NEW South Wales and Sydney in particular have long been the nation's enfant terrible when it comes to transport planning, and the rail network has often been a major casualty. This can be partially attributed to the high level of politicisation associated with transport planning across Australia.

Services on Sydney's CityRail network are regarded as slow and unreliable and urban rail patronage growth has been sluggish over the last 20 years barely averaging more than 1% a year. Melbourne, by comparison, has averaged annual growth of 5% over the same period.

The previous New South Wales government attempted to solve some of these problems with ambitious plans for metro-style systems for the Western suburbs and the long-vaunted North West Rail Link. However, both schemes eventually contracted to a much smaller system around the Central Business District (CBD), only for this to be abandoned, leaving the state government to pick up a reported $A 500m ($US 524m) compensation bill.

A change of government in 2011 has seen a renewed focus on public transport and a commitment to finally build the North West Rail Link (NWRL) to serve the city's rapidly growing suburbs. This though has come at the expense of the $A 2.6bn Parramatta - Epping heavy rail link proposed by the previous administration, for which the federal government was providing most of the funding which is now sitting in limbo.

A state-wide Transport Master Plan developed by Transport for New South Wales was released in September outlining the government's 20-year vision to deliver what it says will be a world-class network.

For the Sydney suburban network the plan is based around Sydney's Rail Future plan, released previously, which includes investment to increase capacity, construct the North West and South West rail links, introduce more frequent services, cut journey times, and build a second Sydney Harbour rail crossing as part of a new CBD rail link.

It also includes plans for further expansion of the light rail network through the CBD in addition to the already-announced 5.6km Inner West light rail extension from Lilyfield to Dulwich Hill, and will look at other corridors through a light rail strategic plan.

sydney-centralThe master plan says simple steps to make journeys seamless and integrated are an important first step. Network-wide improvements such as electronic ticketing, coordinated timetables, real-time information, efficient interchanges, and a modern fleet will enhance service delivery and better meet customer needs.

Mr Tim Williams, Committee for Sydney CEO, says: "We need to get Sydney moving again for the sake of the state and national economies, and this plan may be the game changer we need."

Crucially, the Master Plan lacks a clear indication of how these projects will be funded. The centrepiece of the plan, the 23km Rouse Hill - Epping NWRL is estimated to cost $A 9bn to construct over the next eight years, yet funding has yet to be announced. Originally proposed as a heavy rail line, it will now be built as a rapid transit link connecting with the 13km Epping - Chatswood line, which will also be upgraded to rapid transit standards. Environmental approval for construction to proceed has recently been granted and a shortlist drawn up of bidders for 15km of tunnelling works. The private sector will operate the line.

Funding options are tackled in Infrastructure New South Wales' report First Things First, a state infrastructure strategy for 2012-2032 released in October. First Things First is arguably more pragmatic than the Master Plan as it encourages greater use of existing assets, and while accepting rail projects already underway such as the NWRL and the light rail extension, it tends to favour bus and road for future developments.

This has drawn the ire of the Australasian Railway Association with CEO Mr Bryan Nye particularly critical of the proposals: "Buses and cars are already creating car parks on Sydney roads and without a different approach the city's congestion will continue to worsen," says Nye. "Building new roads and in particular the West Connex motorway project will not ease the challenges caused by population growth and the ever-increasing freight volumes."

The report does acknowledge that with a projected increase of 37% in rail patronage over the next 20 years additional rail capacity will be required, particularly in the CBD, which already handles 44% of city commuters, but it favours using existing assets wherever possible "given the extremely high cost of new construction." It also recommends increasing "use of the City Circle to provide additional capacity for suburban services in the CBD within 10 years."

As an alternative to a second Sydney Harbour crossing, the report favours extending the NWRL rapid transit line over Sydney Harbour Bridge to the CBD and then on to Strathfield. This would require resignalling and reconfiguration of existing lines, but it would allow faster and more frequent services to the CBD and high-capacity metro-style services on the most congested parts of the network.

First Things First acknowledges that ultimately infrastructure funding can only come from taxation and user charges. Highlighting the fact that the level of public transport subsidy in NSW is very high by international standards with only 20% farebox recovery on the CityRail network, it recommends reducing subsidies to the levels determined as efficient by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPart), which could be achieved through a combination of operational efficiencies and modest fare rises.

However, this might not be that easy. IPart recommends increasing CityRail fares by an average of 4.4% a year for the next three years from January 2013. "The maximum average fares under our draft 2013 determination reflect our estimate of the efficient costs [of operating CityRail] minus the external benefits, and would mean that fares begin increasing from January next year to transition back to a level that ensures passengers and taxpayers each fund a fair share of the efficient costs," says IPart chairman, Dr Peter Boxall.

Depite IPart's recommendations, transport minister Ms Gladys Berejiklian says fares will not rise above the Consumer Price Index - currently 2% - unless there are demonstrable improvements to services for customers. "While the NSW government is working hard to provide more trains for customers and increase the service standard they receive, we have decided that the fare increase proposed by IPart is not warranted at this time," she says.

The transport minister's decision to overrule IPart is a clear indication that political considerations take precedence over the economics of funding Sydney's rail network, which does not bode well for the future. Rail transport needs consistent long-term planning and funding to thrive, but New South Wales still has a long way to go to recognise this.

High speed to the rescue?

SYDNEY Airport may have a greater influence on Sydney's rail network in the future as concerns about its capacity, which is likely to peak in 2027, are prompting calls for the overflow to be handled by Canberra Airport some 200km to the south with a high-speed rail (HSR) connection.

A report released by Canberra Airport suggests that an HSR line between Canberra Airport and the Sydney CBD could be built for as little as $A 11bn and be carrying up to 12 million passengers by 2036 with a journey time of 57 minutes.

"Anyone who alleges that there is no case for HSR is simply not looking at the evidence," says Canberra Airport's managing director, Mr Stephen Byron.

"The case is really very simple. Sydney needs a second airport because Kingsford-Smith Airport (KSA) will be at capacity by 2027. Passenger demand for HSR between Canberra and Sydney will be boosted significantly from KSA overflow and support the viability of the HSR as a solution to Sydney's aviation capacity needs."

Sydney business groups have cautioned against the possibility of urban rail projects inhibiting the development of a high-speed rail network on Australia's east coast. Mr Stephen Cartwright of the NSW Business Chamber says that integrating HSR into Sydney's existing rail network is the most cost-effective option to reduce the significant construction costs of a high-speed network linking Newcastle, Sydney and Canberra, and ultimately Melbourne and Brisbane.

"We believe an integrated approach could cut the cost of HSR by between $A 10bn and $A 15bn. However, the NSW government's plans for rapid transit operation of the North-West Rail Link and a second Sydney Harbour rail crossing could very well lock out the most cost-effective way of delivering an HSR network through Sydney's CBD."

Whether high-speed rail will ever be a feature of Sydney's rail future though, remains open to conjecture and the authors of First Things First are unimpressed. They do not see high-speed rail as a priority for state investment over the next 20 years, saying incremental improvements to the existing national highway network and inter-city rail lines, reflecting its "first things first" approach, should take priority.

The report does not consider the Canberra option in isolation, but looks at the whole Melbourne - Sydney - Brisbane HSR proposal which it considers too expensive, with a price tag ranging from $A 68bn to $A 108bn, and believes the case has not been made as to why a rail option would provide such transformative benefits that it would compete with aviation, even with a heavy subsidy. A quick look at the European experience would tell the report's authors than a high-speed service offering a three-hour journey time kills off air competition and does not require an operating subsidy.