Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sydney versus Melbourne

A trip to Sydney last weekend allowed me to compare public transport and land use between it and Melbourne. Sydney does better than us in some things and worse than us in others. Below are the top fourteen differences found between the two cities' transport.

Seven things Sydney does well

1. Co-locating major shopping centres near railway stations

Major examples visited include Blacktown, Chatswood, Hornsby, Macarthur, Macquarie Centre and Parramatta. These centres are either incorporated in the station complex (Blacktown, Parramatta) or accessible via a short, wide mall (Chatswood, Hornsby).

Melbourne's best example of a station integrated shopping centre is Box Hill. Greensborough, Frankston, Ringwood (Eastland) and Sydenham (Watergardens) are adjacent to but are less integrated with the station. More common though are our larger centres, such as Chadstone, Craigieburn Town Centre (proposed), Cranbourne, Forest Hill Chase, Northland, Southland and Werribee Plaza which are all away from stations.

2. Density of residential and commercial development around some suburban stations

Much higher suburban densities apply in Sydney than Melbourne, with multi-storey buildings seen at stations 20km or more from the CBD. Parramatta is a key example, having evolved as a second CBD, being handier to the western suburbs than Sydney CBD.

The pictures show development around Chatswood and Milsons Point respectively.

It is worth mentioning though that some centres are highly unbalanced and contain high density retail but not shopping or offices of a commensurate standard. An example is Epping, which should have better shops for its housing density. In this case the development of the car-based Macquarie Centre (now linked by rail) might have affected Epping's viability.

3. Wide operating spans

A plus for Sydney, with the difference most apparent on Sunday mornings for trains. This is because Sydney operates a passenger-friendly uniform weekend timetable, with no variations between Saturday and Sunday timetables. The effect of this is that first trains have arrived in the Sydney CBD by 6am versus after 8am for Melbourne.

The other main examples of good spans are (i) All-night NightRide buses that operates all nights of the week, mirroring the suburban train network, (ii) 24 hour service on some busy State Transit routes and (iii) 24 hour service on the Light Rail.

Countering this are spans for some outer suburban bus routes, which can be more restrictive than Melbourne since we introduced 7 days/9pm service to many of ours.

4. Wayfinding signage, maps and bus route directories at stations

This is done effectively, as shown in the examples below (Blacktown and Macquarie University Stations).

5. Maps in printed timetables

These are of high quality, at least in STA printed timetables. Metrolink bus stops have similar maps.

6. Physical interchange between train and bus

Often you don't even need to cross roads, and, as this example from Lindfield shows, there is sometimes even direct access from the platform.

7. A more versatile and legible City Loop

Trains operate in both directions and there is no midday reversal or different weekend operating patterns. This makes it better for within-CBD trips than ours; a major advantage for them given their lack of our tram grid network.

Seven things Sydney does less well

1. Fares and ticketing

A lack of integrated fares and confusing ticket types was the most important failing observed during the trip. While it maintains a bureaucracy to write 200-page reports about the most trivial of fare rises, the NSW Government lacks the will and ability to fix a problem that other cities like Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne solved more than 25 years ago. Apart from inconveniencing passengers, the absence of a proper city-wide fare system has also led to the abandonment of the partially-installed 'T-card' smart card project (Card reader at Lindfield Station below).

If you transfer between train and bus you will likely need to pay another fare. If you need to break your journey you'll also pay as tickets are good for a single ride and not a time period, as in Melbourne. Certain railway stations, being privately built, attract special surcharges that range from the merely annoying to the rather steep.

Sydney does not have a fare system as such. Rather there are multiple systems for train, airport train, State Transit bus, private bus, T-way, light rail, ferry, monorail etc. There are many different ticket types but each one doesn't do very much. It probably doesn't matter if you make the same trip each way and do not change modes or break your journey, but otherwise travel can be very expensive indeed. Tourists get even more confused, and have to work out the best deal from the pile of fares brochures pictured below.

In contrast, because of its integrated fare system, Melbourne provides all its fare information in a single simple brochure and the best choice for tourists (Daily ticket, usually Zone 1 only) is (a) clear, (b) versatile, (c) widely obtainable, and (d) good value for money.

2. Base frequency of trains

Off-peak Cityrail services commonly operate every 30 minutes (though exceptions exist). Because most major stations get trains on two or more lines, this generally means they receive four trains per hour. However many of the smaller stations on one line or bypassed by expresses only get two trains per hour.

