There’s a Wikipedia page “Commuter rail in Australia” which has a quick snapshot of the country’s heavy rail systems.
(The term “commuter rail” is problematic. In a North American context it often refers to systems that really cater only for peak commuter/work trips. Australian rail systems sit somewhere between here and metro systems, and are generally referred in Australia to as suburban rail. Confusingly the term sometimes used in North America is “regional rail”, as in serving an entire city/region. But I digress.)
Given Melbourne and Sydney now have similar populations, I thought a comparison of the two cities and their rail networks might be interesting.
(excluding Sydney Metro)
but including Stony Point line)
|Urban density||423 per sq km ||508 per sq km |
|Train operator||Sydney Trains||Metro Trains|
|Number of lines||8 plus branches||15 including all branches|
|Track length||1588 km|
(Route length 721 km)
(Route length 430 km)
|Fleet size||230 eight-car trains |
= 1840 carriages
|226 six-car trains|
= 1356 carriages
|Usual all day frequency||15 minutes||10-20 minutes|
|Usual evening frequency||15 minutes||30 minutes|
|Timetabled stops per weekday||about 46,000|
(average 262 per station)
(average 198 per station)
But there are Night Ride buses every night
|Yes, hourly on weekends|
But no all-night service during the week
|Car parks||More than 30,000 spaces||More than 40,000 spaces|
|Annual ridership||377.1 million (Source) ||244.1 million (Source)|
 These density numbers are probably unreliable. Better measures take into account statistical areas which might actually be rural or not available for settlement. Charting Transport has some good discussion on this.
 Sydney Metro patronage was about 2 million per month in late-2019, so extrapolated out would be about 24 million per year.
So then, how can we explain why Sydney’s ridership is more than 50% higher than Melbourne’s, when the population is only 5% larger?
It’s not station car parking. Melbourne has more car spaces at stations than Sydney.
Longer routes probably help a bit, giving Sydney’s train network a bigger footprint across the city, though Melbourne actually has more railway stations.
Fares potentially might be a factor, though it’s really swings and roundabouts. Some (especially shorter trips, and off-peak) are cheaper in Sydney. Others (especially longer trips and those involving multiple modes) are likely to be cheaper in Melbourne – though Sydney’s $50 weekly cap makes even long trips pretty price competitive for everyday users.
Until now, Sydney has had a ridiculously cheap Sunday cap of $2.80 – compared to $16.10 Monday to Saturday. That changes from next week to $8.05, but it will also apply on Saturdays and public holidays.
Better train frequencies in Sydney would certainly be helping, making Sydney’s trains a more attractive proposition for more trips, especially when connecting from other lines. Melbourne has a few 10 minute lines, but these are in the minority, and drop back to 30 minutes in the evenings.
Remember, transport is supply-led. The better the service, the more people use it.
What about train journeys to the CBD? City of Sydney has 246,343 residents plus (under normal circumstances) 615,000 visitors/workers. City of Melbourne in contrast has 148,000 residents plus 763,000 visitors/workers. So in theory, Melbourne has a busier CBD.
Broader urban planning is almost certainly a factor. Large suburban hubs such as Parramatta serve as alternatives to Sydney’s CBD, and importantly, are located on the heavy rail network.
One way of comparing is to look at each city’s biggest (suburban) shopping centres:
|1||Macquarie Centre||Y (Metro)||Chadstone||N|
|2||Westfield Parramatta||Y||Westfield Fountain Gate||N|
|3||Westfield Warringah Mall||N||Highpoint||N*|
|4||Westfield Bondi Junction||Y||Westfield Knox||N|
|6||Castle Towers||Y (Metro)||Westfield Southland||Y|
|8||Westfield Hornsby||Y||Westfield Doncaster||N|
|9||Westfield Penrith||Y||Pacific Werribee||N|
|Heavy rail access||9/10||Heavy rail access||3/10|
*We could quibble about Melbourne’s Highpoint – it has tram/light rail access. But this doesn’t provide the speed or capacity of heavy rail. (Knox almost got tram access… but the Bracks government extension fell short.)
In terms of heavy rail access, Sydney is clearly ahead. (And I didn’t count Sydney’s biggest shopping centre: Westfield Sydney in the CBD, which also is close to rail.)
This makes a huge difference not just to mode share for a substantial number of journeys, but also to heavy rail patronage.
Are there other factors in Sydney’s success? Almost certainly. Some more digging might involve looking at:
- the spread of peak vs off-peak journeys
- mode share/feeder service provision for easy station access
- travel times including express trains
- CBD commuter train mode share, and the role of higher capacity double-deck trains
Planning for success
Sydney’s rail network might not be perfect, but they seem to be doing a lot of things right – patronage 50% higher than Melbourne’s doesn’t happen by accident.
Can Melbourne do better? I’m sure we can.
Urban planning outcomes can take decades to achieve. Are we heading in the right direction? Hopefully – it’s hard to say. We’re seeing urban consolidation in some areas, but the State is still investing in huge motorways (Sydney too, mind you) and the big centres like Chadstone and Fountain Gate keep expanding, with little or no effort into improving their public transport access, despite strong demand.
But if we can’t instantly fix urban planning, rail service frequencies are a lot easier to improve in the shorter term. It’s high time the Victorian government got serious about providing rail services that meet the expectations of a 21st century city of 5 million people.