Commuters still waiting in line for the 2019 light rail in 2022

Under construction since 2015, the NSW government’s Sydney CBD and South East Light Rail project deadline was originally early 2019. Completion has since been pushed to 2022, but commuters worry they’ll still be waiting.

Ashleigh Smith waiting at the front of the line for the express service to Central Station from UNSW after missing out on the previous service.

At 5:49am, an alarm rings in a dark bedroom in the Northern Sydney suburb of Whalan. Ashleigh Smith stirs for the final time before lifting herself out of bed. She should have been up at 5:30. Now, she’ll have to decide between breakfast and attending the minimum requirement of tutorials. Ashleigh can already feel her morning commute unravelling. Even if she’s lucky enough to find a park at the train station and claim the last seat on the Central Station to UNSW service, the bus will hit traffic on Anzac Parade. Once again, Ashleigh sacrifices breakfast for her education. As she makes her way out the door to begin the same journey she’ll do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, she vows to drop any course with a compulsory 9am lecture.

“An hour and 54 minutes”, Ashleigh Smith says. This is Ashleigh’s predicted commute time according to Google maps. But, waiting in the line for the express UNSW service for more than 20 minutes, this is incorrect. Like most mornings, she was forced to hunt for street parking a few blocks away from Mount Druitt station. She was late to Central, and joined the end of line that snaked its way down Eddy Avenue. “I need to give myself more than 2 hours to get to Uni.” Ashleigh says. “We hit traffic on Anzac Parade. I guarantee it.”

This is the reality for many commuters across Sydney. According to the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra, commute times in major Australian cities have increased by 20 per cent since 2002. The report showed that Sydney has the longest commutes, with people spending an average of almost 6 hours each week commuting. Increasing population and unreliable public transport services due to congested traffic has added to the inflation of commute times. Now, the construction of projects implemented by the NSW Government has increased commute times further. Will the inconvenience of improving our transport systems be worth it?

The construction of the Sydney CBD and South East Light Rail began in 2015. As the project moves past its original 2019 deadline, completion has been pushed to 2022. The construction has not only made entire lanes disappear, but entire streets in the CBD and Eastern Suburbs are also inaccessible. This has resulted in increased traffic congestion in areas, also forcing the closure of bus stops and altering bus routes, such as on High Street in Randwick.

The Light Rail stretching down High Street, Randwick, where lanes have been taken out to make it a one-way street to make way for the construction.

Smith, who will finish her degree before the Light Rail’s completion, believes that due to the construction surrounding the Eastern Suburbs, her time spent on Anzac Parade on her way to UNSW makes up the majority of her commute. “There’s a lot of congestion,” she says. “They’ve taken out lanes, which means I’m always stuck in the traffic longer than expected.” Smith acknowledges that measures taken by Transport NSW to accommodate for the inconvenience of the construction has helped. “I do like the express buses from Central [Station]. It has improved my commute,” she says. “But the line is pretty long. [I could be stuck in the line from] anywhere up to half an hour.” 

A screenshot of Google Maps showing Ashleigh Smith’s commute. 

Smith isn’t the only commuter who feels this way. Jackie Hon Mong, 21-year-old Matraville resident, commutes to Sydney University four days a week. The CBD and South East Light Rail will not reach areas south of the Eastern Suburbs, such as Matraville, Maroubra and La Peruse. Mong’s commute is impacted by the construction from Kingsford onward, however she won’t benefit from the service once it’s completed. “Its just inconvenient,” Mong says. “I would have to catch a bus to Kingsford where it starts, so I don’t really see the point.” Mong was also forced to change bus routes due to the construction, commenting on how unreliable the services have become. “There’s times when [the bus] just doesn’t come,” mong says. “I’ve had buses be 20 minutes late or just not turn up.”

Marguerite Graupner, an 80-year-old Maroubra resident, believes the construction throughout the Eastern Suburbs has affected her experience using public transport, saying, “Bus stops are disappearing, there’s overcrowding, and [public transport] isn’t punctual.” Graupner, who holds a Handicap Parking Permit, now struggles to find suitable parking spots due to the construction of the Light Rail. “There are very few handicap parking spots,” she says. She is also concerned about the limited seating on the Light Rail. Although there less than 60 seats per service, according to NSW Government’s website, one Light Rail service is expected to hold up to 300 people. “I don’t know how I’m going to cope on there,” Graupner says.

Silvio Falato, the Team Leader of Regional Assessments for the NSW Government, doesn’t believe the Light Rail improve Sydney’s public transport, discussing the ongoing costs associated with the project. “There’s a lot of maintenance needed for the carts themselves, plus the tracks,” he says. “The overall cost of the project has blown up considerably when you could have had a better, quicker fix. It’s better if they invested in just buses.” Falato believes the Light Rail’s success depends on how it will function within existing traffic, as the completed project will have the carriages conversing over roads, saying. “[The NSW Government] might reduce bus numbers,” Falato says, to accommodate for the amount of traffic that will be on the road. Falato believes this will leave some commuters in the lurch, with bus stops in Maroubra and La Peruse to be taken out, despite the Light Rail not reaching these parts of the Eastern Suburbs.

Many of the policies and projects the NSW Government plans to complete in the coming years target commuters. 6000 parking spaces will be constructed, using an “Opal Park and Ride” system, providing commuters with 18 hours of free parking if they use their Opal Card to travel on public transport. They also plan to fast track the completion of the Metro West Rail line, which, according to the NSW Government’s website, aims to cut the 24 minute journey between Sydney and Parramatta down to 20 minutes. More projects aim to “bust” congestion and minimise delays on roads, as well as 14,000 additional weekly bus services across Sydney, however not including the Eastern Suburbs.

The NSW Government was approached for comments regarding their plans to improve Sydney’s public transport but did not respond. Despite the express bus service from Central Station to UNSW and vice versa, any other measures taken to accommodate for delays in the Eastern Suburbs area caused by the construction are unclear. Along Anzac Parade, lanes have been taken out, and bus stops and parking spaces are disappearing, increasing congestion and commute times. Transport NSW also didn’t respond to enquiries regarding bus services following the completion of the Light Rail.