Sydney, Australia's Transit Network
Sydney, New South Wales is a picturesque city of approximately 4.5 million on the east coast of Australia. Approximately 300,000 people work in the central business district; this high number, in combination with the extremely limited number of expressways in the area, means that commuters have two choices: either drive along extremely congested arterial roadways, or take transit in to work.
Many people have chosen to take transit: the total number of passengers on all government operated public transport in the Sydney metropolitan area totaled 522 million in FY10; the breakdown by mode was as follows:
- State Transit (buses) 205,000,000
- City Rail (commuter trains) 303,000,000
- Sydney Ferries 14,000,000
In addition to the above, private bus companies operate transit routes in the Sydney area, mostly in the low density outer suburbs. Patronage numbers for private numbers are difficult to estimate in total, but they are not expected to add a significant number of trips in comparison with the government operated services. Also, a new privately operated light rail system operates between the central business district and the casino area along Darling Harbour, and a monorail operates around the downtown area. Overall, the average Sydney resident takes 116 transit trips per year, which is very impressive considering how the density of Sydney as a whole is comparable with sunbelt American cities such as Houston and Phoenix.
As would be expected from the patronage numbers, the amount of network coverage is massive. City Rail, for example, operates 1,650 train cars on 1,595 km of track serving 307 stations. State Transit operates 2,163 buses on 284 routes in Sydney and a further 26 routes in Newcastle, a city of 540,000 about 50 miles north of Sydney.
Sydney's transit fares are extremely expensive compared with North American standards. Note that at the time of this writing the Australian Dollar was basically at parity with the American Dollar, so $1 = AU$1. In addition, until very recently it was very difficult to change modes during your journey without paying separate full fares. Sydney now offers period passes that allow unlimited rides on buses, trains, ferries, or trains only to different geographical limits depending on the total fare paid.
Cash Fares (Fares are Dependent on Distance Traveled)
- One way Bus AU$2.00 - AU$4.30
- One way Train AU$3.20 - AU$6.00
- One way Ferry AU$5.30 - AU$6.60
- Buses Only Pass Not Available - Book of Ten Tickets Only
- Trains Only AU$25.00 - AU$56.00
- Ferries Only Pass Not Available - Book of Ten Tickets Only
- All Modes AU$41.00 - AU$57.00
State Transit reported revenue of AU$587,178,000 in FY09; all except AU$1,722,000 was self-generated, mostly from fares. Expenses totaled AU$620,155,000, the negative balance was covered through reserves. Although a self-operated subsidiary of the State Government of New South Wales, State Transit received almost no subsidy from the state government for either operating or capital costs. Thus, we find the explanation for the extremely high fares compared with North American standards. In addition, the capital costs for State Transit are far lower than what we would expect in North America: the normal life expectancy of buses in the fleet is twenty-five years with a mandated average fleet age of twelve years.
Due to a continued rapid increase in population (Sydney's population is projected to reach over six million by 2050), Sydney's transit system, although robust, is straining under increased demand. In the past few years new railway extensions have been opened to Macquarie University in the north and the airport in the south, and a privately operated light rail system has opened in the inner west harbor area. However, higher fares to the new stations in the airport area and separate fares for the light rail system, both mandated by private involvement in line construction, have meant that these extensions have not enjoyed the expected patronage.
In addition, bus service has been greatly expanded. Many new cross-suburban services have been introduced to improve travel options to new satellite downtowns such as the ones at Paramatta and Chatswood. Readers familiar with the Los Angeles Rapid Bus system will see that Sydney has introduced a similar system known as MetroBus; personal observation has suggested that like Los Angeles people in Sydney have been leaving the MetroBus routes fairly empty while overcrowding local bus services.
Finally, the proposal to build a heavy rail subway along Paramatta Road from the downtown area to the western suburbs has been cancelled, at least for now. The expense did not justify the construction of the line, which was to have run roughly parallel and a mile away from a major eight track commuter rail corridor.
Lessons for North American Operators
Given the highly politicized nature of North American transit fares, it is unlikely that even systems that would be unlikely to see a rapid ridership decline from such a massive fare increase will dare to raise fares to as much as $57 a week given that many transit operators still offer monthly passes in the $60-70 range. However, I think that the habit of replacing buses after twelve years is one that transit systems need to rethink. While systems in cold climates may have no choice but to follow that schedule, operators in warmer areas could experience great capital budget savings by extending the useful lives of their fleets. Keeping buses for thirteen years instead of twelve would reduce capital budget requirements by 8%; and while studies would have to be done to quantify any projected maintenance budget increase the older buses would cause, it is unlikely that the maintenance budget would increase by 8%.
The introduction of the weekly and longer term "My Multi" passes, which allow unlimited travel across all transit modes, has done a great deal to reduce the significant transfer penalties that used to plague Sydney transit travelers, at least for those who have enough money to purchase them. Separate fare structures with no available transfers has meant in practice that instead of designing an efficient transit system in which all modes work together to provide a seamless journey, Sydney's system has become one in which different modes compete against each other for journeys between outer suburbs and the central business district. For example, passengers wishing to travel between Paramatta and Central Sydney can choose between river ferry, limited stop bus, and train. Perhaps in the future resources spent operating the limited stop bus could be redistributed to offer improved cross-suburban bus service between train stations, and the river ferry could be re-envisioned as a scenic service marketed primarily for tourists or removed entirely, with the resources saved spent on improving ferry services to areas that cannot be reached effectively with other modes of transit.