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Shire Transport in Trouble

Only upgrade of public transport will make a major difference

Sutherland Shire's transport troubles have moved to the top position among the quality-of-life concerns of residents.

Traffic congestion, parking difficulty, the overcrowded rail service, buses insufficient and sometimes unreliable for reaching stations on time, and overall the neglect of public transport.

Who is to blame? First, successive governments that have failed to reform the Shire's growing transport problems; second, we the people who have allowed governments to get away with the neglect.

Extreme car dependency.

A wretchedly inadequate rail service has compelled Shire residents to take to the roads - in cars, cars, cars.

Rise in vehicle use has been extraordinary. The Shire has become a car dependent society, with 90 per cent of all trips being made by car.

In a glaring failure of State and Local Government planning, there has been no attempt at a planned balance between rail and road use.

The bitter result is with us every day, especially in congested roads and unavoidable delays.

Better train service urgent.

Despite the Shire's poor train service, demands on that service keep growing. In fact, rail use has grown explosively over just the last four years.

Here's the proof. While patronage of the CityRail network has grown by 17 per cent over the past 4 years, the number of passengers on the Illawarra Line (including Cronulla branch line) has soared by 27 per cent. This Line is now the busiest of all of Sydney's rail lines, with about 28,000 peak period passenger journeys daily.

Yet there has been no effective increase in train services in this period!

The patronage at Sutherland Station is extraordinary, growing by 15 per cent each year since 1996. Huge. And continuing to grow, largely because of Sutherland's higher train frequency.

Trains from Cronulla are often full on reaching Kirrawee, forcing many passengers to stand for the long trip to the city. Some Shire residents even drive to Hurstville or Kogarah where the frequency-of-service is also high.

And beyond doubt, the patronage of rail would increase even more rapidly if trains were more frequent and less crowded.

Demand for trains will accelerate.

Petrol prices will increase. That's the worldwide message. The era of cheap oil is at an end; and the poor performance of the Aussie dollar will add its bit to keeping pump prices up.

The recent increases in petrol price have angered motorists throughout Australia, as shown by the "resentment vote" in Queensland and WA elections.

The increases have upset the balance of many household budgets. How else explain a reported Sydney-wide decline of several percentage points in vehicle use since June 2000? Recession will add to this decline.

What is clear is that a substantial section of the public is turning to use of public transport: those who find parking difficult or expensive, those who find the roads too congested and time-wasting, and those who find they must economise on car use. All these join those who do not or cannot drive, including the young, the too old and the too poor.

Every objective study of Shire traffic-needs now concludes that public transport, especially rail, must be expanded, and quickly.

Encourage train travel!

The Shire's rail service is obviously important. Importantly too, it's more efficient as a carrier than is the private car.

Consider. Four main routes carry people from the Shire to the north: only one is the rail line, the other three are the roads that cross Captain Cook, Tom Uglys and Alfords Point bridges.

A single train can carry 16,000 people per hour (at peak, on 4 trains each from Cronulla, Waterfall, South Coast). It does this more efficiently than the 16,000 vehicles per hour (1.2 persons per vehicle) that need 8 lanes of road to carry 19,000 people.

So it's time State Government woke up to the truth that rail saves citizens money over using their cars; and that investing taxpayers' money in such public transport is preferable to investing it in highway building (or obliging them to pay tolls). Moreover the rail service is very much less polluting than is road transport.

Real rail remedy wanted .

Quite obviously the Shire's rail services need major upgrading. But it won't happen till we Shire residents demand that remedy.

We don't want band-aids; we want a comprehensive rail remedy. Serious remedial action must have for its goal the increasing of train frequency: by doubling the track between Cronulla and Sutherland, doubling the service between Waterfall and Sutherland, and modernising the signalling system. Along with this must go improved feeder bus services to the rail stations from neighbourhood centres. And construction of a light rail network (modern trams) should parallel the upgrading of the heavy rail.

Preceding this, the so-called "5 per cent solution" can go ahead - fostering the use of buses, bikes and boots, by improving bus availability, by linking cycle trails, and by encouraging walking. (In some European and Japanese cities, 30 per cent of daily travel is by cycling or walking.) And a ferry service between Kurnell and La Perouse will help.

The Shire doesn't need endless "Expert reports on what is needed". We all know broadly what is needed. We need action NOW to make the money available and get the work started. The technical know-how is available, witness the recently extended Airport Rail Link and Sydney Light Rail.

Beware diversionary road-building

Facing public anger a reluctant government is likely to pretend concern but instead of embarking on the key task - upgrading the rail system - may attempt to divert attention by offering something superficially attractive that is less than a remedy.

Such a diversion may well be attempted by the road-building lobby within and around the RTA (Roads and Traffic Authority), a lobby that has strong influence with the Government. For decades this lobby has looked towards building an M6, a motorway through southern Sydney, that would enter and divide the Shire.

Passing over Captain Cook Bridge, an M6 would bulldoze its wide, wide way through Miranda, Gymea and Kirrawee to finish at Princes Highway near the Audley turn-off in Royal National Park.

Some 200 homes would be destroyed. Thousands more would feel impacts. Wetlands in Sylvania Waters would be smothered. A section of the Royal would go under bitumen. The character of the Shire would change for the worse.

Like all other motorways, an M6 would be a toll road and would cause the local roads of many Shire suburbs to be used as "rat runs" by motorists avoiding the toll.

