How to make Sydney trains run on time

8 November 2016
One destination per platform could ease congestion

The NSW Transport Minister wants to do away with timetables and trial on-demand public transport, but there's another solution, writes Associate Professor Pablo Guillen Alvarez.

NSW train at station

Sydney Metro is designed for a maximum capacity of 43,000 passengers per hour per direction. Image: Jason Antony/Wikimedia Commons


Transport Minister Andrew Constance wants to do away with timetables. A trial of on-demand buses, trains and ferries run by the private sector is to be rolled out next year.

I scratch my head at this. 

An on-demand bus, in Manila, is called a "jeepney", a shared taxi that in NSW will sit up to 12 people. This is the most common form of public transport in many developing countries, where they often look and operate in dodgy and unsafe ways.

Nevertheless, if well-regulated and organised they efficiently cover a public transport niche in places such as Hong Kong. So they should be considered a valuable addition to our public transport landscape. The foreseeable additional spin is that apps and other cool IT technology will allow the new shared taxis to optimise pick-up and drop-off routes so they will be convenient, relatively fast and affordable.

I'm a bit sceptical given the vehicle routing is a hard problem computers cannot chew up. And, well, it is easy to imagine on-demand ferries as shared water taxis.

Room for improvement

Now, what about privately operated, on-demand trains that don't require a timetable? Wow, that really sounds like the science-fiction of automated podcars, right?

There have been some serious, and failed, attempts to develop such systems (search for "cabinentaxi" videos for some retro cool). What Constance must really be talking about is a frequent rail service. So frequent that passengers won't need to care about the timetable. Although there will be one. Turn up, wait a couple of minutes on average, and go.

The privately operated Sydney Metro is expected to run trains every four minutes in peak hours. Although things are getting better in terms of public transport we won't get podcars any time soon.

There is a lot of room for improvement.

Sydney Metro is designed for a maximum capacity of 43,000 passengers per hour per direction, for an eight-car train running every two minutes. That's a lot more than the 18,000 passengers per hour per direction the Sydney Trains western line takes in peak hour. And remember, the Western line is supposed to be running over capacity. Trains are so packed passengers need to wait for the next one.

Things could also greatly improve in Town Hall if, for instance, all trains going through were limited-stop expresses to Emu Plains.
Dr Pablo Guillen Alvarez

One platform, one destination

The problem is Sydney Trains cannot run more trains in the western and other lines because platforms in CBD stations, particularly Town Hall, cannot cope with passenger loads. Take for instance platform two in Town Hall. It deals with trains to Richmond, Emu Plains, Epping and Blacktown, among others. Passengers waiting for a peak-hour train to Richmond are in the way of other passengers waiting for trains to Penrith and Epping. They are also in the way of passengers arriving from Macquarie Park and other northern origins. Such is the congestion at the platform that trains have to wait too long for people to get on and off and therefore cannot be more frequent.

The problem would be solved if there was only one destination per platform. 

This ideal will be achieved in some stations when the Sydney Metro takes over the Bankstown line. It will be possible to run much more frequent services on the airport, inner west and south lines.

Things could also greatly improve in Town Hall if, for instance, all trains going through were limited-stop expresses to Emu Plains. Passengers to other destinations could get off at intermediate major stations to transfer to local services. This way the western line could cater for a lot more passengers. 

If both local and express trains run at two-minute intervals, people would be home earlier, even if they needed to change trains along the way.

Associate Professor Pablo Guillen Alvarez is an economist at the University of Sydney. This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Luke O'Neill

Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)