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 first part of this series highlighted the historical “hub and spoke” layout of Australia’s city rail

networks due to the monocentric commuting dominance of existing city centres. But as our cities grow the importance of decentralised suburban precincts, orbital lines to connect them around the city centres are getting on the transport planning horizons. 

Part two of the series presented the Suburban Rail Loop in Melbourne as a prototype for such orbital lines, connecting key precincts for health, education, retail, and employment with existing metropolitan and regional rail networks as well as Melbourne airport. This concluding part three will look at the planning of orbital lines in the other major Australian cities.

Sydney’s second rail network

In networks where no orbital lines exist, they need to be built anew. That is the case for Melbourne’s Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) as well as for orbital attempts in other cities. In Sydney, there once was a plan for at least a part of an orbital connection, the Parramatta-Chatswood Link. 

That railway would have connected two major employment and retail sub-centres at both ends with a few smaller ones in between, a couple of universities and three major railway lines into Sydney’s city centre. The only problem: that line was never built in full. 

The first section from Chatswood to Epping became part of the northern subnetwork comprising the Northern and the North Shore Lines, connecting the two and adding yet more variety to an already multi-faceted service pattern across Sydney. 

The link between Epping and Parramatta still does not exist. Interestingly, the Epping-Chatswood Rail Link has since become part of the newly commissioned Sydney Metro Northwest, a dedicated high performance railway separated from Sydney Trains’ legacy network. West of Epping, Sydney Metro accesses several booming suburbs instead of connecting to Parramatta. 

Yet the orbital idea still lingers in the depths of the newer transport plans in Sydney. The long-term outlook for Sydney Metro is to extend Metro Northwest and connect its new western end with the northern terminus of another future line of Sydney Metro, the one going south to Western Sydney Airport and eventually on to Campbelltown.

Together those two metro lines would form some orbital spiral from Campbelltown via Chatswood and Sydney to Bankstown. And if the line from Bankstown got ever extended via Liverpool to Western Sydney Airport there would in fact be a full ring, albeit with Sydney being on that ring not in the middle of it.

Less pressure for smaller cities

As mentioned earlier, an orbital railway only makes sense if the cities are large enough and have enough high-density precincts in their “middle suburbs” to ensure justifiable patronage for a rail connection. The lack of that may be the reason why Brisbane has not even considered an orbital railway to become part of their city rail network. Additionally, Perth has an orbital element in their long-term transport strategy but would require a major network reconfiguration to come to a real circle line.

Orbital vision in Perth

The latest transport planning document in Perth which includes the METRONET transport initiative actually hints that near-term network extensions “will form part of a potential Circle Line”. Indeed, the combination of the new Forrestfield-Airport Link, parts of the Morley-Ellenbrook Line and the Thornlie-Cockburn Link could all be seen as the south-eastern elements of a future circle line around Perth’s city centre. Except that they all initially are separate railway lines, even with a sizable gap between two of them.

The transport plan in Perth also included a long-term vision for the western portion of a ring line, the Stirling-Murdoch Orbital. That link would connect three of Perth’s existing railway lines via interchanges and also provide rail access to two universities, three major hospitals and one of the biggest retail precincts. A good planning concept which resembles elements of what we saw for the Suburban Rail Loop in Melbourne.

The remaining gaps to be closed for a full-circle connection are between Stirling and Morley and between Forrestfield and Thornlie. The transport plan mentions those extensions but only in the very long-term future well outside the horizon of present planning.

Slowly but surely

As could be seen from this series, orbital railway lines in Australia’s capital cities are still a while away. However, as those cities grow, and suburban precincts outside the city centres pick up momentum, the idea of orbital connections becomes more compelling. The significant investment to build those lines will take many more years to make them a real part of our city railway networks, but over time they will become useful network additions.

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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