Sydney day 4, and wrap-up

Backdated. Posted 17/11/2014.

Day 4 — Sunday

Not much to report. Breakfast at Darlinghurst’s Jekyll & Hyde — which was a bit meh. M’s order came with unwanted eggs, which I adopted. Afterwards I realised it was one of the breakfast places I’d ruled out because some of its Urbanspoon reviews didn’t sound that great (though it had a respectable score of 89). I’d happily go back to The Bunker or The Royal, but not this one.

After that, packed up, got a taxi to the airport (M had a Cabcharge). The traffic was okay, though going the other way it was jammed up due to a crash.

Got to the airport in plenty of time. Checked-in the night before online, and used a boarding pass on my phone for the first time. Flight and Skybus/train back was uneventful (though I must remember to walk to the Qantas Skybus stop in future to save time) — back home by mid-afternoon Sunday.

Loading our plane home, Sydney airport

Virgin boarding pass on mobile phone

Short holidays

Long-term blog readers would know I’ve taken a few short 4-5 day breaks over the years. I quite like that style of holiday.

You’re not going to see everything, but you’ll get a good taste of a place without having to organise things like laundry.

I like having a few things planned each day, but nothing absolutely essential, and the flexibility to change things around — add stuff if you find there’s extra time, skip things if it feels rushed.

I’m also a fan of the centrally located hotel. It’s good to have a base that’s close to the action, making it easy to stop back past there during the day if desired. Walking distance to a supermarket and cafes/restaurants is also a great thing for breakfast and dinner. Hotel breakfasts are often an option, but generally quite expensive compared to a local cafe.

In our case, this time the hotel wasn’t right in the CBD ($$$), but a very short walk from a nearby railway station that has frequent services — every 10-15 minutes every day until midnight — and as often as every 3 minutes in peak hour.

The transport system

Which brings me to some random thoughts on Sydney’s public transport system, which we used fairly extensively while visiting. (See here for the blog post all about the Opal card.)

The trains have impressive capacity. They never seemed too crowded, though our use was mostly outside peak hour, and I did see other trains passing that looked pretty packed. (It’s unclear if double-deck trains overall can carry more people, due to generally slower dwell times — see this ABC Fact Check article).

The rail network as a whole seems very staff-heavy compared to Melbourne. Guards on trains, and on one platform at Central in peak hour I counted about a dozen staff… to assist with boarding?

It’s a shame the City Circle direction isn’t shown on train maps. That would have saved me some time.

The buses are extensive, and at least in the inner-city, are impressively frequent. But as noted, they often duplicate train routes, and at key locations such as Bondi Beach, are clearly inadequate for the task they’re given.

The ferries were a lot of fun, and quite practical given the geography (the same reason they don’t really suit Melbourne) though I suspect some routes are much more economically viable than others.

333 buses following each other, Paddington, Sydney

The new(ish) numbering of all modes and routes is interesting, and makes it much clearer when trying to remember which route you have to take, rather than memorising a lengthy line name (eg line T4, rather than the Eastern Suburbs & Illawarra Line). At present there’s still a fair bit of confusion with inconsistent signage though. And it does result in some slightly confusing overlaps with F being used for ferries and freeways, and T being used for trains and airport terminals. It’s all about context I suppose, though a sign mentioning T1 and T3 at the airport that appeared to be pointing down to the trains threw me momentarily.

Airport rail is terrifically convenient, thanks to it being fast and frequent. It’s expensive given the surcharge, but even at that near-exhorbitant price, I’d rather have it than not. Being able to get to a major destination such as the airport without being at the mercy of traffic is a godsend.

The monorail is gone. I used to ride it as a visitor, but honestly, can’t say I miss it, and nor do I suspect does most of Sydney.

In conclusion

I really enjoyed Sydney… again. Can’t wait to go back!

Sydney trip day 1: Thursday

Posted 10/11/2014. Backdated to 6/11/2014.

On Thursday I flew up to Sydney for a few days. After umming and ahhing about whether I should take a small backpack or a wheely-case (I opted for the latter), I caught the train into the city and Skybus to the Airport — pretty quick and easy, thanks to each having frequent services, though the PTV online timetables don’t seem to know that trains from Frankston continue through to Southern Cross. Not very helpful.

There were plenty of people on the train dressed to the nines heading to Oaks Day at the races, and from the bus on the freeway I could see a lot of traffic down on Flemington Road towards the racecourse.

