Fare hike waived in ACT as light rail frequency increased

Public transport fares have remained frozen in Canberra, to help reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fares have not increased since January 2019, and ACT Minister for Transport Chris Steel said that keeping fares the same would reduce the financial burden of COVID-19.

“The ACT Government knows that COVID-19 has put increased pressure on families, and every little bit counts,” he said.

“Many people rely on public transport to get around, and freezing bus and light rail fares will help to ease financial stress during this challenging time.”

Although Steel is not encouraging Canberrans to fully return to public transport just yet, he is advising that those who do need to travel do so outside of peak hours, where there is an additional saving.

“I encourage Canberrans to travel at off-peak times when it is cheaper, and to help reduce crowding on buses and light rail.”

Cash is also not being accepted around the network. MyWay cards or pre-paid tickets are permitted.

“Having a MyWay card is still the cheapest way to use public transport, as the card calculates the cheapest possible fare per passenger, based on any eligible concession and daily or monthly fare caps,” said Steel.

While the ACT has decided to keep fares the same, NSW instituted changes to its fares on July 1. Transport for NSW lowered fares outside of the peaks, and off-peak pricing was instituted on light rail. A scheduled CPI increase was also not applied. Fares for journeys on buses and light rail under three kilometres were increased, to encourage walking and cycling.

In the ACT, from July 18, upgrades to the transport network will see trams frequency lifted to every five minutes during weekday mornings. A new bus network will provide an extra 692 buses each weekday, with changes to routes and increases in frequency.

Container rail into Port Botany. Photo: Sydney Ports

NSW provides information for freight industry to be COVID Safe

The NSW government has released industry-specific information for the transport and freight businesses to help them navigate the risk of COVID-19.

According to Minister for Better Regulation, Kevin Anderson, the materials have been designed for non-customer facing businesses and to provide practical guidance to limit the spread of the virus.

“80,000 businesses have already downloaded the NSW Government’s COVID Safety Plans, and we’ve now created additional resources for transport, freight and ride shares, offices, construction sites, and manufacturing premises,” Anderson said.

The NSW government has kept borders open to rail freight throughout the crisis, with no restriction on interstate movement into NSW for rail.

In addition, freight trains were given extra access to the Sydney metropolitan rail network in what were ordinarily restricted periods for passenger rail only.

NSW Ports CEO, Marika Calfas, said such measures should remain in place for the foreseeable future.

“These measures should be continued in the longer term to deliver community-wide productivity benefits, allowing trucks to supply businesses during evening periods, to alleviate pressures on the road networks during peak hours, and freight trains and passenger trains to share the network safely,” Calfas said.

“This will be especially important during the recovery phase when road congestion is likely to be exacerbated due to reduced public transport usage.”

Anderson said that the NSW government was working to ensure that businesses can operate as smoothly as possible.

“Ultimately we want to focus on getting NSW’s economy back up and running and providing businesses with the right guidance to operate safely and successfully in the current climate.”

The online database of information includes checklists for a COVID-19 safety plan for businesses, covering wellbeing of staff and customers, physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning, and record keeping. Businesses are also encouraged to register as being COVID Safe. Links to financial assistance are also available.

Thales to support NSW digital strategy

Global technology provider and rail signalling manufacturer Thales will develop a leading digital control, communication, and signalling centre in Sydney.

The announcement follows Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s $1.6 billion Digital Restart Fund which aims to make NSW the digital capital of the southern hemisphere.

Thales Australia CEO Chris Jenkins said that the announcement enables Thales to commit to basing its digital innovation in Sydney.

“This is incredibly exciting for the many innovative companies operating in this state. To back the NSW ambition, we are committed to establishing a digital innovation lab in western Sydney to develop digital solutions for public transport,” said Jenkins.

Thales supplies digital transport systems to Sydney Metro and has supplied telemetry solutions to Sydney Trains.

Jenkins said that Thales would be drawing on its global expertise and tailoring the solutions to the needs of NSW and Transport for NSW, focusing on Metro, light rail, transport cyber security, and digital rail signalling.

“The Digital Innovation Lab will continue to grow smart jobs in western Sydney, enhancing our existing team of world-class engineers and software developers already based in our Transport business.”

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said that investment in digital technology would drive the state’s economy.

