buses and ferries. More frequent integrated public transport services are needed in the suburbs throughout the region so that people can travel with convenience between home and the City Centre.
The PB report does not address the need for improved, integrated and direct services in suburban areas, and the impact of direct services to the eastern end of the City Centre on increased patronage and how this would contribute to the revitalisation of the City Centre.
The study brief required consideration of a range of transport issues, including:
• connection of the CBD to major commuter nodes at west Lake Macquarie, Maitland and Newcastle inner west
• connection of the CBD with the Sydney and Gosford CBDs
• connections between Newcastle CBD and significant regional economic hubs such as the University, Airport and John Hunter hospital
• commuter capacity on the Sydney to Hornsby passenger/freight line.
These considerations are not included in the PB report.
In its assessment of rail options for the City Centre, the PB report uses rail patronage data from 2006. At the time the study was undertaken, 2008 patronage data was available, and this would have shown some significant recent increases in train travel.
The PB report only quotes attitudes to inner city rail line from the Newcastle local government area. However the main users of the services, both currently and potentially, come from Maitland, Lake Macquarie and Central Coast. The attitudes of these people have not been taken into account.
Retaining heavy rail through to Newcastle Station enables those travelling by train from Sydney, Central Coast, West Lake Macquarie, Maitland and beyond and the other areas serviced by the line to have access to the Newcastle City Centre without the need to change at some intermediate point, which would be the case if heavy rail terminated at Wickham/Hamilton/Woodville. It should be noted that it is likely that the majority of people have already had to walk some distance, caught a bus or driven their car to get to the station where they caught the train. It is likely that another interchange at the Newcastle end would result in some users deciding that it is easier to use their car rather than catch public transport.
The impact of interchange and people’s perception of waiting time was discussed in the report Decision to Close the Newcastle Branch Rail Line - Independent Review of Transport Reports (Currie, 2005) wherein it was noted that “research suggests passengers weight time walking and waiting by a factor of [two]” (p. 17). This means that, for example, if it takes five minutes to change between a train and bus, this time is perceived by people as being ten minutes when making a decision about whether to make a journey by car or by public transport.
In its assessment of the option to retain the heavy rail line, the PB report included the costs of an overhead bridge at Stewart Avenue and a new station between Newcastle and Civic. This is an unfair impost on the rail retention option. A bridge at Stewart Avenue has to cross Hunter Street if it is to achieve any real benefits, and a new station is not essential if there is effective integration of all transport modes.
Heavy rail is seen by some to have the following drawbacks:
Lack of permeability – the rail line is a barrier to cars, cyclists and pedestrians wanting to gain access from the commercial area to the waterfront and Honeysuckle and vice-versa
Visual impact - parked trains block the view to the water and the overhead wire structures are unattractive
Cost of operation -it has been reported that the section of line (beyond Hamilton) costs $4,000,000 per year to run (which equates to about $2 per passenger trip).
These are valid concerns, but not unmanageable obstacles. However, removal of the rail line is sometimes represented as the only possible means of address. In relation to these drawbacks, the following comments are made about possible mitigation measures.
Lack of Permeability
Before detailing measures, it is worth noting that even if the rail line were removed, Scott Street and Wharf Road, which carry a lot of traffic and are a substantial barrier to pedestrians and cyclists, would remain. Further, for the majority of the length of the line, there are substantial buildings, which block any access between Hunter Street and the foreshore. The only effective access points are where there are street openings between buildings on the north side of Hunter Street.
For most of its route, the railway line passes between buildings, so it is not the rail line that is the ‘barrier’ between the City Centre and the foreshore. Many of the new buildings in Honeysuckle, especially the Crowne Plaza, have blocked off the most significant access and view corridors to the foreshore (e.g. at Merewether Street).
Both the HDC report and the PB report advocate the development of more buildings close to the rail corridor, thereby further alienating the City Centre from the foreshore. The rail line is not the impenetrable barrier that is often portrayed, but the foreshore buildings are impenetrable.
The primary cause for concern regarding cars is the excessive time that the level crossing gates are down. Funding from the State Government in 2006 enabled some improvements to be carried out, resulting in the time the gates are down being reduced by a third on three of the eight approaches to the level crossings in the City Centre.
It is considered that more recognition could be made of the fact that the line does not carry freight trains or fast passenger trains and that shorter gate closing times should be investigated and implemented.