There was time at the airport for a quick bite to eat, as I’d been warned that even at lunchtime, a flight on Virgin is only likely to get you a token amount of food.

Some people boarding the rear of the plane (myself included) did so via the tarmac, which always feels a bit rockstar to me, despite the lack of red carpet. The flight left on time, and sure enough, the food was limited to half a sandwich and a drink.

Sydney airport train ad at Melbourne Airport

Boarding plane to Sydney at Melbourne Airport

Sydney Airport - bag claim

Sydney Domestic Airport railway station - queue for tickets

On the train from the airport, Sydney

Landed in Sydney. Down to the airport railway station, I noted the large numbers of people queued to buy tickets, and waltzed past them to try out my shiny new Opal card, which worked a treat. A report on that later.

A lot of fellow travellers caught the train. Canadians Todd Litman and Gordon Price have noted that the invention of wheeled luggage means people are a lot more willing to use public transport and some walking, rather than automatically default to driving from home to the airport, and catching taxis in distant cities. I suspect there’s something to that, especially in the bigger cities where traffic congestion for cars and taxis is a real problem.

Caught the train to Central, changed to the Eastern Suburbs “T4″ line for Kings Cross, which is where the hotel was booked. It’s interesting that Sydney is moving to branding their rail lines T1, T2, T3… but the signage (particularly in the stations) is quite inconsistent at present… presumably it’s in transition. Ferries are F1, F2, F3… buses are B, and the single Light Rail line… well, that’s L1, though a second line is about to start construction.

In any case, it was a quick trip and I found the hotel easily, then headed back out to explore before meeting Marita, who was finishing up a conference near Circular Quay.

View of Sydney City from Kings Cross

Dulwich Hill Light Rail stop

I thought I’d make my way to Dulwich Hill by train (on the T3 line), and then catch the new Light Rail extension back into the City. Obviously my mastery of the train map needs some work, as I missed a couple of things: it’s quicker to change at Central than Town Hall, as the T3 services run clockwise around the City Circle then back out (not marked on the map). Even better, I could have stayed on the first train, as it runs express to Sydenham (which is marked on the map), and I might overtake a train before changing.

Anyway, I soon made my way to Dulwich Hill, and found the light rail stop. Intriguingly some of the warning signage referred to trains, rather than trams or light rail vehicles.

It’s a slightly odd place to terminate Sydney’s only light rail line. It’s close (but not adjacent to) a railway station, so connections are possible but not convenient, but it’s also in a suburb that (as far as I could tell) has no particular traffic generator.

The automatic sign said the next service was in 1 minute. It continued to say that for several minutes… then it changed to note that there was a service disruption along this part of the line, due to a signal failure. Wait, a signal failure? Clearly there’s more to this than a simple tram service.

View from Circular Quay railway station, Sydney

I ended up catching the train back into Circular Quay — which has perhaps the world’s best view from a railway station. A scruffily-dressed bloke with an expensive-looking DSLR camera was snapping lots photos of graffiti on walls along the rail corridor. Hmmm.

It was peak hour by now, and the city platforms were getting impressively busy, though I was surprised to see no less than 12 Sydney Trains staff (possibly more) standing on one platform at Central. Do they check each door to make sure everybody’s aboard?

Meeting M, we walked up George Street, towards Martin Plaza station, rather than have to change trains to get back to Kings Cross. It also allowed us to see a bit of the CBD in rush hour. The footpaths and streets were very busy, as one would expect.

Train back to the hotel, then we went to look for somewhere to eat.

This was not something I’d done much research on unfortunately, and we ended up in a Thai place in Darlinghurst that was… well, a bit mediocre, actually. I mean, what kind of Thai restaurant doesn’t serve roti? And I have a new rule for any sort of Asian cuisine. If it looks like they don’t offer chopsticks, don’t go in.

But I can highly recommend Gelato Messina next door, which seemed to be very popular. One flavour I had was Steve Jobs (“caramelised white chocolate and macadamia gelato with macadamia but crunch. Knows a thing or two about Mac-adamias”) which was utterly delicious.

Gelato Messina, Darlinghurst

Daniel enjoys a gelato

After dinner a bit more of a walk around Kings Cross… my conclusion is that the northern part of Darlinghurst Road is the Kings Cross people know from any number of news reports — lots of strip joints and various other rowdy and dodgy establishments. Behind it, Victoria Street is a little more gentrified, but has lots of backpacker hostels and so on.