“This record investment in technology recognises that digital infrastructure is as important as transport infrastructure to the State’s economic growth.

“We must be fast followers in the Digital Revolution to accelerate agility, lift productivity and generate the jobs of tomorrow.”

The $1.6bn in funding also includes $240 million to enhance NSW’s cyber security capability, the biggest single investment in cyber security in Australia’s history, said Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello.

Cyber security is also a focus for Thales.

“It’s never been more important that our public transport systems are protected with the highest levels of cyber security, which Thales delivers to public transport operators around the world,” said Jenkins.

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Commuters warned to stay off public transport during peak hour

Commuters are being warned to avoid taking public transport in peak hours to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

In a press conference on Friday, May 15, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said that people should not get on buses and trains in the state unless necessary.

“We don’t want any more people at this stage catching public transport in the peak. If you’re not already on the bus or train in the morning do not catch public transport,” she said.

Throughout the lockdown period NSW has run trains to a normal schedule to maintain capacity so that passengers can social distance, however with more workplaces opening up and people returning to work, there are concerns about the number of people on the services. Berejiklian said limiting passenger numbers would help to limit the spread.

“And I stress that strongly because we know overseas public transport was the main reason why the disease spread. At this stage we are maintaining good social distancing but we’re going to be very strict about that.”

Transport Minister Andrew Constance said that current patronage levels were reaching the capacity limits set to ensure physical distancing on public transport.

“Everyone will need to maintain physical distancing during this pandemic,” said Constance.

“That means if you are not already using public transport during the peak times, please do not use public transport during peak periods.”

Transport for NSW and Sydney Trains have put in extra measures to reduce crowding on services, including communication campaigns and managing numbers at stations using Opal gates.

“We will be monitoring patronage and have staff at key locations across the metropolitan area to assist customers,” said Constance.

A ‘no dot, no spot’ campaign will be used on trans to indicate where the safest places to sit and stand are. If a service is full, passengers will be asked to wait. Data will also be used to communicate what services have space via apps, social media and Transport Info.

Commuters in Adelaide were also asked to avoid using public transport. Travellers on the Gawler Line have been experiencing crowding partly due to 50 of the city’s 70 diesel trains being taken out of service due to a mechanical fault. South Australia chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier told local radio that crowded public transport should be avoided.

“I think it would be much safer to avoid getting on any public transport where you can’t do the social distancing,” she said.

Some jurisdictions around Australia have been encouraging commuters to use more active modes of transport such as walking or cycling to counter overcrowding on public transport and roads once work patterns begin to return to pre-COVID-19 norms.

NSW government seeks project managers for first fast rail routes

The NSW government has released two tenders for project management services for fast rail, suggesting that the first two routes for the state will be Sydney to Canberra and Sydney to Newcastle.

The tenders, available via the NSW eTendering site, outline that successful tenders will conduct the scoping phase investigation and deliver the final business case for the fast rail program.

“The NSW government’s commitment to develop a blueprint for the delivery of a fast rail network is a major piece of state-shaping work,” said a NSW government spokesperson. “This transformative vision will seek to link regional centres to each other and Sydney.”

In previous documents outlining the scope of the NSW government’s fast rail strategy, four routes had been identified; Sydney to Newcastle, Sydney to Canberra, Sydney to Nowra via Wollongong, and Sydney to Orange. The current tenders are the first fast rail tenders released publicly, indicating that the NSW government my be prioritising the routes to Canberra and Newcastle.

Each project will undergo the Infrastructure NSW Health Check, which requires demonstration of evidence of confidence in a project’s development. The scoping phase also includes an interim project definition report which will define the project’s interim ‘reference case’ based on the needs assessment, options development, and options assessment through the strategic business case.

The second phase of the tender covers the final business case of the project. This will involve delivery of a final business case that builds on the findings from the strategic business cases and scoping phase investigations. Tender documents outline that “a new approach will be needed” for the final business case to meet NSW Treasury requirements and Fast Rail Program objectives.

“Central to the success of the Final Business Cases will be the consideration of wider economic and social impacts, alongside traditional transport benefits.”

The release of these tenders highlights that fast rail projects in Australia are moving forward. At a national level, the National Faster Rail Agency has put forward 50:50 funding for fast rail businesses cases with state governments and the private sector, including the Sydney to Newcastle business case. Funding has already been committed to faster rail between Melbourne and Geelong.