Although there is a perception that there are long delays to vehicles at the rail crossings, these delays can be shortened by using similar safety standards as apply to hundreds of level crossings throughout suburban Melbourne. These delays are shorter than the cycle time for red lights at major road intersections such as Stewart Avenue at Hunter Street and at Parry Street/King Street. If the rail line is curtailed to City West, travel by car is likely to increase, which in turn will further lengthen the delays at major road intersections.
It would also be possible for the level crossing closures in Stewart Avenue to be co-ordinated with the traffic signals at Hunter Street, so that when the railway gates are closed the red phase is retained at Hunter Street, and when the gates open, a green phase is activated for Stewart Avenue traffic at Hunter Street.
Information obtained from the RTA indicates that about five per cent of the traffic delays in Stewart Avenue (a State road) are caused by level crossing closures. The remainder are caused by traffic signal delays at Hunter Street and Parry Street/King Street. Removing the rail line, or building an overpass, would not significantly improve traffic flows.
The PB report does not take into account that the delays to traffic in Stewart Avenue are longer and more frequent at Hunter Street and Parry Street/King Street than they are at the railway crossing, nor does it consider amelioration measures.
Traffic congestion and delays would be considerably reduced, and permeability would be considerably improved, if additional vehicular level crossings were provided at Steel Street and Worth Place. These crossings could be provided with the same vehicle safely standards as at the new level crossing at Stewart Avenue.
Provision is available in RailCorp’s level crossings policies for closed level crossings to be relocated to more suitable and safer places. Vehicular level crossings at Watt Street and Market Street were closed in 1987 and have not been replaced. A submission would need to be made to RailCorp to show the economic and social benefits of these relocations. The Ministry of Transport has assessed the costs of providing additional pedestrian and vehicular crossings east of Stewart Avenue, and these costs were included in the benefit costs analysis by Urbis for the Hunter Development Corporation, May 2009.
The PB report states that new at-grade level crossings are contrary to rail safety guidelines. This is not an accurate assessment, and it does not take into account the possibility of relocating closed crossings.
Newcastle City Council and the then Honeysuckle Development Corporation have undertaken a range of studies in an attempt to address their concerns regarding integration of the waterfront development with the existing City Centre. Development Control Plan (DCP) 40 - City West, which was adopted by Council in 1998, advocated new street connections across the railway line to improve integration of the foreshore and the rest of City West. (Similar provisions are in the current DCP). This issue was explored in the Newcastle CBD Accessibility Study (Maunsell McIntyre, 2000), which concluded that “there is a need for further crossing points to improve accessibility” (p. 44) and that “in terms of vehicular delay, the more crossings the better as the total queue length is reduced with a commensurate reduction in delay” (p. 31). The potential for improvements in technology to reduce risks associated with level crossings warrants further investigation.
There are currently six footbridges (Hannell Street, Civic Station, Argyle Street, Perkins Street, Market Street and Queens Wharf), and one level crossing (for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists) at Merewether Street, between Wickham and Newcastle Stations. The footbridges largely involve flights of stairs and cannot be used by cyclists and some users with mobility problems. Three former pedestrian crossings in the City Centre have been closed and not relocated.
There is scope for the installation of additional level crossings for pedestrians and cyclists to add additional crossing points and/or replace bridges. These crossings would have the same safety features with train activated gates and lights as the pedestrian crossing facilities at Stewart Avenue, and the same as is used at pedestrian crossings of main line tracks in Wollongong and the Blue Mountains. It is noted that other cities, including Melbourne, make extensive use of such facilities.
To address visual impacts, investigations should be carried out into the following:
whether trains can be parked in slightly different locations to lower the impact, such as only on the south side of the office buildings along Wharf Road so that they do not impede the view over the foreshore to the harbour
whether the trains can be required to park at Broadmeadow where storage and cleaning facilities are available
whether changes to operations can reduce the need for trains to park there. One option would be for these trains to run more services during off-peak periods, when the opportunity for patronage growth is greatest.
Another visual impact is that of overhead wire structures. Other countries use cantilevered structures with a reduced visual impact. This could be investigated for implementation, perhaps in selected areas to reduce the cost, especially in the vicinity of Newcastle Station where electric trains are always running at slow speeds as they arrive and depart at the terminus.
The PB report does not consider any of these options.