This service level is similar to Adelaide or Brisbane (weekday off-peaks), somewhat inferior to most of Melbourne 3 or 4 trains per hour, and greatly inferior to Perth (4 trains per hour). The capital (and labour) intensive Cityrail network cannot be automatically be associated with a 'turn up and go' frequent service (like a European subway, or even Perth trains during the day) and passengers are more reliant on timetables and journey planning than they should be.

While the flip side of infrequency can be faster service at major stations due to off-peak express running, my own view is that this is only justified once service frequencies are already high (eg 10 - 15 minutes). If this cannot be achieved then my preference is for the Melbourne pattern, ie few off-peak expresses but giving all stations a somewhat higher base frequency.

3. Frequency and spans of some bus services (particularly private)

To be fair limited frequency and span is not unique to Sydney and can be found in suburbs of any Australian city. Also noted was a marked difference between the service on the Parramatta - Liverpool T-Way (wide span and reasonable frequencies) to the lesser offerings available on the T-Way to Rouse Hill. The example below is better than many, but still includes some non-clockface running that may not consistently connect with trains.

4. Information at many bus stops, especially a lack of maps

Even some heavily patronised State Transit stops (eg Sydney Airport) have extremely rudimentary information. Sometimes the only information provided is route number, final destination and times, with details of intermediate stops and maps missing. This contrasts with the maps contained in printed timetables which were praised above.

5. Lack of differentiation of premium and regular bus routes

Again not unique to Sydney, with Adelaide (Go-Zones) and Brisbane (BUZ) showing the way forward. And to be fair it should be pointed out that more Sydney Bus routes offer high service than usual in other cities, so the State Transit name might already be associated with good hours and frequency (much like trams are in Melbourne).

The new Route 10 'Metrobus' service between Kingsford Smith and Leichardt (via the CBD) was particularly puzzling. It is marketed as a frequent premium service for which a timetable is not required (and is not provided at stops or in leaflet form). Service frequency is 10 minutes peak, 15 minutes off-peak and 20 minutes weekend. Buses are air-conditioned and low-floor and all stops have route maps.

This could almost qualify as a premium service except for two things. Firstly the 9pm finishing time is earlier than all the 'regular' routes around Leichardt, which combine to provide a very high quality service until midnight or later. Secondly the 20 minute weekend service frequency does not really qualify as 'turn up and go' and unless services are very frequent a full timetable should have been provided. As it is the combined timetables at stops include all routes except 10. There is also a consistency issue; other regular State Transit routes offer more frequent service but these (correctly) still have printed timetables.

6. Legibilty of bus network in the CBD

Admittedly this suffers when compared to Melbourne trams, which together with their frequent service and the grid street layout, provide the 'gold standard' unlikely to be equalled elsewhere.

Central Sydney is less planned and has a larger number of distinct bus routes versus Melbourne's fewer, and apparently straighter trams. There dominant feature appears to be a 'spine' up George Street with a number of interchanges around the city (eg Railway Square & Circular Quay). Some overall 'network' information at stops would be nice, although to relieve crowding it might be thought better if people making short CBD trips walked instead.

7. Vandalised trains

No pictures will be published, but there was more evidence of external tagging (and even murals) than in Melbourne. Train insides were also dirtier and likely to be graffitied. The ability to see out of train windows is limited, though scratching is less than in Perth. Limited visibility within double-decks, with their split-level design and poor communication between carriages (compared to our Siemens) might increase vandalism opportunities and lower perceived safety. On the credit side though, Melbourne is the nation's capital for lineside graffiti, and Sydney was cleaner in this regard.

Other observations

Noticed in Sydney was much higher (over?)staffing on the rail system. For example most stations were staffed and there were more in each station. Trains still have guards. Transit officers were sometimes seen at stations but never on trains travelled on. Neither were tickets checked.

DDA access in Sydney has yet to catch up to Melbourne, where all but one stations are accessible. However where access was provided this was commonly through lifts (which has staffing implications). Also, unlike Melbourne, many suburban stations have been rebuilt and modernised. This indicates that like Perth, Sydney prefers to knock things down, whereas Melbourne will mostly retain. Similar observations apply to the CBD, where Melbourne retained more of its built heritage than Sydney, and espedially Perth, where any building over 40 years old is a rarity.

The other consequence of this cultural difference is whereas Melbourne will leave a rail based shopping strip alone to lose status and gracefully decline (as shoppers flock to the greenfields car-based mall two kilometres away), Sydney is more inclined to demolish an existing rail-based strip and build a Westfield right there. The Melbourne approach works where there is a robust strip shopping tradition and to preserve heritage, but risks building 'two cities' and entrenching car-dependence as the mismatch between the location of major nodes and the rail system widens. In contrast, Sydney's 'knock down and co-locate' recipe, though it lacks the 'character' of our successful strips like Chapel Street, Puckle Street or Glenferrie Road, represents better transport/land use planning and is preferred in outer areas where existing shopping strips are weak, in decline and can't be saved.

