Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 

 FACT SHEET No 120

MAY 2001 

THE HARBOUR BRIDGE IN SYDNEY - WILL THE TRAMS RETURN?

INTRODUCTION

"One particular piece of vandalism was conversion of the tram tracks on the Sydney Harbour Bridge to yet more roadway" (1). Although the Sydney network was swept away in 1961, the Melbourne system, under Major-General Risson, stood firm despite strident criticism, simply on the grounds that trams were better able to handle large numbers of people. The Harbour Bridge and its Wynyard rail tunnel are still available for restoration to a high capacity public transport trunk route able to deliver passengers direct into (and through) the heart of the city.

A FIRST IN AUSTRALIA

The opening in 1932 created an important "first" in Australia, the underground tram station at Wynyard. Although some North Sydney tram routes fed into this underground terminal, the tracks were never connected to the main tramway system. Just what was intended is not too clear because four railway tracks were certainly not needed at that time. As a consequence the two western tracks became available for heavy rail services whilst those on the eastern side became tram tracks. The one station at Milson's Point was made suitable for trams by simply raising the tracks. Available evidence suggests that Dr Bradfield, the designer of the bridge, was aware that four tracks would be in excess of immediate requirements (2). Whether or not the existing tunnels could have been utilised for tram services became irrelevant after 1958 when buses replaced the bridge trams. This created some fierce controversy over the future of the right-of-way, no doubt accentuated because the six traffic lanes were now carrying the former tram passengers also (3). The overhead and rails were quickly removed, thus permitting the six traffic lanes to be expanded to eight.

TRAMS CARRY MORE PEOPLE

This earlier insistence by Major-General Risson (M&MTB in Melbourne) that trams could handle large numbers of people helped to save Melbourne's tram system but failed in NSW, probably because of interstate rivalry. The continued scrapping of the bridge trams should have sounded "alarm bells" but the policy was so quick and thorough that those suggesting retention and continued use were somewhat overwhelmed and could only protest that removal was premature.

By the early 1990's though, attitudes were beginning to change with a report of a Government proposal to put the tracks back (4). This was actually one of a number of preferred options to link the CBD with the North Shore. This "U" turn followed the opening of a road tunnel, partly blamed for additional congestion in various parts of the city (5) and provoking a prominent politician into suggesting that the Cahill Expressway and Circular Quay Station should be pulled down. Somewhat paradoxically, a local road organisation supported retention of the railway (6).

ARE TRAMS A THING OF THE PAST?

With such a large part of the population in Australia's State Capital Cities now lacking experience of modernised tramway operation (7) it is not surprising that any light rail plans are met with hostility from motorists and shopkeepers alike. To their credit though, the operators of the recently opened Metro Light Rail system in Sydney have made major efforts to improve and extend services but, with their operations somewhat isolated and fares far from integrated, an uphill struggle lies ahead. A major hurdle is the lack of Government consent to extend through the CBD to a point close to the Sydney Harbour Bridge (8). This obstacle may soon disappear though, because a survey undertaken by the University of Sydney showed that 73% of city residents supported more Government funding on public transport compared with 52% for more to be spent on roads (9).

AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT LIGHT RAIL

A form of understandable frustration may well have been the cause for a very descriptive article on light rail appearing in a well- known Australian journal devoted to urban transit issues. "The story needs to be retold and reinforced until decision-makers understand it" (10). Although somewhat basic in detail, the continual rejection of robust light rail schemes in Australia as a whole tends to demonstrate a need for this review.

In brief, light rail:

  • is cheaper than an equivalent suburban rail system
  • can negotiate steeper grades and sharper curves
  • has better acceleration and braking characteristics
  • can operate with single-vehicle trains of smaller profiles
  • can have more stops per km and still maintain a good average speed
  • needs less walking time to reach
  • offers easier access
  • integrates well with pedestrian movement in precincts.

    COMPARISON WITH EUROPE

    Some overseas visits by politicians, traffic planners and professional transport engineers would quickly demonstrate that an application of more light rail schemes would help to solve many of the chronic congestion problems normally experienced in Sydney. Many of the technical difficulties that could be encountered have already been solved elsewhere and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that a visit to just the following four places could supply the answers to all the problems anticipated in Sydney.

    MANNHEIM brings its Rhine bridge tracks down to street level using some ingenious civil engineering techniques.

    MANCHESTER has converted a dangerous thoroughfare (Piccadilly Gardens) into a pedestrian- friendly transit mall.

    SHEFFIELD has found steep grades (up to 1 in 10) to be no problem.

    CROYDON has proved that light rail attracts shoppers.

    CONCLUSION

    It is not difficult to appreciate that with some well-proven light rail technology combined with a strong political will, Sydney could overcome much of its current traffic chaos. Making a CBD surface connection between the North Shore and new tracks over the Sydney Harbour Bridge; an extended Metro Light Rail link; and an Eastern Suburbs Railway converted to light rail, provided with more stations and extended to the beaches (as suggested by John Gerofi in his light rail report), could convert a very pleasant dream into a reality.

    REFERENCES

    1. Max Michell - a self-employed consultant - in RAILWAY DIGEST page 26 - April 2001.
    2. THE TRAMWAYS OF AUSTRALIA page 210 by Samuel Brimson - published by P R Brooks.
    3. ACROSS THE BRIDGE - page 7 by John Alfred - published by Traction Publications.
    4. A Sydney Morning Herald report recorded in LIGHT RAIL AND MODERN TRAMWAY - page 275 - October 1993.
    5. TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - September 1994.
    6. TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - December 1993.
    7. Last trams: Perth - 1958; Adelaide - 1958 (urban only); Hobart - 1960; Sydney - 1961; Brisbane - 1969.
    8. The Chamber of Commerce, opposed to this CBD extension, is well-known for its concern for parking outside shops - TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - August 1999.
    9. A Sydney Morning Herald report quoted in TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - page 116 - May 2001.
    10. "Once More Into the Breach ... " by John Gerofi TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - April 2001.
    To go to next Fact Sheet - click here
    To return to Fact Sheets Index - click here
    To return to LRTA Home page - click here