Costs of Operation
It is difficult to determine the real cost of operating the Newcastle Inner City line, as most of the costs will remain if the line is closed or curtailed. There are no savings in the number of train sets needed to run the current timetables, and there are virtually no savings in staff costs, as all the current staff at Newcastle Station would be relocated to a new terminus. There are virtually no savings in the running costs of the trains, since they would idle for a longer time at a new terminus still using fuel or electric power. The rail track and signalling has been upgraded to a high standard in recent years, and should not need further upgrades for up to 20 years.
The PB report states that the signalling is outdated and needs upgrading. This does not take into account the upgrading work that has been undertaken recently.
More importantly, it is necessary to assess the costs of replacement services if the existing trains are curtailed at City West, and the loss of revenue that would follow from shorter train trips (lower fares) and reduced patronage. The provision of local city services in another transport mode to connect with trains terminating at City West is likely to be significantly higher than the real cost of the current train operations.
The PB report does not include the costs of the replacement bus services in its assessment of the new rail terminal at Wickham. It states that a fleet of minibuses will meet each train, that these buses will be equipped to carry luggage and surfboards, and that travel on these buses will be free. The costs of acquiring and operating these buses are recurrent, estimated to be at least $2m a year. There is no guarantee that this funding will be maintained, and given the current practices of the State Government, it is possible that the funding responsibility could be shifted to local government, as has happened in several other cities in Australia. It is also likely, as has also happened with other truncated rail services, that the connecting bus services will be progressively downgraded and even discontinued.
The PB report also states that Newcastle Buses have the capacity to carry an additional 20 million passengers a year. This figure relates to the entire bus network, not just the inner city services. It does not take into account available capacity at peak hours or at the specific times that trains arrive and depart, often with hundreds of passengers.
A detailed examination of all the related costing figures would enable the identification of areas of possible cost savings, if any.
To achieve a fully-integrated efficient public transport system for the region, centred on the Newcastle City Centre, the option exists to consider the benefits of a light rail system, and in particular the benefits offered by the new technology of tram trains.
Tram trains are a recent development in the field of light rail. They are generally large trams that can operate both on street tracks and on normal train tracks that are also used by other passenger and freight trains. Because of their lighter construction than conventional trains, they can stop and start more quickly, and are cheaper to build and maintain.
Tram trains have been operating successfully in Germany for over 15 years, and their introduction into Great Britain is currently being studied. They generally operate as the main public transport system connecting regional centres with frequent services. They travel through city centres along pedestrian malls and streets, then along suburban lines (often abandoned train lines), and then along main rail lines also used by fast passenger and freight trains.
In the Newcastle situation, tram trains would operate along the existing rail tracks from Newcastle Station to Morisset and Maitland, thereby providing the backbone of the region’s public transport system. To be effective, they would operate on each of these regional lines every 15 minutes, giving a 7.5 minute frequency between Newcastle and Hamilton.
Because of their better stop-start ability, tram trains can stop at more stations while still retaining fast journey times. Tram train stations are much cheaper to construct than normal railway stations. Additional stations would provide much greater access to the regional rail network from many more suburban areas, especially when the rail network is integrated with the bus network. The high frequency of the tram trains makes this integration feasible.
In the City Centre, additional stations could be built at Perkins Street, Honeysuckle and Newcastle West. On the Maitland line, additional stations could be built at Tighes Hill (TAFE College), Waratah West (Mater Hospital), Parkwood (west Thornton), and Metford brickworks (for Morpeth). On the Morisset line, additional stations could be built at Kotara (regional shops), Garden Suburb, Cardiff (district shops), and Argenton. Other stations could be built and funded as part of new urban developments.
The tram trains would serve all the small stations along the routes. Longer distance trains would then only stop at main stations, thereby reducing their travel times and creating more regular service patterns.
The tram train network could eventually be extended along former railway lines to the University, Wallsend and Glendale, providing an important cross-suburban linkage. Tram trains would then run every five minutes in the City Centre. Further extensions of the regional network to Newcastle Airport, Morpeth, Cessnock, Toronto and Wangi Wangi are also feasible.
With tram trains, the problem of excessive delays at level crossings (existing and proposed) in the City Centre is overcome. The average traffic delay currently caused by a train at level crossings is around 90 seconds, with a minimum delay of at least 60 seconds. Light rail vehicles travelling on rail lines in Melbourne and Adelaide create delays of no more than 30 seconds, and similar short delays could be achieved with tram trains in Newcastle.
Additional level crossings can be provided in the City Centre for both vehicles and pedestrians with safety standards that are higher than those provided at the existing crossings.
