Each time I travel (which isn’t often enough), I note the things that are different, and the things we can learn from.
From my most recent short trip to Sydney, here are some notes — not an exhaustive study, but just some observations.
Central Station is a rabbit warren compared to Flinders Street Station, though FSS may veer that way when the new underground platforms are built as part of the metro rail tunnel. What was really striking was that the Central Station “grand concourse” looked so much nicer — less chaotically laid out, and tidier.
Suburban stations in Sydney have colourful screens on the platforms. In Melbourne if you’re lucky your local station has a two-line LED display, which won’t tell you any more than the basics — and these are common even at major interchanges like Caulfield and South Yarra.
The screens in Sydney, which seem to be universal, can tell you the next three trains, the precise stopping pattern of the next one, and also give a warning (accompanied by an automatic announcement) when a train approaching is running express through the station.
(Melbourne is currently getting colour screens in stations showing tram departures. This is a great idea, but ironically means at most stations the information provided for trams will actually be better than for trains. Lift your game, Melbourne!)
It took us two days to find a Sydney train with any litter. Stations and trains very tidy. pic.twitter.com/4tYfuF7wiN
— Daniel Bowen (@danielbowen) November 23, 2015
Sydney Trains are spotless. It took us 2 days to spot any litter (a banana peel on a seat). I don’t recall any tags or other litter on the trains (though there was plenty of tagging along the rail corridors). The stations were similarly spotless, even those that are unstaffed most of the time. All stations had bins, even in the CBD.
- Interesting article on Sydney trains security and customer service: Sydney Trains gets smarter and more secure
Opal beats Myki in most respects. The readers are fast and much clearer. You can check your balance on an NFC-equipped Android phone (very helpful if you can’t remember how much money is left). Card and top-up availability was a problem last year, but this is being addressed — it was easy to find both this time.
It’s unclear to me what the long-term strategy is, but so far they seem to be phasing out most non-single-use tickets, but keeping a few single use paper tickets as an option alongside the Opal cards.
But the Sydney fare structure is broken. It’s bad enough having to transfer modes; separate fares for train/bus/light-rail and ferry are just twisting the knife — particularly as the new bus route structure encourages people to switch to trains in the CBD.
And even the pricing is crazy — a $15 cap Monday to Saturday, but only $2.50 on Sundays? Why not even it out a bit, say $5 on weekend days?
In fact a NSW Audit Office report released last week says 25% of trips on Opal are free (eg the user has hit a cap), including 47% of ferry trips! Discounts are great, but someone has to pay for them — the revenue stream needs to be sustainable such that the money coming in increases as ridership increases, to help pay for upgrades.
Google Transit is great, but not perfect. As noted previously, our bus ride took as to an unexpected (but not inconvenient) location, so something apparently didn’t quite work. Even so, it was a boon being able to easily navigate around, particularly on the bus network with its myriad of route, without first loading up some unfamiliar clunky city-specific app as visitors to Melbourne must.
Sydney still has train guards. Perhaps there’s a benefit from safety, though so many cities manage this with door sensors, mirrors and CCTV that I doubt it. The Sydney guards seem to have little to do other than make announcements (some excellent, some unintelligible — I think I’d prefer auto). They help load wheelchairs (but their position in the train varies from the middle to the end, which must make things challenging for wheelchair users.)
The problem with having two staff on board every single train is it doubles the wage cost when adding extra services. Melbourne and Perth have solved this, with Single Person Operated Trains (SPOT for short, in Melbourne!). Sydney’s new north-west metro line is set to be driverless to get around it.
(Virtually) no level crossings in Sydney. And if it seems natural, that’s because it is — as can be seen in old maps, it turns out Sydney never had the huge number of crossings Melbourne has, partly through good planning, and partly because the topography (lots of hills) made it easier to avoid. But they also made a point of removing (almost) all the ones they did have. (They have about five left, on minor lines.)
Lots of lifts are being installed at Sydney stations. Historically most Sydney stations had stairs but not ramps or lifts, and were thus not accessible. They seem to have made great progress in retro-fitting lifts in many stations.
Train stopping patterns are all over the place. Even at 8pm on a Saturday night, on the T4 line there seemed to be at least three stopping patterns in use: Stopping all stations, Express Sutherland to Hurstville to Redfern, and another more complicated pattern that would stop at a few, skip a few, stop at a few, skip a few more.
This resulted in the station we were waiting at (Carlton) having only trains serving it every 30 minutes, with lots of expresses passing by. I suppose it makes the patterns more consistent, or at least more consistently confusing. I wonder if less than ideal acceleration on the big double-deck trains means they are keen to keep express running at all times of day?
The train line numbering is very easy to understand for tourists, but inconsistently used. Perhaps that’s a work in progress.
Pedestrian crossings in Sydney CBD are a mess, partly because of the many one way streets, but mostly because the traffic engineers have clearly prioritised car movements. The waits to cross the street are often really long, because they have complicated cycles allowing for lots of turning traffic. In Melbourne the basic grid pattern means a smaller number of cars get to turn each green cycle, and tough luck if they have to queue — traffic going straight, and pedestrians are (mostly) more important.
Zebra crossings seem prominent in Sydney suburban shopping centres, much moreso than in the CBD, and moreso than in Melbourne suburbs. It was good to see; it made walking around much easier.
That said, they do sometimes fall into the trap of providing crossings at roundabouts that are in no way placed so that people are likely to use them.
Suburban density was clearly higher in Sydney. Apart from big centres like Hurstville, it was common in otherwise quiet suburbs like Penshurst to see 3-4 storey buildings in the areas close to the railway station and shops which would probably have Melbourne NIMBYs up in arms. But what I saw didn’t seem to intrude on the shopping strip, nor on the overall neighbourhood. It’s the sort of thing we need to see more of in Melbourne to help sustainably grow our population.
Obviously, we can learn a lot from Sydney. I dare say they can learn some things from us too.