Last weekend marked a milestone in the New South Wales (NSW) government’s infrastructure projects. Before the last state election, the Liberal government had made a lot of promises but there was no ribbon cutting yet. Since then, they have opened the Northwest (NW) metro, and just a week ago, introduced the tram to city goers. I recall all the hype surrounding the NW metro, the crowds during opening weekend, the driverless trains, the free rides to celebrate the metro being open for business. The state got ahead of themselves and had their hands full. Meanwhile, buses have been out of George Street for four years now and construction has been in full swing. There have been a lot of negative press, not the least being that the project was way over budget. It’s about time.
Let’s try it
The trams have been operating for a few days when we decided to try it out. Without the tram, it would have been at least a fifteen-minute walk. We waited four minutes for the next tram, and we alighted at the third stop. The trip was relatively smooth, without the traffic that has typified George Street. On another note, Melbourne is world-renowned for its efficacious trams. In the first half of the previous century, Sydney had the second-largest tram network in the world (after London). However, the rise of buses spelled doom for this system. The last tram from this era bid adieu in 1961 and the next phase of the light rail (the L1 line) did not roll on until 1987. Thus, while the Melbournian trams thrived, the light rail remained largely forgotten in the Harbour City.
The increasing number of people in Sydney has caused excessive strain on Sydney’s transport network. The light rail (LR) project was one of the initiatives that could ameliorate this crowdedness. As mentioned, the venture ran into trouble…and more trouble. There was false hope, delays, bad press, and more delays. The whole shebang could make for a half-decent tragicomedy: dramas with construction companies, labour action, dramas with the public, and furore over budgets and delays. One pub was so confident, even offering free rounds if the enterprise got done by Christmas.
Alas, in spite of the torrent of negativity, the trams were up and running. I heard that each set was 47 metres long, with both vertical and side-based seats. They also turn up at a high frequency (every four minutes), so you don’t have to keep consulting the timetable as with the buses. It’s likewise fully integrated with Opal, the state’s ‘smartcard ticketing system’. For the uninitiated, the Opal is similar to Myki in Victoria and the Beep Card in the Philippines. With Opal, you load money in your account and use this credit whenever you travel. Right now, both debit and credit cards could be utilised to the same effect. Just remember to tap on and off to ensure the correct fare.
The old George Street had been the most congested road in Sydney. Buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians all swarmed onto the thoroughfare, making it appear more like a chokepoint than an actual route. Traffic jams were always bad, and peak hour in particular was a nightmare. I remember taking the bus a few times along this street and I was sure that walking would’ve been faster to get to point B. Of course, there used to be the free shuttle bus which both tourists and locals seem to flock to like birds of prey. This was good for some time, if you could handle the nudging and jockeying. Times have since changed. I was in the era of the TravelTen, back when Labour was still in power. Then, after some time, Opal came around and you didn’t have to keep buying those after every ten trips.
La Ruta (The Route)
Starting from Circular Quay, the tram goes all the way to Randwick. The L2 Randwick Line passes through the city, Surry Hills, and out east to the final stop. I’ve heard that the entire route takes forty-five minutes. This also represents the newest completion among the government’s initiatives. Over a month or two, Sydneysiders were becoming accustomed to these new transporters. If you didn’t see them during the testing phase, there was a lot of coverage in the media. Opening weekend was likewise hyped up, with free rides for everyone. The numerrous stops are one of the downsides of the trams. However, this is still an upgrade over its predecessor, with more frequent services and shorter breaks too. With the LR, there is no traffic as well, and more room than buses. There were also a lot of assistants buzzing around platforms. With their ‘Ask Me’ tees, you won’t miss them. We now know that the total cost of this move was over three billion dollars, twice what was drawn up. On the brighter side, it’s drinks on the house.
So how are we to judge the merits of this project? What makes it a success (or not)? Well, we can look to the changes around us. Is George Street still gridlocked? Have the trams democratised transport along this route? Has it made a big difference? Well, I can tell you that we are not better off with the buses. Saying that buses in George Street was nice is not progressive thinking. Yes, George Street is still a stampede with walking pandas, nosy giraffes, angry koalas, and furry creatures. Yet I doubt that it would be much clearer without the trams. On that count, in somewhat easing the nightmarish congestion, it has made a difference.
To my fellow travellers: wishing you all a very blissful Yuletide season.