By comparison, it can be noted that on the Pyrmont Light Rail in Sydney, pedestrian crossings at stations have no gates. In the reserved rail corridor in Newcastle, it would be desirable to have faster travel speeds than in Sydney, hence the provision of electronic gates at pedestrian crossings may be warranted.
The additional crossings can only be provided where there are gaps in the current and future buildings which line the foreshore and the northern side of Hunter St. Even in the more open area at the eastern end of the corridor, the crossings can be placed at suitable intervals associated with the pedestrian crossings over Scott Street.
It has been shown in numerous locations both in Australia and around the world that high frequency fast rail services are the most effective way to attract a significant change in travel behaviour and enable people to replace car travel with public transport for at least some of their trips. This change is especially important in the Hunter Region due to the relatively low usage of public transport at present and the need to improve public transport to make it more attractive and increase patronage to levels achieved in regions with these better transport facilities.
Tram trains usually operate with overhead electric power, and in some locations with dual voltage systems. Hybrid power vehicles can be used where electric power is not available, such as on the line between Hamilton and Maitland. However, new technology successfully trialled in Europe allows tram trains to operate with electric power without overhead wires. A cable is laid under the tracks and power is transferred to the tram by induction – there is no physical contact between the vehicle and the electric cable. It is safe to walk over the tracks at crossings.
Existing heavy rail trains would continue to operate to Sydney and to regional areas beyond Maitland. Some of the train sets currently in use in the Hunter Region could be relocated to improve services in other parts of the state where train services are inadequate.
In the past, rail administrators have rejected the option of tram trains using the same rail tracks as passenger and freight trains. Improvements in safety technology, and the success of tram trains in Europe, have now overcome concerns.
The light rail option for the Hunter Region using tram trains not only solves the permeability issues of a rail line in the Newcastle City Centre, but it also stimulates an expansion of the regional rail network to form the basis of an fully integrated regional public transport system. This will generate a growth in rail, bus and ferry patronage that will justify retaining rail access to the City Centre and thereby contribute significantly to reducing the City Centre’s traffic congestion and parking problems.
The PB report dismisses both tram train and light rail options for the City Centre.
• It does not take account of the potential of these modes to increase service levels and generate greater patronage.
• It assumes that a rail bridge would be needed across Stewart Avenue, whereas a main benefit of light rail systems is that they can cross major roads without causing significant delays to traffic, as happens on the light rail systems in Melbourne and Adelaide.
• Any delays at Stewart Avenue would be significantly less than the delays at the traffic signals at Hunter Street, and could be co-ordinated with these signals so that they did not cause additional delays.
• It claims that pedestrian and vehicular level crossings of the light rail tracks add to safety risks. These risks are significantly less than those posed to pedestrians crossing Hunter Street with the additional traffic and buses generated by a new terminal at Wickham.
• It states that the tram trains would need to travel at 15km/h. Given that the tram trains will be operating in a reserved rail corridor, there is no justification for such a slow travel speed, and speeds of up to 60km/h should be achievable in the City Centre.
• It discredits their value for travel within the City Centre due to the poor location of the track, widely spaced stations, and low service frequency. All these issues would be rectified by a light rail network: the track is located generally midway between the foreshore and the southern edge of the City Centre, additional light rail stations can be easily built, and the frequency of light rail services would be much greater than for the current heavy rail trains (the main benefit of a light rail network). In addition, buses along Hunter Street are available for passengers travelling within the City Centre.
PB states in §1.3 of its report that it has used its “extensive local and international professional judgement in critically analysing, completing the gaps, and resolving the conflicts”. This is not evident in the way that the options have been assessed. For example, PB recently managed a transport study in Manchester UK where it advocated a vast extension of the city’s light rail network, tram-train vehicles replacing heavy rail trains, re-use of former rail corridors, and extension of the light rail tracks into city centres and new foreshore re-development areas. Many of the issues addressed in Manchester are similar to the issues being addressed in the revitalisation of the Newcastle City Centre.
A well used and efficient public transport system uses a combination of rail, bus and other modes. It is critical that the main backbone of a public transport network has the capacity to efficiently move large amounts of people. Trains are the best mode for an efficient, cost effective mass transit system. Buses play an important supporting role and can provide access to suburban areas that are not serviced by rail. However, as Currie (2005) notes, “[in] general international evidence suggests passengers prefer trains to bus, with all other things being equal” (p. 17).
