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Better Public Transport – Is the Answer Beneath Our Feet?

By Dr Marjorie O'Neill, Member for Coogee on February 4, 2020 in Other

The Bondi Tram ‘shooting through’ in early 1960, by Pat Cahill.

It’s been a long, hot summer and everywhere I go around the east I hear people talking about the traffic – choked streets, gridlock, longer travel times and poorer public transport options. The current outlook for improvements is not good.
The new light rail has provided an additional transportation option for some, while also contributing to increased road congestion and longer travel times. The government’s other proposed solution to our transportation difficulties is the privatisation of our buses, which may well result in fewer buses on our roads (as the young and old, poor and disabled find themselves unable to go anywhere) but must ultimately lead to increased private vehicle use. A radical rethink is needed to properly address the problems associated with transportation in the east.
In thinking about what we can do to improve public transport in our area, my concerns are not answered by the famous line from a 1960s mayor on the Gold Coast who proudly predicted, while ripping up railway tracks and removing the Gold Coast rail line, that, “It doesn’t matter because in ten years people will be flying to work in their helicopters.” Foresight? Not much!
There is one form of transport, however, which we know carries large amounts of people at high frequencies from one side of major cities to the other, all over the world. It’s not ‘rocket science’ to figure out what that form of transport is – it’s rail. Speaking of foresight or a lack thereof, it’s time for the obligatory but short history lesson on the chequered past of heavy rail right here in the Eastern Suburbs.
Long time residents may recall the Eastern Suburbs Railway, currently terminating at Bondi Junction, was conceived as far back as the 1930s or earlier. One of the original concepts was for a line that extended past the Junction, with stops at Charing Cross, Frenchmans Road, Randwick, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Kingsford. Transport planners in a bygone era had even bought up the land for these stops.
For the infrastructure nerds out there, where were these stations meant to be and what are they today? The quickie mart at Charo (formerly the famous Theo’s Milk Bar), the servo on the corner of Frenchmans and Clovelly Roads, a block of flats on Alison Road near the Randwick Club and underground beneath the centre of UNSW, with the line finally terminating at Seven Ways, Kingsford.
Construction began around Central in the 1930s but halted. Some tunnelling work was done from Town Hall to Martin Place in the 1950s but halted yet again. In the 1960s, much of the line was completed all the way to Edgecliff, and finally in 1979 construction finished at Bondi Junction, with a planned station at Woollahra half built but abandoned along the way.
We have all seen how Bondi Junction has changed since 1979, in some ways for the worse but in many ways for the better – improved access for all of us including those with disabilities, more jobs for our kids in the local shops, more choice for consumers in this ever changing 21st century, as well as more ways for us to get around the east and all of Sydney and on public transport.
With the north western suburbs finally getting their mostly underground metro last year, is it now time for us to revisit the need for underground mass transit in the Eastern Suburbs.
We live in the most densely populated part of town, with a high percentage of vehicle ownership. With so many daily activities in such a small geographic area, peak hour is a massive challenge for locals in the east, as we all know. Should we now be considering a new underground heavy rail line for our area in the coming decade? State planning policies talk about a ‘rapid transit corridor’ for the east, but with scant detail, no alignment and zero funding by state or federal governments.
Perhaps it’s up to us to push the politicians and planners further, to get some momentum for at least a discussion around what a rail line might look like, where it would go and how we would pay for it. Would it be an extension of the current Eastern Suburbs line? In this case the line could broadly follow the original route. Sadly, successive governments have sold off all the land above the stations, which earlier governments had the foresight to acquire.
Alternatively, the line could be a completely new metro-style line, perhaps following the Bradfield plan and leaving the city from St James, travelling up through Paddington and down to Randwick and Maroubra, or towards Eastgardens. There was a lot of controversy around a line to Bondi Beach around 20 years ago – does the same opposition still exist? The reality is that any line would need to extend out into the heart of the Eastern Suburbs and even the south east, serving the municipalities of Waverley, Randwick and even Bayside. The next question is, where will the stations go? UNSW and the new Prince of Wales development is a no-brainer for one, surely.
Now comes the controversial element: finding the land, trying to avoid residential properties wherever possible, and of course the big issue of tunnelling beneath properties. All of this would need to be managed very carefully by any future government building a new underground rail line, with the community taken on the journey from the very early days of planning right through to opening day.
There can be no denying that underground heavy rail moves people in numbers and at frequencies that no other form of public transport can match, not even the private helicopter travel predicted by that visionary Gold Coast mayor.
As your local member right in the heartland of where a new underground railway may one day need to go, I’d like to find out your thoughts on this option generally and on such details as stations, routes and frequencies. It took from the 1930s to 1979 to open the first half of our railway so we ought to start the conversation now.