While the same buckled signal cable housings seen in Melbourne was also seen in Sydney, the track in Sydney was of better quality, due to their higher use of concrete sleepers. The times when track work is done is no mystery either, with many line occupations on weekends. My first train trip in Melbourne after returning felt like flying with mild turbulence. Thanks to their long-standing program to eliminate them, level crossings are rare in Sydney but remain widespread in Melbourne.

The trip was a success and many things were seen that are not described above. Thanks to Scott & Damo for their ideas and guidance before and during it.


Andrew said...

Some work went into this post Peter. Thanks, very interesting.

Unknown said...

I'm glad you enjoyed your trip.

What Sydney does well, is its heirarchy of "CBD-style areas".

1. Main CBD - Sydney
2. Second CBD - North Sydney (half the size of Sydney)
3. Large Suburban CBDs - Parramatta, Chatswood, Bondi Junction, etc... (half the size of North Sydney)
4. Smaller Suburban CBDs - St Leonards, etc... (half size of Parramatta etc...)

And also the large business park at Macquarie Park can't go without a mention.

Vic Rail (Riccardo) said...

Excellent post and you've picked up all the major differences. At the risk of descending into trivia, some further comments:

-rail services are 'layered' sometimes up to 5 layers on one route. For example, all to Strathfield, all from there to Granville, all from there to Blacktown, all from there to Penrith, and then the Blue Mountains. You would not see the ridiculous situation of all to Pakenham, except maybe 2am on a Sunday!

-you haven't mentioned that Cityrail is operated and marketed as a mega urban/interurban/exurban/
intercity system. That has some implications for how it deals with fares, timetabling and customer expectations of services, as well as how services are layered.

-until a timetable change a few years ago (a result of the chaos) Sydney train times and cruising speeds generally much better than Melbourne. Line speeds on straights of 100-115 and 130 not unknown. Speeds are still there, but with cautious timetable padding no takes ages to get anywhere. cf Melbourne with 80km max on most routes, but better timetables

-Sydney is physically a bigger system (though fewer routes). Melbourne really only has Pakenham at the ultra long distance. Sydney has at least Penrith, Campbelltown and Richmond.

-Sydney has a system of alternative routes - while Melbourne has only Laverton via 2 directions. Hornsby now has three potential ways of reaching it, Glenfield has countless. All locations within a zone between Hornsby, Granville, Glenfield and Wolli Creek have a minimum of 2 possible ways of reaching each other place within that zone.

-Sydney's embankments and rail corridors are generally more 'substantial' than Melbournes. You do not get that feeling of running in and around suburban houses as much, you are much more separated from the surrounding landscape. I suspect this is a factor in lifts versus ramps - stations like Hughesdale or Ringwood East have a simple ramp down to a level crossing. In Sydney the level crossing is verboten hence the lift and stairs.

-still plenty of freight in evidence around Sydney, almost gone from Melbourne now outside the standard gauge network. This is a mixed blessing of course, Sydney still has plenty of conflict between them

-obvious evidence of considerable spending over the years on rail, notwithstanding the complaints. Sydney has in 30 years finished the Eastern Suburbs Railway, the East Hills Glenfield line, the Airport line and now the Epping to Chatswood line. Melbourne has done only 2 - the City Loop and the Westona (crazy!) line.

-while there is some evidence that double deckers are poor loaders and have excessive dwell time, fact is, an 8 or 10-car double deck on a long commuter route holds far more people than a Melbourne train ever will.

-the overstaffing is clear evidence of an unwillingness to tackle the unions, as Kennett did (and they overplayed their hand in that case). The ticket fiasco sounds like interagency turf warfare, however.

-Agree re urban planning. For outer suburbs, having big shopping centres on the rail line like Macarthur or Hornsby makes sense compared with the residual street shopping. Sydney seems to have set up a dynamic where Frank Lowy and Westfield speak in favour of urban consolidation around their big urban centres, while their competitors eg Wesfarmers try to undermine the policy, without as much success.

-You can smell the corruption in Sydney. In Melbourne it probably isn't as bad - do as the Bible says, and judge them by their 'fruits' - in other words, the regulatory burdens are probably the same, but the more extensive development in Sydney is a sign that the developers are paying the pollies and getting what they want.