In the Newcastle context, buses are not as accessible as trains for people accessing the recreation facilities along the foreshore, Foreshore Park, Nobbys beach, Fort Scratchley and Newcastle beach. Specifically, transporting luggage and surf craft on the bus is more difficult than by train.
Bus/rail interchanges require suitable area of land for facilities and accessibility. Construction of bus/rail interchange is costly and requires the identification and purchase of a suitable parcel of land, which is accessible to passengers and existing road infrastructure. Bus and train timetables should be integrated and co-ordinated to ensure that passengers are not waiting for long periods of time for connecting services at the interchange.
If a decision is made to remove the rail line into the Newcastle City Centre two options regarding buses have been put forward: provision of bus services along Hunter Street or bus services along the rail corridor. The positives and negatives of each option are outlined below.
Provision of bus services on Hunter Street is the less costly of the two options. However, using buses along Hunter Street to transport more people would likely cause greater delays than those currently experienced using the train. The existing traffic intersections and volume of vehicles using Hunter Street would translate into a greater travel time for commuters.
The PB report envisages that passengers would transfer between trains and buses at the new Wickham terminal by walking between the terminal and bus stops on Hunter Street. For buses travelling west, this involves crossing Hunter Street, and for buses using Stewart Avenue south of Hunter Street, this involves crossing Stewart Avenue as well. This does not constitute an ‘improved’ public transport service’.
For travel east of Wickham, the PB report states that minibuses will meet each train. It is not clear why minibuses would be used to meet trains that can carry up to 200 passengers, and even more at peak times and on sunny Sundays. These high patronage numbers would be achieved throughout the day if the University establishes its Civic Campus.
The PB report quotes comparative travel times by car, bus and train between Wickham and Newcastle. The times quoted are fallacious and misleading.
• Car - 5 minutes - an average of 5 trips measured in 2007. In peak times, especially travelling westward in the afternoon, car trips normally take about 8 minutes.
• Bus - 6 minutes - the time quoted is for eastbound trips in the early morning and in the evening. During the day, buses take 8 minutes eastbound and 10 minutes westbound.
• Train - 6 minutes - the time quoted includes “2 minutes of dwell time as per schedule”. No such dwell time schedule exists, and the actual running time in the CityRail timetables between Wickham and Newcastle is 4 minutes. CityRail allows 6 minutes for trains to travel between Hamilton (1.3km west of Wickham) and Newcastle at an average speed of 35km/h, including station stops.
The option to run buses along the rail corridor is more expensive and would require rail infrastructure to be removed and the construction of new pavement. Depending on activation of the corridor, there would be associated security and safety concerns in relation to lack of passive surveillance. This proposal also raises the issues of right of way at existing intersections along the transport corridor. Connectivity and accessibility issues between City Centre and harbour foreshore would still remain.
There are also a number of issues that need to be addressed prior to buses being considered a suitable alternative to replace trains through Newcastle City Centre. These include timetabling, bus size, ticketing and fares.
Development of memory timetables (e.g. bus leaves on each route at half past every hour and on the hour) and integrated schedules for different modes at interchanges are considered essential. It is also essential to allocate adequate time within the timetable to ensure that buses run on time.
Problems occur at interchanges when trains run late, or when buses are delayed in traffic and cannot reach the interchange before the train departs. Buses on route services cannot wait for a late train more than a few minutes because of its on-time commitments and possible connections further along the route. In the case of the proposed Wickham interchange, the bus driver at the stop in Hunter Street would not be able to see or know whether a connecting train has arrived on time.
The PB report proposes that minibuses with capacity for luggage and surfboards will meet each train. This does not leave much room for passenger seats – hence many passengers will be forced to stand. This is not an improvement to public transport.
While it is easy in a report (such as the PB report) to state that there will be a shuttle bus waiting for each train, the operational logistics of this are impossible to guarantee.
• If a full train arrives (eg from Maitland), it would take up the capacity of the shuttle bus(es), and if another train arrives from the Central Coast Line a few minutes later, there may be no shuttle buses left to carry the passengers.
• These passengers would then be forced to walk to Hunter Street and catch the next normal route bus travelling into Newcastle. At certain times of the day, especially if the University Campus is established at Civic, these buses would be full, with little capacity to take extra passengers at Wickham.