Improving connectivity between Newcastle and Sydney was also a priority initiative added to Infrastructure Australia’s Infrastructure Priority List in 2016.

The NSW government has also launched the ‘A fast rail future for NSW’ strategy, with a plan to be delivered by Andrew McNaughton and an expert panel. The plan is reportedly complete, but has not yet been released.

NSW Transport Minister announced run in Eden-Monaro by-election, then pulls out

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance has said he would make the move from state to federal politics, and only 24 hours later withdrawn the bid.

Constance was to contest the seat of Eden-Monaro, on the NSW South Coast, which covers his state electorate of Bega. The Labor candidate is Kristy McBain, who is the current Bega Valley Mayor. The resignation of Labor MP Mike Kelly triggered the by-election. Kelly stepped down for health reasons.

Constance had already told the public that his time in state politics was limited. Following the NSW bushfires in early 2020, Constance took an extended period of leave after his home in Malua Bay was almost destroyed by fire. At the time, Constance had said that once the recovery was complete he would resign from politics.

In a statement on May 6, Constance said he had “unfinished business” in the transport portfolio.

“I want to deliver crucial life-saving reforms in road safety and a safer, cleaner future in public transport.”

Constance was appointed to the position of Transport Minister in 2015, following the NSW state election that year. Constance was previously Treasurer for the year prior.

Since becoming Transport Minister, Constance oversaw the roll-out of the Sydney Metro project. The delivery of the project kicked off in 2015 shorty after Constance became Transport Minister and the proceeds of the power privatisation scheme could be used to fund the new rail line, although construction had begun in 2013. The line became operational in May 2019.

Other projects that have been progressed during Constance’s time as Transport Minister include the More Trains More Services signalling and timetable upgrades, and the associated Digital Systems Program.

While Constance has drawn praise for the Metro Northwest line, a controversial project during his time as Transport Minister has been the Sydney CBD and Southeast Light Rail. Construction had commenced in 2015 and while major construction was initially expected to be completed in 2018, the line did not open until late 2019. The fall-out between the NSW government and the Altrac consortium also led to legal disputes costing hundreds of millions of dollars. In April 2020, the final branch of the line to Kingsford was opened.

EIS for Sydney Metro West released, Rydalmere station dropped

The NSW government has released the first environmental impact statement (EIS) for Sydney Metro West, scrapping a proposed station at Rydalmere.

The EIS provides more detail on the route which will connect the Parramatta and Sydney CBDs. The EIS covers the section from Westmead to the Bays Precinct.

A separate EIS will be released for the section from the Bays Precinct to the Sydney CBD, with the location of a station in the CBD still to be confirmed. A station in Pyrmont is still listed as “optional”.

With the removal of the optional station at Rydalmere, the distance between consecutive stations Parramatta and Sydney Olympic Park would be between eight and nine kilometres, depending on the alignment. Most metro systems globally have an average distance between stops of between 1.2 and 1.3km.

The EIS outlines where the main works will be undertaken for civil construction works, including tunnelling, and excavation for stations. Major work sites will be established at Westmead, Parramatta between Macquarie Street and George Street, Clyde – where a stabling facility will be built, Burwood North, and the Bays Precinct. Two tunnel boring machines will each begin at The Bays and Westmead, with all four being extracted at the site in Sydney Olympic Park.

Releasing the EIS, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance said that Metro West is a “once in a century” project.

“It’s been almost 100 years since the Harbour Bridge transformed Sydney. Now this underground Metro is going to be the modern day game changer for our city, serving us for decades to come.”

The EIS proposes to ease the pressure on the existing heavy rail system from population growth in Western Sydney, which is forecast to grow to 3.2 million people by 2036, by diverting commuters from the T1 Western Line, T9 Northern Line and the T2 Inner West and Leppington Line.

The EIS estimates a drop in customer numbers at some of Sydney’s busiest stations. It finds that there will be a 32 per cent fall in customer numbers on the T1 Western Line at Parramatta by 2036, a 36 per cent reduction at Strathfield, and a 35 per cent reduction at Redfern. This will cut crowing by roughly 30 per cent at North Strathfield, Strathfield, Redfern, and Burwood stations.

