Rush hour on the MTR in Hong Kong

Last Sunday’s Sun-Herald editorial was headlined: “Mike Baird’s action on a second harbour rail crossing is no excuse for secrecy”.

The Fairfax paper opined “… [T]his vision-splendid [of a turn-up-and-go rail service] and the necessity of the crossing do not give Mike Baird a free pass when it comes to answering some key questions about the project. These include explaining in detail why his government chose a metro system to solve Sydney’s train problems and exactly how it will do so.”

It was a very belated and deferential response to the creeping takeover and downgrading of Sydney’s heavy rail system by MTR Corporation, the Hong Kong-based property development giant and metro rail operator.

EcoTransit has for years warned of the threat posed by the metro. A week before the Sun-Herald’s editorial we released a new 12-minute video – Four passengers per square metre – that takes a hard look at the grim realities.

Systematically concealed from the public is that the metro involves a massive downgrading of passenger capacity and comfort. The grim reality is that in the peaks 70 per cent of passengers will have to stand, many for over half an hour, at four passengers per square metre or more (six per square metre is the norm on MTR’s Hong King operation).

No European rail operator would remotely consider retro-converting an existing double-deck heavy rail operation to metro, especially over Sydney’s long commuting distances.

The Baird government plans to convert Sydney’s system to single-deck driverless metro, progressively locking out double-deck rolling stock. The plan has proceeded under a veil of deception, secrecy and misinformation. As Premier Baird, Treasurer Berejiklian and Transport Minister Constance tell it, only metro trains can run at better than five-minute frequencies. This is a nonsense, because even with the Sydney system’s antiquated signalling, there are platforms at Central station where, in the peaks, trains arrive on average every two or three minutes.

Around the world, rail operators that can convert suburban and regional rail to double-deck rolling stock are doing so, citing passenger capacity and comfort as the reason. To cite one example, the Paris RER system – the equivalent of Sydney’s suburban rail system – is converting to all double-deck operation, and in the peaks their trains arrive every two minutes. But against the global trend, the Baird government is bent on downgrading to cattle-class travel to fit in with MTR’s Hong Kong development model.

The metro plan is linked to the decision to transform vast swathes of Sydney into cheap, densely-packed high-rise apartments built for the investor market. In the case of Sydney Metro the link is tighter and more gratuitous than the link between the WestConnex tollroad project and the “vertical sprawl” developers backing tollways because MTR will be both the rail operator and the lead property developer along the metro rail corridor – an East Asian model the corporation is attempting to export around the world.

Gavin Gatenby is co-convenor of EcoTransit Sydney, a community public and active transport advocacy group.

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  1. Never understood why Sydney was bringing in single decker trains, this article may shed some light. Many trains in Perth where I live are like these proposed single decker trains with less seats. They can get very crammed and are more uncomfortable to the seated carriages Perth train lines use to mostly run.
    Even though some Sydney trains were older, I enjoyed them much more than the Perth trains, you could open the windows on the old carriages if the train was smelly, and it was always more comfortable because I rarely had to stand or sit with peoples behinds or genitalia in my face. I rarely use Perth trains anymore, they are a violation. I am all for public transport, but not at the expense of comfort. I would rather wait an extra five minutes for a train if it meant I could sit and relax for a half hour journey instead of standing.

  2. There is a general ignorance about the benefits of a single deck metro. I was born in Hong Kong and travelled on MTR almost all my life. The convenience of frequent trains is a big plus. On non peak hours, trains comes 3-4 mins max. In Peak hour traffic, trains comes every 30 seconds without fail. For Sydney Trains, I would be fortunate if they run at that frequency consistently, I know for sure double decker trains could not run at this frequency as it takes forever for passengers to get on board with only 2 doors per train (90 secs at worst, yes Ive timed it), in MTR, with 5 doors per cars, takes only 30 secs if not less. So the less time it takes in passengers, more trains could be fitted in. So I think the author is under illusion if Sydney Trains can run on the same frequency as MTR, besides, MTR carries 4-5 million passengers daily efficiently and punctually, even in rainstorms. Sydney struggles with 1 million on a good day to run their trains punctually. That would be a good enough statistic to show the superiority of metro trains.

