Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Tour Down Under 2011: SYDNEY CityRail

CityRail can without doubt be classified as a MASS transit system, but it is certainly not a RAPID transit system. It is indeed one of the slowest rail systems I have ever been on. This must have been different some 6 years ago, before a new timetable was introduced in 2005, due to the regular delays registered prior to that. The new timetable, however, was so stretched that delays are virtually impossible, as speeds were reduced and time buffers were built into the timetable. While I have not observed any substantial delays during my two-week stay in Sydney, the negative side of this timetable is that each and every journey on CityRail appears to be an extremely slow adventure and requires a lot of patience.

This is one of the factors why I would say that in the often mentioned rivalry between Australia's two major cities, Melbourne and Sydney, in the field of urban transport, Melbourne beats Sydney by far. The Melbourne system appears much more modern and fast, despite the numerous level crossings, which in Sydney are rather the exception on some outer stretches. Although CityRail is a large system and one of the most complex railway systems I have seen, it leaves many areas of the metropolitan area without coverage, notably, the entire northwest, the northeast, as well as many parts of the southeast (which were initially meant to be served by several stations beyond Bondi Junction on the Eastern Suburbs Line). The northwestern area has been repeatedly on the agenda, last only a couple of years ago with the proposal of the Euro-style “North West Metro”, which shortly after was curtailed to become a “CBD Metro” only (which has also been forgotten after a few months). A rail line to the northeastern suburbs was only seriously considered when the Harbour Bridge was built in the 1930s, which had provisions for a second pair of suburban tracks on the eastern side, which were then used by trams for several years (and since by cars, of course...).

So while Melbourne's overall coverage is better, the suburban rail system there is complemented by a huge network of trams, a type of transport almost absent in Sydney. Instead one relies on the hundreds of bus routes, which like in most places are difficult to understand and many finish service at ridiculous times in the early evening. Even the newly introduced Metrobuses don't even run until midnight. So Iwas glad that my accommodation was within walking distance of a rail station. Bus maps for the Sydney Buses exist but are hard to find, and almost all date from 2009 and don't include the new Metrobuses. Most bus stops have only minimal information, although printed timetables are available and even have a route map for that line, which is quite useful when you are unfamiliar with the area. There are no annoucements within the buses. So once again I have to say that the bus system is far below from what one might expect from a world-class system.

Back to CityRail, I generally don't like double-deck carriages a lot, as they give you a very bad view of who is on the train, and with only two doors on each side, it also takes much longer for passengers to get off or board. Also, Sydneysiders seem to be a bit like Stockholmers, as they only get ready to get off once the train has come to a stop, instead of preparíng themselves before. This may be a result of the fact that they know that the train will be standing in the station for a while anyway, so why hurry? All trains have 3+2 perpendicular seating, but I don't like the 3-seat side at all. Mostly noone wants to sit in the middle seat, and it is generally empty or taken by a bag. Unfortunately I also observed that unless you claim this seat, it will never be offered to you by the bag's owner. It is also quite troublesome to get out of the window seat if both or just one of the other two seats are occupied, as these people have to stand up and actually get out into the narrow aisle to let you out. On the other hand, noone wants to stand in this narrow aisle neither upstairs nor downstairs. So, I think that Melbourne's choice for future 2+2 seating is generally better. Sydney has, however, one feature hardly found anywhere nowadays and quite popular (I only recall this type of seats from old suburban trains in Spain in the 1980s), and that's the possibility to flip the back support of all seats so that you can always sit in the direction of travel. Apparently when some Tangara trains came without this option, passengers claimed that and got it again on the latest Millennium trains.

Most trains, except on the Carlingford Line and Olympic Park shuttle operated as 200 m long double sets made of 8 cars. On all types it is possible to walk from one car to the other within a 4-car compound. While during off-peak you can find yourself sometimes the only passenger on a carriage, the trains get extremely packed during peak hours. Probably due to the length of these trains, they are operated with two staff, a driver and a guard in the middle (front cabin of second trainset). The guard watches the timetable and opens and closes the doors (and plays the “Doors closing – stand clear” message). Many stations also have a dispatcher on the platform, so all in all quite a lot of people employed. On newer trains stations are announced automatically, but on older the guard had to announce them. The cleanliness inside the trains is rather deficient, often litter is lying around and graffiti is also a little problem. Most trains have air conditioning, except the oldest which are unbearable on a hot summer day (which seem to be frequent in Sydney). I also hated these still numerous trains as they didn't allow me to actually look out of the window, as on the upper floor the windows are placed at a level where my elbow is. On the lower level you can only see other people's legs on the platform... The Tangaras offer a smooth ride but the air con doesn't always work perfectly and the windows are horrible, as they seem to be made of some plastic instead of glass and have long lost their full transparency. So my favourite ones are the Millenniums and their related type Oscar, which was actually designed for Intercity services, but some of them are also used on suburban lines. The newest series is the Waratah, but their introduction into passenger service has been delayed by many months now and I didn't get a chance to ride on them. I could only see one waiting in the maintainence yard at Auburn.