• A much bigger problem, which the PB report does not address, is getting the shuttle buses travelling westward to arrive in time for departing trains. The shuttle buses would operate in a loop from Wickham to Newcastle East and back to Wickham. If they wait at Wickham for a late-running train arrival, or if they are delayed in traffic, they may not arrive back at Wickham in time for the scheduled connection with a departing train.
• Passengers may then have a 30 or 60 minutes wait for the next train – or even longer if they intended to catch the infrequent trains to Muswellbrook and Dungog.
• Even if the shuttle bus departs on time and runs around the loop route according to the timetable, there is no guarantee that it will arrive back at Wickham just in time to connect with a departing train. Passengers transferring from the shuttle bus to a train may have very tight connection times or long waiting times.
• It is for these reasons that a terminal at Wickham, as proposed in the PB report, is uneconomic, inefficient, unreliable and unacceptable.
Buses should be sized according to route and anticipated patronage. For example, a smaller bus (22 seats) may be more suitable for local catchment round trips while a larger bus (44 seats) is required for high patronage routes that service major destinations. Analysis of bus size on different routes needs to occur as a one size fits all approach will often not meet the requirements of passengers. Bus comforts including areas for prams, bikes, passengers with a disability and luggage (e.g. surfboards) are also matters that need to be considered when determining bus size and type.
The Hunter Region needs a transport hub for interchange between trains, long distance coaches and regional buses. It is from this hub, for example, that dedicated public transport services would operate to and from Newcastle Airport. A suitable location for this hub is at Hamilton Station, where there is room on both sides for the station for bus and coach stops. Passengers can easily cross the rail lines at the safe Beaumont Street crossing without the need for steps or lifts.
The PB report proposes that these hub functions would occur at the proposed Wickham interchange. However, it is not necessary for a new terminal station to be built for this purpose when the facilities could be readily provided at Hamilton.
It is of vital importance that a regional public transport system is supported by integrated ticketing. The ability to purchase and use the same ticket (whether time or zone based) on different modes of public transport (train, bus, ferry) greatly increases the accessibility, acceptability and patronage of a public transport network.
The PB report does not address integrated ticketing issues. This would be essential if the Wickham interchange proposal is going to provide ‘integrated transport in the region’ as outlined in the Study Brief.
In order to make public transport more attractive, it makes sense to use, encourage and promote train travel in the Lower Hunter where it exists, and to use the bus resources more effectively to provide attractive feeder services.
It is also considered that the opportunities for improvement to the existing network through better co-ordination, ticketing and promotion be assessed and trialled before major structural changes are considered.
The PB report proposes that the existing rail corridor be retained for eventual re-use for a transit system in perhaps 25 years time. In the meantime, it would be used as open space, as a pedestrian and cycle way, for parking, and to facilitate development on land adjacent to the corridor.
None of these proposed uses justify closing the line, the cost of building a new interchange terminal, and the inconvenience that this would cause to the dominant travel patterns in and out of the city, especially when the Civic Campus of the University is established.
All of the current inconveniences associated with the rail corridor can be readily overcome with the provision of additional crossings in accord with established safety standards, and with the adoption of more practical protocols for level crossing delays, as apply satisfactorily in similar situations elsewhere in Australia.
The best way to solve parking problems in the City Centre (and traffic congestion at the same time) is to provide facilities for vehicles to be parked as secure park-n-ride stations in the suburbs, with access to the City Centre being provided on upgraded and high frequency rail and bus services. This will only work successfully if rail services (of whatever type) are retained through the City Centre.
Should the rail line be terminated, improvements in the whole public transport network would need to be of such a magnitude as to more than offset the decline in patronage inevitably created by the establishment of an interchange and associated change in transport mode. The Newcastle road system will progressively congest over time. Government has an obligation to plan for alternatives to the private motor vehicle and to finance the public transport system commensurate with its wider social and economic benefits.
APPENDIX A - HUNTER DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION STUDIES
Hunter Development Corporation appointed a consultant to analyse several options regarding the future of the rail line and public transport. By the very nature of the Lower Hunter public transport system any analysis of options regarding the rail line to the Newcastle City Centre should have considered regional implications. Any consultation with the community needed to include residents of all Lower Hunter local government areas, not just the Newcastle local government area. The State Government released the consultant’s report in May 2009. The options considered by the Hunter Development Corporation and the consultancy brief were:
Retention of the heavy rail along its current alignment - This option could also include increased pedestrian and vehicular crossing of the line north south; improvement of rail crossings; landscaping of the corridor; changed timetabling and scheduling; and the introduction of a circulating mini bus system from train stations to other City Centre and surround locations.