In addition, Sydney Metro West proposes faster travel times between Parramatta and the Sydney CBD, with services targeted to take 20 minutes. The line will also increase the number of services, from 56 trains an hour to 116, increasing capacity from 65,440 customers an hour to 157,600 customers.

The NSW government has released an expression of interest for contractors to deliver the twin tunnels between Westmead and The Bays.

Queensland institutes toughest fines yet for spitting on workers

Queensland is instituting some of the toughest fines yet for those who deliberately cough, sneeze or spit at public officials and workers.

The direction allows for fines of up to $13,345 for those who do so, and includes transport workers including train crews.

The move follows similar fines in NSW, where police can issue anyone who coughs or spits on workers a fine of up to $5,000.

Announcing the directive, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that she wanted to protect workers.

“I was disturbed to hear stories of people threatening to deliberately infect frontline staff.

“It’s disgusting and I want police to throw the book at them.”

The directive covers a public official or any worker at work or travelling for work during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

There have been reports of spitting and attacks on transport staff in other jurisdictions in Australian and New Zealand. On April 20, Auckland Transport chief executive Shane Ellison said there were two incidents where essential workers have been spat at.

“A couple were joy-riding on our trains and were told to get off. As they were being escorted from the train, a female spat at three of our staff. Two men and a woman have had to be stood down as a result of this incident and have gone into isolation. This behaviour is totally unacceptable. The incident was caught on CCTV and the police now have that footage.”

Another incident occurred when a security guard was spat at while working for Auckland Transport.

“Our staff and contractors are out there in all weathers ensuring that essential workers can get to their jobs and we cannot tolerate this sort of behaviour. We are working with the police to ensure that our staff can do their job without being assaulted,” said Ellison.

In NSW, a teenage girl spat at a Sydney railway station staffer, and said, “I have COVID” according to reports.

David Babineau, secretary of the Tram and Bus Division of the Rail, Tram & Bus Union of NSW, said that all workers should be treated with respect.

“Frankly, it’s disgusting in any circumstance but in the middle of the current health crisis it cannot be tolerated. Everyone has the right to go home safely from work and not wonder if they are bringing a potentially fatal disease home to their loved ones.”

Council defers decision on rail trail between Armidale and Glen Innes

Armidale Regional and Glen Innes Severn councils in New England, NSW, have split on the decision to support turning a rail corridor into a bike trail.

On March 26, the Glen Innes Severn Council resolved to support an Act in the NSW parliament to turn the Main North rail line from Armidale to Wallangarra on the Queensland border into a trail for bicycles.

On April 22, Armidale Regional Council deferred a decision to rescind the council’s previous support of the rail trail. 

In the resolution supported unanimously by Glen Innes Severn councillors, Armidale Regional Council, Glen Innes Severn Council and the New England Rail Trail committee will make up the governing body, and the regional councils are seeking funding streams from state and federal governments for the development.

The Glen Innes Severn council endorses further work to be done to establish the governance structure of commencing the design and project planning of the rail trail.

The Glen Innes Severn council mayoral minute stated that the governing body would commission a detailed business case, including the whole of life costs of maintaining the track and give advice to the Councils on it, as well as the potential economic value-added from the development of the rail trail.

Some community groups hope to see the rail lines maintained, and rail services return to the line north of Armidale to Wallangarra via Guyra and Glen Innes. Save the Great Northern Rail Group president Rob Lenehan said that the Armidale Regional Council should reconsider its support of the rail trail proposal.

“The previous motion of rail trail support was arguably improperly passed at Council’s meeting on 26 February 2020, without due consideration of prudent information. The Regional Development Australia Northern Inland rail trail report prepared for New England Rail Trail was not available to councillors and is still not available.”

A petition with 1,000 signatures was published in 2014.

“The rail trail proposal is controversial and largely unwanted within New England. Armidale Regional Council should completely withdraw from this unnecessary distraction. The future for the railway lies in reopening it for trains, not ripping it up for a bike track,” said Lenehan.

In February 2020 the Armidale Council had agreed to allocate funds for design and look at a management structure and now the Glenn Innes council has allocated funding to proceed the project. 