As said before, the CityRail network is very complex and probably is in urgent need of simplification, but this would require some substantial investment to separate different lines from each other and from other rail services such as “Intercity” trains (more like German RegionalExpress) and freight. There are also a few long-distance trains sharing the same tracks. The line that's most significantly separated from the rest is the Eastern Suburbs & Illawarra Line, which has at least hourly Intercitys on the South Coast Line and some freight also. Trains on this line leave Bondi Junction about every 10 minutes, 5 minutes during peak, and with several underground stations in the central area it appears to be the most metro-like line in Sydney. But not even on this line you could say that there is a train every 10 minutes at a certain station because like on all other lines CityRail operates a rather confusing stopping pattern, and even local rail fans told me that it is impossible to understand the pattern, not to talk about trying to represent that on a map or line scheme. So if you thought that the funny 4-letter train codes on the Paris RER are confusing, you'll appreciate that system next time you're in Paris. CityRail, however, has clear destination indicators on all platforms which show where the train is stopping. In fact, while you're waiting, you'll hear this announcement also acoustically every few minutes, unfortunately without telling you when the train will arrive (e.g. “The next train on platform 4 goes to Epping via Central stopping at xxx and then all stations to Epping.”). I believe that a clear and regular stopping pattern would help passengers and operation alike. Also adding route numbers like S1, S2 etc would be an extra help, especially as the current line names don't properly match the map, you still have to be careful and make sure your train stops at a certain station. Printed and posted timetables are readily available, but I do doubt that a normal passenger is capable of reading them properly. The official map is also a bit misleading when it comes to the City Loop, where trains do not terminate but continue on another line out to the western suburbs, generally Inner West Line becomes the Bankstown Line and the South Line becomes the East Hills Line and viceversa. Some way of depicting this would certainly be recommended, as for example passengers with luggage going to the airport would rather stay on the same train then change at Central, even if it takes some more time. Depicting the so-called Cumberland Line as a normal line on the map is also misleading as there are only 2-3 trains a day, depending on the direction. The single-track Carlingford Line only has a train every hour (this line was to be integrated into the Chatswood to Parramatta via Epping link, of which eventually only the eastern part was built), the Olympic Park Shuttle from Lidcombe runs every 10 minutes, with hourly trains directly to Central). At most of the other stations there is a train at least every 15 minutes in inner areas, and every 30 minutes on some outer sections, like Richmond (partly single-track) or Emu Plains.

Stations are generally in a good shape, many of the suburban stations preserve a small historic building on the platform, though often hidden behind modern canopies. Like in other Australian cities, most stations have acceptable toilets. In recent years, many stations were retrofitted with lifts to provide full accessibility (the door height of the trains matches more or less the platform, and for wheelchair users, the train guard can unfold a manual ramp located in a cupboard on each platform).

Sydney has quite a few underground stations, dating from different periods, from the classical 1920s St James and Museum stations (both look nice and are well-preserved, but the platforms are much too narrow for today's crowds!), to the 1930s stations built in conjunction with the Harbour Bridge crossing at Town Hall and Wynyard (the latter with a certain NYC Subway feel on the upper level); to the metro-like stations on the Eastern Suburbs Line completed in the 1970s (the worst-looking certainly that at Central, which requires some kind of modernisation, otherwise the stations are 70s style but still nice); to the badly designed 1990s stations on the AirportLink (narrow platforms, illogical accesses, and dim lighting!); to the newest deep-level stations between Chatswood and Epping, which boast spacious and pleasant caverns (probably my favourite Sydney station being Epping underground, with its twin tube platforms, the most metro-like station of all...). The station at Olympic Park opened for the 2000 Olympics is a covered three-track station in a trench with a very European design. The recently rebuilt Chatswood station is also a typical station you could find anywhere in Europe nowadays, with stainless steel, glass and concrete as the main elements, but with a few orange finishings it has a pleasant individual touch to it.

