By Dr Frank Heibel

The changing mobility requirements of our growing cities do not just call for ‘smart’ technology improvement, but for reconsideration of network layouts too. In this series, public rail transport thought leader ‘Doc Frank’ Heibel takes a look at developments in Australia’s major cities.

The railway networks in every major Australian city evolved historically in response to the need of getting commuters from their suburban homes to the workplaces concentrated in the city centres.

Such a network layout, where all lines meet in a single centre, is commonly called “hub and spoke” even though the coastal position of most of our cities makes their networks look anything but a wheel as the term hub and spoke would suggest. Also, the way that railway lines into the city are continued differs, from through-lines to lines turning via a city circle to lines reversing in a terminus.

What will be the “new normal”?

There have been suggestions about how the current pandemic might change the way our cities, and public transport, will function in the future. Hypotheses included a reduced reliance on our city centres as a monocentric concentration of workplaces, and a more decentralised setting with growing importance of suburban precincts. 

While such trends may cause some change to the previous status, it is unlikely that the dominance of city centres, and the need for commuter transport options into these centres, will disappear. However, there may be a case for strengthening decentralised precincts that would benefit from being connected without the need of going in and out of the city.

Rising importance of orbital lines

Many public transport experts praise the benefits of orbital lines going around city centres and cite the Circle Line of the London Underground network as a prominent example. However, what needs to be recognised is the population density and associated patronage demand along that line, which makes it more comparable with Sydney’s City Circle or Melbourne’s Rail Loop than with a ring line away from the city centre. 

Australia happens to have quite small city centres with very high concentration of commuting destinations, much less widespread than London for example. That makes the demand for orbital lines in Australian cities less compelling and is arguably the reason why to date we hardly see any attempts of such orbital lines in Australia.

But that is about to change. Melbourne is planning a classic orbital line with the Suburban Rail Loop. Some of the changes to Sydney’s rail transport network could eventually form an orbital connectivity. And the last transport plan in Perth showed at least a long-term option for an orbital connection. We will look at those developments in more detail in the coming two parts of this article series, including some important features to make orbital lines work well.

About Dr Frank Heibel

‘Doc Frank’ is a globally recognised strategist and thought leader for high-performance railway signalling. He has advised government railways in four of Australia’s biggest cities on planning and implementing their next generation signalling technology to boost capacity and improve operational performance. In line with the rising importance of public rail transport for alleviating traffic congestion, his views get noticed in wider transport forums, such as the public transport discussion panel at Smart Cities 2019.

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