Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Slow blue shibboleth
E. M. Farrelly
IT COULD have been worse. Could have been green and gold. If you find the royal-blue-and-clotted-aqua of Sydney’s new light rail depressingly lavatorial, red stripe or not, it may pay to reflect on the alternatives.
In fact, the new trams could have come out clad in sequins and feather boas without demur from any of the half-dozen consent authorities involved. For the Sydney Light Rail (SLR) is a classic example of how to achieve aesthetic impunity by being morally burnproof.
The SLR’s shibboleth status derives from a combination of environmental correctness and civic nostalgia. Not only does each light rail vehicle carry 40 times as many people as your average car, with six times the energy efficiency and 70 per cent fewer smog particles (per passenger kilometre), but it does all that in only four times the standard car’s road space.
Added to which is all the old-time feel-appeal of the Bondi tram, symbol of the days when smoking was a health activity and two-up was good clean fun. All brought to you now with rubberised wheels, disabled access and airconditioning (CFC-free, natch).
Between them, these two factors have guaranteed what is really just a ground-hugging monorail, a remarkably easy ride. This may be a good thing. It’s time Sydney had a proper public transport addition and, in the noise-and-pollution stakes, light rail has an unquestionable edge on buses, cars, taxis and the monorail. Just a few nigglers remain, about velocity, visuals and whether the SLR can deliver on its own high standards.
Ultimo-Pyrmont was a Better Cities baby, suckled for five years on a $117 million Commonwealth drip-feed (no pun intended). The “privately funded” light rail had sufficient karma to attract some $20 million of this, a-dollar-something for every living Australian. That’s private enterprise for you.
Still, it would never have been a goer without the casino.
Look at it this way. Providing public transport is no cheap exercise. Which is why governments are happy – nay, thrilled – for someone else to do it. Private enterprise, on the other hand, concentrates better when there’s a hefty government dowry in the offing. UltimoPyrmont was twice-dowried: $20 million on the one hand and free use of the earth’s surface, on the other.
The project cost $70 million. This would have tripled had the consortium been obliged to buy the land. But by good fortune there was an existing rail loop around Ultimo-Pyrmont, left over from when all NSW’s import/exports had to bottleneck through Darling Harbour. The State obligingly made this corridor available.
For the Feds, all that made Ultimo-Pyrmont hard to go past. An urban makeover with both high-density living and public transport potential. If Sydneysiders could live anywhere without the umbilical car, this was surely the place. A Deputy PM had $800 million worth of indulgences burning a hole in his portfolio and Ultimo-Pyrmont took out a sizable chunk.
From the private investors’ point of view, though, things looked a little more lemonish. The 54,000 new residents whom the Government was expecting to revive the peninsula were years off at best and wholly unguaranteed. Free real estate was one thing, but major investment in a transport link between Wentworth Park, where no-one lived, and Central station, where no-one wanted to go? Well, would you put your super on it?
The casino, a couple of years later, changed everything. It was no surprise when the Government rewrote the plan for the peninsula to accommodate the world’s glitziest casino. At which moment the light rail moved from if to when. The project began to take shape: heavy rail track was converted to light, special low-floor vehicles were modified from the East German original, and the agonising process began of extracting consent from multiple civic authorities – the City Council, Central Sydney Planning Committee, Darling Harbour Authority, City West Development Corporation, Department of Planning and Ultimo-Pyrmont Urban Design Advisory Committee, inter alia.
From that end it’s surprising that anything ever eventuated. The consortium did well to struggle through. Sure, there are faults. The livery, including colours and graphics, is a lost opportunity for something as stylish and as unmistakably Sydney as the Underground symbol is definitively London. The central cable or “catenary” poles, while broadly inoffensive, demonstrate yet again, in comparison with the ornate old-time Sydney tram poles, the general meagreness of modernity. And the regretability of yet more street clutter.
Disabled access is still problematic because the vehicles’ low-floor feature, having clinched the bid in the first place, is yet a good 50mm higher than the street-side platforms.
AND there are occasional telltales of the surplus-cooks syndrome. John St Square station, for instance, sports not one but three types of light fitting; Louis Poulson’s new Pyrmont standard from Denmark; triangular-coned Bega, the SLR’s standard light; and yet another, anonymous cantilevered-pendant number lighting
the endless stair that rises from the heritage chasm. Most of the stations are reasonably consistent in design vocabulary, with yellow and white platform tiles, deep charcoal-blue metalwork and Michael Davies’s handsome minimalist shelters. One or two stations, though, got away. John St has a completely different, barrel-topped shelter (presumed temporary), while the casino clearly called all its own shots, with snaking green-‘n’-gold ceiling-neons a’ la Helmut Jahn’s O’Hare Airport station in Chicago, blue and orange ’60s supergraphics and beige-on-beige floor tiles. Nice. And while some stations have two shelters, others (for example, Haymarket and Capitol Square) have none. And even the shelters that do exist don’t cover the ticket-machine, so in a Sydney deluge it’s back to fumbling for change while juggling the umbrella, the briefcase, and tonight’s lean cuisine.
The question blinking red, though, is who will use the SLR when the shine has worn off? Who really wants to travel from Wentworth Park – or even the casino – to Central enough to spend 20 minutes and $2.80 doing it, often enough to support a railway? Of course, things will change. The convenience quotient will rise as more trams come aboard, reducing peak-hour waiting-times to five minutes (three would be better). Travel time will drop as drivers wear in, velocities increase (slightly) and traffic lights become synchronised to prioritise the approaching tram (except at the George Street crossing). And the absurdity of the route will fall away when the system is extended, as proposed, to include a downtown loop at one end – down Pitt and up Castlereagh – and an extension out to Catherine Street, Leichhardt, at the other. Pedestrian safety is important and speed-limiters have their place. But at the moment the ride itself is so strictly andante you could just about walk along holding its hand. This, as noted, may improve. But so far you gotta say it’s lucky the team of consultants who brainstormed the name landed on Sydney Light Rail not Sydney Rapid Transit.
Illus: On the right track…Most stations are reasonably consistent in design vocabulary, with yellow and white tiles, deep charcoal-blue metalwork and handsome minimalist shelters.
Photograph by Sahlan Hayes.