In 2010 the first steps were made towards and integrated fare system, but only very half-heartedly. For single journeys you still need to buy a separate ticket for buses and trains, whereas weekly and monthly tickets are available for all modes (including ferries, but not the tram, see separate post), a ticket called MyMulti and on sale for three different zones. Three zones includes the entire system operated under the CityRail label, which also covers the Intercity routes to Newcastle (170 km) or south to Kiama and beyond. A day pass for all zones is sold at 20 AUD, I had a weekly for 57 AUD. Unfortunately there are no day passes covering only zones 1+2, the typical area normal tourists would go, unless they plan a trip to the Blue Mountains. While I was here, the station access fee was finally abolished at Green Square and Mascot on the East Hills Line, two normal suburban stations on the privately built AirportLink, while the two airport stations still require an additional fare of some 11 AUD. Apparently there have been steps towards introducing a smartcard system, but this somehow failed and now there are useless posts at station entrances which were supposed to carry the card readers. Like in Melbourne or Brisbane, the CityRail system is an open system with proper ticket barriers only at major stations. I observed many people jumping the low gates and no staff did anything about it. So fare evasion must be a major problem, and during my two weeks my ticket was never checked by any inspector. Transit officers exist as I saw them sometimes on platforms but rather dealing with drunken passengers or so. MyMulti tickets, even if bought just for zone 1, are valid on any bus and ferry in the 3-zone region, but except Sydney Buses, bus operators in outer areas have no proper readers for the magnetic tickets, so they simply issue a zero fare paper ticket. So, many steps will have to be taken yet until a fully integrated system will be available (also one of the factors Melbourne is winning this battle...).

CityRail (Official Website)

TransportInfo (Trip Planner & Fare System)

CityRail at Wikipedia

CityRail at UrbanRail.Net


  1. The Olympic Park station only consists of two tracks but with three platforms (one of them as island platform). This arrangement was selected for seperating passengers getting on and off during peak hours while big events take place at the former olympic site.

    The station itself is located in a large terminal loop so that trains don't need to reverse.

  2. I often argue that Sydney and Brisbane vie for the title of the worst electric rail system among cities of more than 1 million people. Would you agree with this?

  3. No, of course not, there are many quite large American cities with NO rail system at all or rather pathetic peak-only commuter rail services. Sydney is not perfect, but at least it carries quite a lot of people, slow, but on time, which many people seem to prefer to fast but unreliable trains.
    Brisbane isn't that bad, although improvements have to be made.

  4. I guess you are right. The USA isn't exactly the land of public transport.

  5. I'm a bit surprised you didn't find Brisbane that bad though. Perhaps you missed the hourly frequency Sun mornings and Mon-Thu after 10pm on most lines, the 11pm finish on Sun and the mediocre peak service, especially the PM peak.

  6. SInce the New Government was elected in 2011, there have been pleanty of changes. The lines do now have numbers and there is a briliant new Opal card which we can use on all forms of transport.

    But Sydney's biggest problem is its topography. Melbourne is flat and dull. Sydney is set in a very hilly ladscape with the magnificent Harbour creating hundreds of little headlands and inlets.

  7. A lot of what you say is true a lot not. The system should have been improved and extended years ago but successive governments have done nothing. Have no idea where you were staying but i lived and worked in Sydney for 25 years from late 80s till 2008 and all buses on major trunk routes always run to at least mid night. Eastern suburbs beaches and northern beaches have 24 service. Train used to also run 24 hours this was stopped (I think in the late 80s) replaced by night bus. The entry and exit points on stations in both capitals funneled people through gates when manual ticketing was in place. Ironically a person collecting tickets and opening and closing a gate was quicker than magnetic ticket gates or opal card.
    Melbourne has what appears to be a good system. It is however no where near as reliable as Sydney I know I lived in both cities. There is virtually no such thing as a connection in Melb and buses finish early. In Melbourne if you live near a tram or station and don't need to transfer then its ok. You obviously just prefer Melb, I find in drab and bland. Unfortunately all Australian capitals have a love affair with cars. Public transport use in 2012 had Sydney 21% and Melbourne 17% of commutes


Tell us your experience of this transport system!