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Has Sydney’s existing airport train found its Waterloo?

Crikey, 16 September 2016
A solution to the technical dilemmas posed by a southerly extension of the NW Metro project may be found by running it through the already planned new inner South Sydney station at Waterloo, and then onto Green Square, taking over the existing Sydney Airport rail link.

It’s an opportunity that leaps off the page in this report in the Sydney Morning Herald, which doesn’t provide any detail as to what linkage might be made with the NW Metro and an Airport Metro.

The concept of metronising the existing airport rail service has emerged as an aside in an options paper prepared by the state and federal governments for rail links to the all new second Sydney jet airport to be built at Badgerys Creek by 2025.

The current intention for the southern extension of the NW Metro, once it is run under Sydney Harbour and then through the CBD, is for it to serve a new station at Waterloo immediately south of Central and continue to new platforms at Sydenham from where it would surface and take over the Bankstown line.

This involves rebuilding the Bankstown line stations to eliminate curved platforms considered incompatible with the curtain wall platform/train divide which is an essential feature of the high capacity driverless single deck trainsets.

But all of the deep level Airport Link stations, which currently carry heavy rail duplex trainsets on the longer distance services through the East Hills stations and on to Campbelltown and Macarthur, have straight platforms and could be readily adapted at much less cost than the Bankstown option.

The proposal is for an airport shuttle metro to terminate in the nearer SW suburb of Revesby, although there is no mention in the SMH report as to where the CBD end of the line would terminate, although the existing surface platforms the Airport Link uses at Central station would be impracticable for such a role, as they are shared with City Circle traffic.

There is however an existing space for ghost underground platforms directly above Central’s Eastern Suburbs deep level platforms which like similar unused platform space at Redfern were provided for in JJ Bradfield’s original early 20th century plan for a Southern Suburbs Line extending as far as Botany Bay.

As the SMH story underlines, removing the Airport Link services from the conventional metropolitan railway network would free up badly needed capacity for more regular suburban trains.

Such a move would address some of the criticism of the NW Metro for being the wrong format for long distance commuting from the Hills district to the Sydney CBD because of the emphasis on standing passengers, and the discomfort this could cause to a rapidly aging population.

The fact that Sydney’s third harbour rail crossing (the second was lost to the Cahill Expressway lanes on the Harbour Bridge last century) is being built too small to take double decker heavy rail services has also been criticised. The reduced dimensions of the tunnels between Chatswood and Barangaroo under the harbour would deprive them of the versatility to take the largest suburban rail cars in service today through a new harbour rail crossing in a metropolitan area forecast to be approaching eight million people in the middle of this century.

However, the need to shift large numbers of air travellers, and their luggage, and airport related workers, into and out of its terminals, as well as from the already booming new inner city suburbs of Green Square and Waterloo, would fit exceptionally well with the operational characteristics of a high frequency single decker metro service.

Sydney Airport is going to be very busy no matter when the greater metropolitan area’s second large jet airport opens. Sydney West’s rail needs will also be the needs of more than a million people in new suburbs, campuses and business districts in its immediate vicinity. Choosing among the various options proposed for Sydney West may come down more to the benefits that could be delivered to western metropolitan residents than the somewhat rarified notion that air travellers starting or finishing their trips in eastern Sydney would fight their way through congested roads and rail services to join an expensive high speed rail link from the CBD to the western airport rather than make a short trip to the existing airport.

If the NW Metro takes over the current Airport Rail link it will probably kill the enormously costly high speed rail to Badgerys Creek notion stone dead, making the cheaper options of just linking the Badgerys Creek site to the adjacent SW and W rail lines much more attractive.

There is going to be much to argue about over Sydney’s two airport rail links in coming years.

Has Sydney’s existing airport train found its Waterloo?