Termination of the heavy rail east of Stewart Avenue and replacement with an alternative public transport system based on low emission buses/other suitable alternative - This option could also include: retention of a significant part of the corridor in public ownership; landscaping and treatment of the corridor to allow buses, pedestrians and cyclists; increased pedestrian and vehicular crossing of the line north south; construction of a user friendly interchange at the rail terminus; and the introduction of a circulating bus/other suitable alternative system from train stations to other City Centre and surround locations.
Termination of the heavy rail west of Stewart Avenue and replacement with an alternative public transport system based on low emission buses/other suitable option - This option could also include: retention of a significant part of the corridor in public ownership; landscaping and treatment of the corridor to allow buses/other suitable option, pedestrians and cyclists; increased pedestrian and vehicular crossing of the line north south; construction of a user friendly interchange at the rail terminus; introduction of a circulating bus/other suitable alternative system from train stations to other City Centre and surround locations; re-routing of north south traffic from Stewart Avenue to Gordon Avenue and the Bullock Island route.
Retention of the heavy rail track with the substitution of conventional heavy rail with a tram train - This option could include: termination of all heavy vehicles outside the City Centre (west of Wickham) and hybrid tram trains from Morisset and Maitland to Newcastle and from the heavy terminus to Newcastle Station; landscaping of the corridor; increased north south pedestrian and vehicular crossings and the introduction of an expanded tram train route to the City Centre and surrounds or a connecting bus network from the tram train stations to the City Centre and surrounds.
Reconstructing the rail line underground from Wickham to Newcastle - This option could also include the removal of rail infrastructure above ground; landscaping; construction of pedestrian and vehicular links north south from Hunter Street to Honeysuckle Drive; options for development at grade above the rail line.
Reconstructing the heavy rail line as an elevated structure above ground allowing vehicle and pedestrian movement under the structure - This option could also include: construction of new stations with mobility impaired access; landscaping; and construction of pedestrian and vehicular links north south from Hunter Street to Honeysuckle Drive.
Although these options are comprehensive, there is another option which could be considered:
Retention of the heavy rail track to Newcastle - Allow development in the air space above the rail line and provide increased connectivity between the City Centre and foreshore by retaining pedestrian access and view corridors along existing streets; install pedestrian bridges over the rail line at Bolton Street, Newcomen Street, Wolfe Street, Perkins Street, Brown Street, Darby Street. There are many examples of retail and commercial development over train lines e.g. Chatswood, St Leonards, North Sydney and Hurstville.
APPENDIX B - LOWER HUNTER TRANSPORT PLAN
A comprehensive transport study of the Lower Hunter was undertaken in 1995 by the then Department of Transport, however, it was not followed by an agreed action plan. Rather than giving consideration to a series of ad-hoc proposals, Lower Hunter Councils have repeatedly called on the State Government to undertake preparation of an integrated transport plan for the Lower Hunter, informed by comprehensive modelling. Decisions regarding major changes to infrastructure should be made in this context. The Plan would ideally cover roads, freight, public transport, travel demand management (including travel behaviour change) and pathways. The transport plan should be based on both current and future demand. It would need to consider fringe growth, suburban centres, urban consolidation and the growth of the City having regard to the Lower Hunter Regional Strategy and the Newcastle City Centre Plan.
It is envisaged that the Lower Hunter Transport Plan would:
be based on results of comprehensive modelling, covering an analysis of the current transport task and existing patterns of use;
clearly state objectives and cover such areas as integration of land use and transport, promotion of health benefits of alternative forms of transport, equity, economic development, environment, reduction in vehicle kilometres travelled, improving the quality of public transport, safety, etc.;
build on the issues identified in Council policies and community consultation processes already in place;
set transport targets for the Lower Hunter Region (Note: Newcastle City Council supports a 20% modal share to public transport);
examine the transport systems that would be appropriate for the Lower Hunter Region and which would enable the targets to be reached;
be based on modal integration;
identify the appropriate management and funding arrangements;
identify trends that will influence changes in transport needs (eg aging population);
cover the five Lower Hunter Council local government areas and connections to north, west and south.
Accurate modelling and preparation of a regional transport strategy should be completed in conjunction with local Councils, prior to decisions about significant changes to public transport infrastructure, such as the heavy rail line to the Newcastle City Centre.