Saturday, 15 October 2016

A Surprise visit to Sydney and some Transit Oriented Tourism.

The weekend 29 Sept - 2 Oct was a long weekend in Melbourne.  It is a new public holiday to commemorate the Australian Rules Football Grand Final.  It's a weird reason for a day off, but it makes a lot more sense than the Queen's Birthday public holiday (which falls on a day that is not the Queen's Birthday)  We took the opportunity for a last minute trip to Sydney.

It was a strange holiday for a strange long weekend.  My holiday became an urbanist site inspection, a tour of Sydney's suburbs where the public transport network and the places it linked were the major attraction. Armed with an Opal Card (available for free + transit credit from Sydney airport and a copy of the Opal Travel App we had become "Transit Oriented Tourists", looking at what works and what doesn't on the Sydney network and asking whether there were lessons for Melbourne.

Airport Rail
Our first journey was a ride on the airport rail link.   Sydney Domestic railway station was fancy. Located almost directly underneath the airport luggage pick up area and well promoted, the station was conveniently located and easy to find.  The entrance area was spacious and included  with staffed ticket booths and detailed information boards on the left, OPAL recharge stations on the right and gates to the platform ahead.  This ticketing area design provides detailed information for those travellers who need Sydney's transport network and ticketing system explained to them whilst providing an express route for those who know the system and just need to add travel credit before boading. Below the ticketing area are the train platforms, constructed wide to provide the space for crowds of people and their baggage to move around.  On each platform recorded announcements and information screens tell you when the next train is coming and where it will stop.  The stations make a statement and it its "This city is serious about transit".

However, premium service comes at a price.  The $16 per person Domestic to Central rail link trip costs the same as an OPAL adult daily fare ($15).  A adult daily fare provides all day travel on all transport modes to every transit stop in Sydney (except, of course the airport).   At 6km, the airport rail link trip is short - and for many airport passengers - e.g. family groups and people living in Sydney's inner west a taxi trip will be cheaper.  Sydney has built an airport rail link that is schmick but doesn't compete well against car based alternatives.

Chatswood Station - reflections on elevated rail
The Victorian State Government is currently undertaking a major project to physically seperate road from rail at 50 intersections.  Its a big job and there is more than a little community angst about the potential impact of the changes. Options involving elevated rail have proven controversial with some residents living next to the railway deeply opposed and the the rest of the community non-committal or supportive.

Proponents of elevated rail argue that it is cheaper (mostly because most of the construction work can be done off site, then craned into position) and less disruptive to existing services (again because most of the work is done off site) - allowing the project to seperate more intersections in their time and money budget.  They also note that once construction is complete the ground level land can be repurposed for parks, shops or additional parking at railway stations.  They point to existing elevated rail stations like Glenferrie (constructed 1882) to argue that elevated rail can be an attractive part of Melbourne's urban fabric and a integral part of vibrant shopping precincts.

Opponents of elevated rail argue that the clearances required to continue operation during the construction phase (well above the existing electrified railway power supply) makes elevated rail structures proposed by this Government large, visually obtrusive and a likely target for graffiti.  They are concerned that the usual noises of train operation (including early morning and late night) will be more prominent if the noise source is elevated.  Their protest pages feature images of derelict spaces under freeway viaducts and their petitions express the fear that this project is more concerned with getting project completed cheaply than consulting with people to create local places that work.

With this debate in mind, I went to Chatswood to a recently constructed (completed in 2008) elevated rail transport interchange.   I liked what I saw,   The design included the reinforced concrete poles typical of modern transport viaducts,  stuff that is strong, cheap and a better point of comparison than the rivited iron viaducts of Glenferrie station.  It looked OK.  The design incorporates a ground level bus interchange and they've made a reasonable effort to retain some of the original railway buildings as a nod to heritage.

Chatswood Station: elevated rail, with bus terminal under rail - retaining and repurposing the original railway station building.
Again the station exit is well designed.  The platform escalators empty onto a walkway space with options to exit to shops lining either side of the tracks.  The under station space has coffee shops and other retail and the the walkways along the track are covered.  It feels a little too clean and new for my tastes and overall it felt like walking off a train into a shopping mall.  (My photos even look like some architect's rendering) Overall the space it works.   If our elevated rail projects can incorporate the best bits of Chatswood then we'd be doing well.

Chatswood Station: Station exit below rail, with retail at exit level and housing above.

Chatswood Station: View from street level

Final Thoughts
Twitter activist @noskyfail points out that Chatswood 'is no sky rail'.  Sydney is hilly.  'Ground level' can change from block to block.  Chatswood station takes advantage of these changes of elevation to limit the visibility of the station buildings.  For those that oppose Melbourne's elevated rail because the structures be highly visible (and in their opinion, ugly) the Chatswood example doesn't apply to the Melbourne elevated rail debate.

I think there are some valuable things to learn from the Chatswood example.  Chatswood is recent, uses contemporary construction techniques and provides an example of what is possible with thoughtful elevated rail designs. However, it also shows us the limitations of the current concept designs and 'reference drawings' that are informing the Melbourne level crossing removal debate.  We can do better than what's being proposed. We need to be wary of the tendency of all major projects to define good urban design features as "out of scope" of their heavy engineering project.  This is important because we'll be living with the outcome, both the improvements to road and rail network operations and the places left behind when the building works are finished.

There are lessens too from the Sydney Airport Rail Link.  Sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good.  If our efforts are focused on making the perfect completely unobtrusive rail service we might end up creating something that is so expensive that it doesn't work as intended.  

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