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Why trams on Sydney’s booming inner west light rail aren’t running more often

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2017
Commuters wondering why trams aren’t running more frequently on Sydney’s inner west light rail line during peak hours despite a boom in passengers can now blame “capacity constraints”. Internal government documents obtained by Fairfax Media show constraints such as “power supply, stabling facilities, single track near Dulwich Hill and fleet size” are limiting a significant increase in services on the line from Central Station to Dulwich Hill during the morning peak, when overcrowding is at its worst.

Of an extra 95 weekly services announced last week by the state government, fewer than a third will run during the morning peak hours of 7am to 10am. The rest will operate during the “inter-peak” period of 10am to 3pm, and at weekends.

Patronage growth on the line from Central Station to Dulwich Hill has been “exceeding all expectations” of transport planners.

And it is set to accelerate over the next few years as thousands of new residents move into high-density apartment complexes along the light-rail corridor.

A “sensitive” briefing document for Transport Minster Andrew Constance last year warned significant development along the line would “continue to influence patronage growth and crowding levels at commuter and leisure peak times across the week”.

About 2300 new dwellings have been built or are under construction at Harold Park, Lewisham, Summer Hill and Dulwich Hill, while a further 2400 are set to be erected at the Darling Square precinct near Paddy’s Market in Haymarket.

The documents obtained under freedom-of-information laws show greater frequency of trams is limited by the fact that the fleet of 12 light rail vehicles means the maximum is one service every eight minutes during peak hours.

They reveal Transport for NSW has been considering buying more light rail vehicles for well over a year but note the long lead time of 21 months between ordering them from a manufacturer and pressing them into service on the inner west line.

“After the first vehicle, further vehicles can be delivered in groups or separately, but will typically be delivered one or two at a time, in monthly cycles,” the documents say.

The eight-minute frequency of services also cannot be reduced unless an additional section of track is laid near Dulwich Hill. However, the documents say “this would not be a constraint” if shuttle services ran between Central Station and Lilyfield.

They also outlined Transport for NSW’s plans for a “capacity study” and a “scoping exercise” late last year, which was to be followed by “a strategic business case … outlining the options including procurement of additional capacity”.

“The capacity study will also review the infrastructure constraints including but not limited to Dulwich Hill configuration, infrastructure, stabling capacity, power, signalling, maintenance facilities and associated costs,” they say.

“[It] will identify the operations and maintenance which is currently unfunded.”

Transport for NSW has refused to release more recent documents under freedom-of-information laws, which would give a better insight into its longer term plans to cope with the surge in demand.

They include a “strategic business case demand analysis” in April, and a draft “patronage modelling and capacity improvement study-cost estimate report” a month later.

A spokeswoman for Transport for NSW said it was “investigating a range of short and long-term improvements” to allow the introduction of new services on the line.

“In order to meet longer term customer demand and support land-use growth, we will need to invest in more vehicles and supporting infrastructure such as signalling and depot facilities,” she said.

The line carried about 4 million passengers a year before a 5.6-kilometre extension to Dulwich Hill was opened in early 2014. In contrast, the latest government data shows almost 10 million trips were made on the line in the past 12 months.