Above all, an M6 would not remedy the Shire's key transport troubles. Far from it. Only improved public transport will achieve that. ( Note . The RTA has never offered a cost-benefit study to prove that its incessant highway building is superior to a public transport upgrade.)

What residents are doing

Not surprisingly, much activity for transport reform is appearing. One of the major political parties held a well-attended public meeting last November. The other party is promising close attention to the problem. Shire Council is holding a public Transport Forum on 28 March and 4 April

Even more important is grassroots community action arising from a December residents' meeting in Sutherland. Several meetings have followed, till on 14 March a Shire campaign organisation was formed.

CARTS has arrived - Citizens Advocating Responsible Transport for the Shire. It is backed by Sutherland Shire Environment Centre and the Sydney-wide EcoTransit group. (Inquiries c/- SSEC, PO Box 589 Sutherland 2232, ph. 9545 3077.) CARTS has distributed a major policy leaflet at railway stations under the headline, "Rail services in Shire need urgent upgrade". Further activities are planned.

Where Sydney's transport went wrong

Early great achievement . Sydney built a world class tram network in the last decades of the 19th century, and was proud of it.

Later great foolishness. But in the 1950s, Governments abruptly ripped out the tram network to make way for cars and buses. Rail expansion stopped and a "roads and freeways" policy has dominated ever since.The era of proud public transport had ended: the era of modern car dependency had begun.

The County of Cumberland Scheme 1952 sent freeways radiating outward from the Sydney CBD (central business district) like spokes from the hub of a wheel, the so called radial freeways. Many such freeways have been built, yet all of them put together did not lead to the solution Sydney craves. Every peak time sees vehicles crawling, and often lapsing into gridlock.

Nurturing roads has meant neglecting public transport. Rail lines and signal systems have been overloaded to the limit, not upgraded, rarely extended. So now an "infrastructure crisis" has overtaken Sydney, a need for hugely expensive renovation of the city's heavy rail network - and it's a crisis the Government won't face and instead tries to conceal by promoting the band-aid of yet more freeway/tollway building.

Better signals, please!

Because the Illawarra Line's signalling system is badly outdated, it must prudently keep trains far apart - which of course limits the number of trains that can use a track. But modern systems that operate successfully abroad enable the frequency of trains to be steeply increased.

This is good news for the Shire while we await a major rail upgrade. The modern systems locate sensors at 200 metre intervals along the track, providing all the data needed to safely increase train frequency.

So, get cracking State Rail Authority! And Government. Get with this improvement to signals! The cost is relatively cheap for such an urgently needed improvement in the Shire's rail service - estimated at $45m for the entire Illawarra Line (Bondi Junction to Bomaderry, including the Cronulla branch line).

That would very usefully serve three-quarters of a million people, for less than the cost of the new Woronora Bridge ($47m).

Shire's transport troubles set to boil over - Community and Council are calling for action

It's official! The Cronulla and Illawarra rail lines are overloaded. Growth in the number of commuters using these services is the highest of all Sydney lines and there is no sign that the trend will stop.

"Overcrowding during peak hours has reached crisis point," says Michelle Zeibots, local transport planner and President of EcoTransit Sydney, a community based public transport advocacy group.

"If planners continue to neglect the rail network, problems will spread to other sectors of our transport system. At first glance it may not be obvious, but conditions on the road network will deteriorate further if rail services are not increased in the near future.

In recent months the Shire's transport problems have been put under the spotlight.

"There are only 4 services in peak hour on both the Cronulla and Waterfall lines, and off peak services are only running at half hourly frequencies. This means overcrowding in peaks and lengthy waiting times for commuters in the off peak. Both problems will be solved by increasing the number of services. To do this State Government needs to invest in the line, purchase more carriages, upgrade some sections of track and modernise the signalling system.

While many stations remain underserviced, rail commuters have begun to drive longer distances to catch trains from stations with high frequencies. Ironically, this has added to road traffic and congestion at town centres.

"Transport planners need to roll up their sleeves and address these problems while at the same time initiating plans for new rail lines. This will only happen if the community pushes them along.

"Communities play a pivotal role in determining the direction of transport policy. People often feel helpless, but when we set some realistic goals and all work together to achieve them, it is staggering what people can achieve.

She has played a prominent role in the recent setting up of a Shire campaign group, CARTS, Citizens Advocating Responsible Transport for the Shire.
  • CARTS has distributed a policy broadsheet at Shire railway stations, "Rail services in Shire need urgent upgrade". It is backed by Sutherland Shire Environment Centre and EcoTransit Sydney. (Inquiries c/- SSEC, PO Box 589 Sutherland 2232, ph. 9545 3077.)

Other transport reform initiatives have surfaced in recent months.
  • Sutherland Shire Council will conduct a Shire Transport Forum to discuss "Traffic congestion, car parking availability, cycling safety.and other key transport issues".

  • The Forum, free and open to all, will be held in the Council Chambers on two Wednesdays, 28 March and 4 April, 9am-4pm. Prominent speakers from government, council, academic, RTA, environmental and community sources will be followed by audience workshops. [Inquiries: 9710 0624]

  • Liberal Party , initially a supporter of construction of an M6 motorway, held a large public meeting to "listen to Shire residents' transport needs", and now appear to favour upgrading of the region's rail services. MP Malcolm Kerr and Cronulla Kevin Schreiber have been prominent in this new push. Both speak strongly for light rail (modern trams).

  • Labor Party MPs Ian McManus, Barry Collier and Alison Megarrity have encouraged community deputations and promised to push the Shire's interests with Transport Minister Carl Scully