The southern parts of Victoria Street and Darlinghurst Road are quieter, and less rowdy, though I noticed a Daily Telegraph story on Sunday which noted the presence of street sex workers in the area — I can’t say I noticed them, but we stuck to the main streets, and perhaps they are in a different part of Darlinghurst.

Anyway, we went back to the hotel room and watched the wonky television — for unknown reasons, it was firmly mounted on the wall at a slight but noticeable angle. I tried not to let it bug me.

Wonky TV in the hotel

Could High Speed Rail from Melbourne to Sydney be as fast as air travel?

Sydney Central station

The Federal government’s High Speed Rail study assumes a route from Melbourne via Canberra to Sydney of between 823 and 842 km (mostly following existing highways), with trains reaching up to 350 km/h, and a three hour trip time from Melbourne to Sydney.

Some people who argue against the idea like to claim there is no way this estimated three hour travel time could be competitive with air, when the plane trip is only a bit over an hour.

But if the train was Melbourne CBD to Sydney CBD, how does plane compare to that?

On Thursday, I had a quick trip up to Sydney. Here’s how the trip up panned-out (times as close as I can estimate from photos, receipts etc).

9:04am. Step off suburban train from home at Southern Cross. Briskly walk towards the Skybus terminus.

9:10am. Skybus departs towards airport. (There were five more people aboard than seats available.)

Skybus

9:31am. Skybus makes first stop for international and domestic flights other than Qantas/Jetstar. I stay aboard, though given the traffic in the airport, and the fact that the second bus stop is actually a little way past the Qantas terminal entrances, I always wonder if I should jump off here and walk the rest of the way to Qantas.

9:34am. Alight Skybus at the Qantas stop.

9:38am. Attempt to check-in. This doesn’t work and the machine tells me I need to seek assistance from staff. I don’t know what went wrong, but the staffer got it figured-out. It might have been because my boarding pass for the trip back was linked to a colleague’s who’d flown up earlier in the day.

9:45am. Go through airport security.

9:55am. Board plane.

Just after 10:00, after the last stragglers board and squeeze their barely-fitting carry-on suitcases into the overhead lockers, the plane pushes back.

11:20am. Plane lands. Apparently it’s a distance of 713 km (more or less, obviously since the exact flight path would vary), so if it’s a 75 minute flight, that would be a speed of about 570 km/h.

We (eventually, after aforementioned people struggle to get their suitcases sorted out) alight.

Sydney: Domestic airport station

11:33am. Find and enter the Domestic Airport station entrance.

11:37am. Buy rail ticket from the vending machine. By the way, it came with a compulsory receipt (which I needed to claim back from work), which unlike Myki receipts, did not include my name nor the bulk of my credit card number.

Sydney airport train ticket and receipt

11:38am. Go through station gate and down to the platform.

11:43am. Board train to city.

11:54am. Train arrives at Central station. (I stayed on for another 4 minutes, or two stops, to St James, which dropped me in the heart of the CBD.)

By air: 164 minutes. By rail: 180 minutes?

So in fact, the Melbourne CBD to Sydney CBD trip took from 9:10am to 11:54am, or 164 minutes, and that was without having to buy a Skybus ticket (I always buy them online to avoid the queues), without checking in baggage, without long queues at security (there were about 3 people ahead of me in the line), nor any significant delays on the flight, and with a short wait for the train (but I didn’t just miss one, for instance due to buying the train ticket).

I’m not a regular business traveller, but to my untrained eye, this trip appears to be close to the ideal Melbourne to Sydney plane ride. But CBD to CBD, it was only 16 minutes shorter than the theoretical fast train travel time of 3 hours — though one would need to take into account check-in and waiting time for train, of course.

On the train it is likely you’d be able to make phone calls, use the internet and any portable electronic devices one might have handy — with no “turn everything off” blackout period during departure and arrival, as on a plane. You’d also be able to move around more freely.

Certainly it would produce less carbon emissions. And the government’s study is predicated on a train also serving Canberra along the way, making trips to/from there more convenient.

There are significant hurdles to getting High Speed Rail built, of course, particularly the huge infrastructure cost. But in a busy air corridor like Melbourne to Sydney, it’s not hard to imagine that it might work quite well.

