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Friday, 26 July 2019

A better conversation on Sydney transport would embrace both road and rail

Yesterday I was out in the western suburbs of Sydney with a friend. While there I parked the car near the Pendle Hill shopping centre and we went on foot to get some Sri Lankan food in one of the pre-prepared curry places that dot the strip. I saw three shops like this there but there might be more that serve the community. In the restaurant we visited, for $10 you can get a plate of rice with three vege toppings and one meat topping. You have a selection of different types of rice to choose from. The food was flavoursome and spicy.

There is a train station there and down the street from the restaurant was a construction site where they are putting up a block of apartments. Once we had returned to the car and started the drive home we passed another construction site for new residential dwellings, this one on the Great Western Highway. Heading east we got on the M4 and then used the new tunnel, which took us from Homebush to Ashfield.

The tunnel has three lanes for most of its eastward-bound length. Along the walls of it the authorities have painted labels telling you where you are at any point in the journey so that you can orient yourself. It is a long tunnel, much like the Lane Cove Tunnel, and it narrows to two lanes near the eastern end, after a slip road turns off to lead travellers, if they want to go to Balmain or the Harbour Bridge, toward Wattle Street.

I had a conversation with someone on Facebook about the tunnel after I returned home and it followed predictable lines. Motorways are bad and rail is good. That, anyway, was his take. There are any number of people posting things on social media who are dead against things like the M4 East (the tunnel we used yesterday to get back home from western Sydney). The larger project, called WestConnex, is polarising especially among residents of the inner west who will be affected by construction and by the presence of slip roads and traffic corridors that will be used by people using the motorway once the whole thing is finished in 2023.

Rumbling away in the background behind such big public projects are federal immigration policies, the same policies that enabled the Sri Lankans whose shop my friend ate at yesterday, to come to Australia to live and work and to do all the other things that people do while they are alive. Inner-western Sydney residents have been vocal against some residential property development in their areas, the same kinds of development that we saw yesterday while we were out driving just west of Parramatta. In many cases they probably have a point. Some parts of Sydney are being developed faster than other parts. I’ve been writing about “infill” development on the blog on and off for a number of years and such projects generally seem to cause anxiety for local residents.

Sydney will have more of this kind of development and the only question will be: Where to put it? The mountains are our western border, national parks border the metropolitan area to the north and south, and the ocean is in the east. At the moment a lot of greenfield development is happening in the northwest and southwest, where the land allows for expansion and the rezoning of agricultural land for residential purposes. But this doesn’t have to be the only way.

In fact, if you go to the west of Sydney you immediately see that there are any number of areas that would benefit from new rail lines. And circular lines are also an option: build one from Brighton-Le-Sands to Campsie to Homebush to Epping to Manly. But even within the conventional paradigm with its hub-and-spoke, which seems to define much of the rail transport in Sydney (where all lines go to Central Station) if you zoom out on Google Maps you can see vast unserved areas of the city that would become attractive destinations for migrants – in the same way that Cabramatta is for Vietnamese, Pendle Hill is for Sri Lankans, and Harris Park is for Indians – if new lines were put in. Many poorly-serviced suburbs could be linked to the existing rail system by an ambitious state government, and help the Greater Sydney Commission meet its development targets.

The guy who objected to my post on the M4 East lives, I found with a few searches, in Japan, a place where train travel is as natural and easy as going to the supermarket for a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread – though if you were Japanese you might opt instead, if it was late on a Friday afternoon, for a couple of cans of Asahi Superdry and a packet of soy-sauce flavoured “sembe” crackers. Japan has good motorways and good trains and many of the rail lines are privately-owned. It seems strange that they have worked out how to solve the transport puzzle where it continually poses problems for Sydneysiders. I won’t venture an opinion about Melbourne but, going by the recent state election result in Victoria, it seems that residents of the southern capital are just as enthusiastic about railways as I am.

People are never going to give up their cars and sometimes you need one to transport something large or to do a number of errands in one trip. Cars are an essential part of the mix in Sydney. What we don’t need to do is continually take sides: road or rail. It seems very odd that we can’t support both.

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