  3. Two things struck me about this article:

    1. It’s barely concealed racism – “East Asian bad, European good”
    2. It’s undisguised elitism – “Cheap, densely packed apartments”.

    I wonder where EcoTransit think all those people who can no longer afford Sydney exorbitant house prices should live? Nowhere near public transport stations, apparently. Or more likely, just nowhere near them. Way out in the outer suburbs, maybe? I guess, where they’ll be forced into car dependency and a high carbon use lifestyle. At least they’ll be a long way away.

    2. Then I looked at the video, which at least explained where all this grumpy, reactionary, misanthropic and anti-environmentalism came from. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve heard anything more hysterically inaccurate and just plain loopy in years. Reckon I could go back to when I was a uni student in 80s, and accidentally stumbled into a room of Trots haranguing a tiny little group of fellow cultists about various capitalist conspiracies and the coming imminent collapse of the West.

    But it all has such a neat Hansonite update! The villains now are Asian – in cahoots with a specificly named weasel-like NSW bureaucrat (corrupt no doubt) and assorted evil capitalists.

    A quick look at EcoTransit’s Facebook page confirmed it. It’s a tiny group of keyboard warriors with a few followers and even less coherence. Claiming to be Sydney public transport supporters, they can’t seem to find any public transport projects to actually support. They appear to like trams, but not the current light rail project. Anyone mistaken enough to respond to their paranoid nonsense is immediately attacked and abused.

    Well, at least they’re amusing themselves. Whatever this lot is, they’re not taken seriously by anyone.

  4. The new metro is cannibalising a first-rate double-decker service from Bankstown into the city for zero gain. This service is only slowish and infrequent at present because we choose to keep it that way. We do not need to completely reinvent the rail network just to get faster services or more frequent services. We could instead be spending that money on new train lines for more double deck services, a second harbour crossing over the bridge (which would be much cheaper) and working to improve signalling and running them at much closer intervals. All this might be a far better way to save billions compared to Baird’s downgrading to a standing mostly cattle class service. Buy new rolling stock – the kind that already exists, with plenty of seats and comfort – and expand the network we have. It could be fed regionally by more light rail and buses.

  5. I’d like to know what the pay off was for this . It is poor planning to say the least . Our commuters don’t travel for a few minutes but anything up to an hour & they are expected to pay for the privilege of a 3rd rate service.

  6. The indifference by the masses towards this project (also influenced by a compliant media) encourages the Baird government to become bolder in getting their greedy hands on public assets and giving them to their supporters. One has the feeling the state liberal party would privatise their daughters if they thought they had development potential. Giving away a state/public asset to a private company is nothing lees than a crime against the state.

  7. Mike Baird is just looking after developers, bankers, investors and himself. He does not care about Sydney people. It is just about money for him and his mates. It is the same for the Light Rail in the eastern suburbs, secrecy, no community consultation and benefiting the Racecourse, developers, etc.
    Other countries are used to be treated as cattle but why we have to accept this treatment? In the name of progress?
    Mike Baird is destroying this beautiful city.

  8. Take the lanes away from the Cahill expressway and return them to heavy rail. The capacity in terms of people/hour/lane is much higher for heavy rail than for a traffic lane, even a narrow one as on the Harbour Bridge. In other words, it would improve the people-moving capacity of the bridge.

  9. Great article and video. Our system was planned well by Bradfield to accommodate dual deck trains. This was far sighted vision. Unfortunately these ideas have been rolled back such as the Cahill expressway taking away the heavy rail planned for the eastern side of the Harbour Bridge.

    Why are we repeating a similar mistake? Didn’t we also learn from the history of differing rail gauges in Australia?

    By the way, advocating for the best possible public transport is not the same as being ‘anti’-public transport. It’s the opposite.

    By analogy, just because Einstein turned Newtonian physics upside down didn’t mean he was ‘anti’-physics.

    This Metro system is like going back to Ptolemy.