All seven Glen Innes Severn councillors agreed to allocate an amount of $25,000 in the 2020/2021 Operational Plan for the determination of the construction cost of the Ben Lomond to Glen Innes section of the proposed rail trail.

A rail trail feasibility study was endorsed by Armidale Regional Council at its October 2018 meeting and the New England Rail Trail Plan was finalised in October 2019 for the Armidale to Glenn Innes section.

While the Save the Great Northern Rail Group is not opposed to a re-opened rail corridor also incorporating a bike trail, it has argued against permanently ending the Main North line at Armidale.

“To date, Armidale Regional Council’s prosecution of the unwanted rail trail proposal has been completely out of step with the will of the community,” said Lenehan.

The rail corridor between Armidale and Glen Innes has been closed to trains for over 30 years. The Rail Trail Plan outlined the technical feasibility and costs of converting the 103km Armidale to Glen Innes section into a rail trail to boost economic activity in the region.

On April 3 the first rail trail in NSW, a 22-kilometre stretch from Tumbarumba to Rosewood, had its official virtual opening.

The entire New England Rail Trail between Armidale and Wallangarra is approximately 210km long. The Main North line starts from Sydney and extends north passing through Armidale to the Queensland border, at the town of Wallangarra.

Old railway stations on the line have been preserved and refurbished by local community groups.

Plans to re-open the Murwillumbah rail line

Rail services to Murwillumbah in New South Wales were discontinued in 2004, but now there are plans to re-open the rail line.

Byron Shire Council is moving forward with planning for a rail link connecting Mullumbimby and Byron Bay as part of a multi-use activation of the rail corridor.

Five of the seven councillors who attended the council meeting on Thursday, March 26 voted to start the planning process to establish a project framework and to progress a business plan. 

Councillor Basil Cameron said it’s time to take a significant step forward in meeting the transport needs of the shire.

The motion follows a $330,000 study for multi-use activation of the corridor, the Arcadis Multi-Use Rail Corridor Study (MURC). 

Findings from the study identified two multi use options with positive benefit cost ratios, which were Hi-rail – vehicles that can run on tracks as well as roads – with active transport or very light rail with active transport.

Cameron said for the section between Mullumbimby and Byron Bay the estimated costs for Hi-rail with walking and cycling are $12.6 million.

He stated that Hi-rail is the lower cost option with the lightest axle weight therefore requiring minimal upgrades to the disused lines. It is also very flexible as the Hi-rail vehicles can switch from rail and road in 15 seconds. 

“Typically a Hi-rail vehicle is a small bus able to service a more flexible route or on demand type service. Travelling along the rail corridor provides a faster entry to town centres during peak time and assists in reducing vehicle numbers on the road network,” Cameron said.

Andrew Pearce, traffic engineer, infrastructure services Byron Shire said in the notice for motion that background research undertaken for the Integrated Transport Management Strategy acknowledges the Multi Use Rail Corridor Study identified a Hi-rail system within the rail corridor in combination with active transport is the best rail corridor option.

“Staff see the merits in beginning conversations with potential operators/community groups and organisations,” Pearce stated.

If the council proceeds with the Hi-rail option there is likely to be the need to construct a new, accessible rail station.

Pearce said council needs to consider the economic viability. 

“Given the full rail corridor length is 38.5km and the Mullumbimby to Byron section is 15.6km (54.7 per cent of the total length) would a partial activation of the corridor between Mullumbimby and Byron result in 54.7 per cent of the estimate economic benefit outlined in the MURC study?” Pearce stated.

“If it does, does the Hi-rail option remain the most viable given the MURC identifies an 35 ongoing maintenance cost of approximately $950,000 per annum for the Hi-rail option.”

Council will now provide notice of the intention to establish a rail link to Infrastructure Australia, Infrastructure NSW, Transport for NSW and other relevant agencies to seek advice on funding criteria and project development.

In a notice of motion prepared prior to the meeting of council, Cameron wrote that  activating a rail link within the Ewingsdale corridor provides an affordable alternative to start shifting demand from ever bigger, busier, and more expensive roads. 

As part of the planning process, council will investigate Federal, NSW and other funding bodies to identify funding sources including, but not limited to tourism, infrastructure, transport and climate change mitigation/adaption grants with a priority focus on funding vegetation removal within the rail corridor.