Engineering, Passenger Rail, Research & Development

Sydney light rail is a wasted $2bn, says former treasurer

Sydney CBD light rail. Artists Impression: Transport for NSW

Former NSW treasurer Michael Egan has labelled the Sydney CBD light rail development a catastrophe waiting to happen, at an upper house inquiry in Sydney this week.

The inquiry was being conducted by the Leasing of Electricity Infrastructure Committee which, as the name suggests, is conducting a series of inquiries to report on the proposed leasing of electricity infrastructure in NSW.

Egan, who was the state’s treasurer between 1995 and 2005, was presenting to the inquiry his views on the potential privatisation of the state’s electricity assets, an issue he described as “very close to [his] heart”.

But the subject matter of the inquiry turned to rail, when Egan was asked how he thought proceeds from privatisation should be spent.

“Not all infrastructure spending is worthwhile,” Egan said.

“If you look at Japan, it has been spending on public works for the last 20 years in the hope of reviving its economy and it has not really worked—it is still crawling along.

“The assets that you purchase or invest in have to be good ones.”

Sydney’s new light rail development, he said, was not a good purchase.

“For example, the proposed light rail to go from George Street to Randwick and Kingsford is going to be a catastrophe not only whilst it is being built but also after it is built,” he opined, “because people are going to have to change their mode of transport twice.

“The light rail trams will carry fewer passengers than the buses do now. So I think it is going to be $2 billion badly spent.”

Some local businesses along the route have expressed concern that the construction work, and the resulting lack of parking spaces, will inhibit their operations.

But other businesses say the result of the light rail project will be a net-gain for the stretch, with the future George Street projected by some to be a bustling pedestrian zone, prime for surrounding business.

Tell us your thoughts below.


  1. Why are you wasting words on this man. He is from a government that was completly inept at doing any sort of decent rail project over the 16 years they were in power. Within 1 term this current government has done more then the previous labor government did in the 4 terms they had.

  2. Most journeys in the public transport systems of Germany or Japan or London all involve interchange and they are better for it. You have more flexibility, better asset utilisation, and most importantly faster journey times because of the interchange. It makes no empirical case for the quality of the system or the service it provides by looking simply at whether it involves a single-seat service or not.

  3. Not all infrastructure is worthwhile, forcing people to make extra mode changes, disruption during construction, including noise and dust, worthwhile assets – I thought Mr Egan was talking about the Newcastle Lightweight Rail project aka The Newcastle Song-Revitalised!

  4. Having just spent a couple of days in Melbourne and witnessed the way the tramway system works down there, all I can say is ‘Bring on light rail’. The sight of trams drifting through Bourke Street Mall and down Swanston Street was a sight for sore eyes after witnessing, for the last fifty years, the parking area that George Street has become. Melbourne’s new trams, the E-class, and Sydney’s Urbos3 light rail vehicles operating on the Dulwich Hill Line, show how far technology has come since the last trams ran in Sydney. Sydney will be the better for this exciting and far-sighted project. Another big tick for the O’Farrell/Baird Government.

  5. I think it’s a fair question to ask, because the project has both upsides and downsides, and at the end of the day, all anybody cares about is if their journey will SEEM faster or slower.

    By all accounts, the light rail on George Street will have less available passenger space than the buses it will replace, and will likely have a much lower speed limit due to the shared pedestrian zone (much like the Bourke St Mall in Melbourne, which is limited to 10kph vs 40kph for all other public transport in the Melbourne CBD). This would suggest that the light rail might make a journey slower, because of the slow travel speed, and because a traveller might not be able to get on the first tram to come along, due to crowding.

    On the plus side, it will mostly run in dedicated ROW (albeit shared with pedestrians), so although it’s maximum speed will be slower, it will most likely run at the maximum speed much more often which is entirely likely to lead to a higher average speed than the buses it replaces. So perhaps it will be faster than the buses after all.

    But how much faster? This matters because the choice of light rail introduces a forced extra transfer. And even when you are connecting a high frequency service to another high frequency service, transfers still adds an extra 7.5 to 15 minutes to the perceived journey length (depending on how good the transfer station facilities are). So it isn’t good enough for light rail to be just 2 or 3 minutes faster than the buses it is replacing. It needs to be 8 minutes faster at least, just to make up for the transfer.

    So can the light rail, with it’s likely crowds and slow and steady run down George Street save travellers enough time to make up for the transfer, or will the net effect of this project be slower journeys that encourage more people to drive their cars to the CBD more often? It remains to be seen.

  6. Interchange ALWAYS makes a journey slower. This is because of the need for timetable overlap of about 5 min to allow passengers an adequate amount of time to actually complete the transfer. Plus, people subconsciously resent the time spent transferring more than they resent the time spent in vehicle. Exactly how much extra people resent it is a matter of much research, but a good rule of thumb is between 1.5 and 3 times, depending on the facilities at a transfer station. So a well timed transfer takes about 5 minutes, but seems like it takes between 7.5 and 15 minutes depending on how good the station is.

    BUT, in other places around the world, transfers still work. And the reason is, adding transfers can open up options for the traveller that more than make up for 7.5 – 15 minutes transferring. An example closer to home is the Mandurah railway line in Perth. It replaced less frequent single seat ride buses with a forced tranfer, but that transfer is to a train that runs at 130kph (which is at least 30kph faster, probably more, than the buses it replaced), and the transfer happens far enough from the city that the extra speed more than makes up for the perceived delay due to transferring. Additionally, they increased the frequency of the feeder buses and trains to reduce waiting times and further reduce the length of journey.

    You are right in your final sentence though. The quality of a system or service has absolutely nothing to do with whether it includes a transfer or not. It’s much more about whether you can get to where you need to go within an acceptably short journey time. And to that end, a transfer is always (in and of itself) a bad thing for a traveller; but it can, if implemented in the right way and the right place, be part of a net benefit. That’s how transfers need to be judged.

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