I suspect that once they proclaim me emperor, I’ll tell the airlines that starting in, say, 10 years, their flight paths between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney will be cut by 10% per year. And I’ll recommend they start investing in and building a high-speed rail line to replace their planes, on condition that it’s a joint venture to maximise train frequencies (rather than split them between companies).*

And before you say it’s impossible, Lufthansa Airways is in the train business. (So is Virgin, of course, but Virgin’s into just about every business one can think of.)

  • *Footnote: sadly all of this paragraph is unlikely to ever happen.
  • The high speed rail study did say that they looked at a Sydney terminus at Parramatta or Homebush, which would cut costs, but obviously lengthen the travel time to the Sydney CBD.

Australia’s airport trains and buses compared

I’ve done a quick comparison of the main airport to CBD public transport in Australia’s biggest cities.

Brisbane Airtrain at the Domestic Terminal

Brisbane and Sydney have trains at premium fares. Perth and Adelaide have normal route buses. Melbourne has a premium bus.

City MEL SYD BNE ADL PER
Mode Bus Train Train Bus Bus
Distance (km) 23 8 13 6 13
Travel time 20 10 23 23 38
Peak freq 10 7 15 15 15
Off-peak freq 10 10 30 15 30
Weekend freq 10 15 30 15 30
Last 24-hour Midnight 8pm* 11pm 11pm
Adult one way (peak) $16.00 $15.80 $15.00 $4.70 $3.80
Child one way (peak) $6.00 $10.40 $0.00 $2.30 $1.50
Speed 69.0 48.0 33.9 15.7 20.5
Adult $/km $0.70 $1.98 $1.15 $0.78 $0.29

*Update: Brisbane Air-train now runs to 10pm. Some prices have changed.

I’ve used all but Perth’s — which is worth noting serves the domestic airport, but not the international one.

Melbourne’s Skybus is the most expensive, but is also by far the longest distance, and is also the trip that runs at the highest speed, with the second-shortest travel time. It’s also the most frequent, apart from during peak hours when Sydney beats it. Skybus does get overcrowded at peak times, too.

Sydney’s works well, being frequent and quick, but the price makes it an extremely expensive 10ish minute journey, and the highest per kilometre cost.

Adelaide’s per kilometre price is higher than Melbourne’s because Adelaide has flat fares. People who want Melbourne to have a single zone might do well to note that upwards pressure has put the single trip $4.70 ticket is above the $3.80 cost of Melbourne’s zone 1, 2-hour ticket (though Adelaide also has an off-peak ticket at $2.90 which would also be valid for this trip between 9am and 3pm).

One thing Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide’s airport services have that the others don’t is good frequencies. We timed our trip on Brisbane’s train well going from the airport to the City, but that was luck more than anything else, and it’s difficult to control. We could just as easily have had to wait half-an-hour. Landing back in Melbourne, we just missed a Skybus, but it didn’t matter because of the ten minute service.

So which is best?

That’s a hard question to answer.

I wonder if for occasional travellers (including visitors to our cities) the distance and the speed isn’t really something they think about too much; it’s more about the frequency, cost and travel time… though leisure travellers sometimes don’t even worry about those — I remember the slow infrequent expensive Rome airport train (circa 1999) was packed full of us tourists.

Of course, trains have qualities that make people prefer them to buses. Something about prominence, (perceived) permanence, space, freedom to move, and ride quality.

For frequency, Melbourne and Sydney clearly win out, with Adelaide not far behind. But I’m amused that (despite the high price) Melbourne is per kilometre cheaper than any of them except Perth.

They’ve all got good points really. Ideally, like any other public transport, you’d want high frequency and speed, good comfort levels, and low cost. And ideally to make it usable you want it serving tourists, business travellers and airport workers (of which there are thousands every day).

The important thing for Melbourne, if airport rail ever gets the go-ahead, is to ensure the service quality (particularly frequency) remains high — otherwise you won’t get locals and regular/business travellers to use it.

Thoughts? What do you use? Did I mess up anything in the table?

Water taps

I’ve seen these water taps in hospitals and airports.

Water tap

It’s great that they’re provided, but the problem with them is you basically have to stick your head into the wall to get a drink out of them. So if you’re not very coordinated, you’ll probably bump it, as the space isn’t overly generous.

Surely they could provide just a little bit of space outwards — or upwards — to make it easier to use?