Rant: Our underwhelming light rail

All aboard the Dulwich Hill Flyer? Maybe not, reports have said that it’s overcrowded, cramped and infrequent. Fair enough too, the truth is our new light rail is just not good enough.

The reports claimed the trams were “dangerously crowded” in peak hour, with passengers “crammed like sardines.” A regular Annandale commuter complained it now feels like “travelling in a third-world country” and says she won’t use it again. Well, she could try a time out of the very short peak hours – when the trams run almost empty – all day and way into the night. Empty!

She’s right to feel short changed though, and the overcrowding highlights light rail’s inherent limitations. But dissing the “third world” is unfair. Most countries to our north, even India and Indonesia, have invested in modern, efficient, fast metro services, and have, or will soon have, far better systems than Sydney’s.

The Chinese are rolling out whole new metro networks for all their cities. Take a ride on Shanghai’s metro on your next trip – it will blow you away. 21st century cities are NOT putting their money into last century solutions like trams.

Light rail does have advantages; it is cheap, though this one which was decided quickly for political purposes – wasn’t. It took forever too, though we now have had plenty of politicians claiming credit!

Tram enthusiasts often have a rose-tinted nostalgia for Sydney in the ’50s, or Budapest in the ’80s. Quaint little trams, tooting round fussy ‘urban villages’ dotted with people on bicycles. Tram lobbyists seem to despise the modern world and especially fast high capacity metros. In Rozelle a few years ago, they campaigned against one.

The tram I rode the day after the opening was one of the newer rolling stock. Off-peak, so it was near empty with more staff than paying passengers. How long before the private operator goes broke? There are not many seats and you’d want one for a 40-minute trip, wouldn’t you? They are hard, moulded fibreglass, bench-style, most looking inwards. The interiors look cheap and garish.

The ride was jerky and unsteady. The conductor (they have conductors! Now that’s nostalgia…) told me the trams were the ‘streetcar’ type, bought from a Spanish city whose light rail system had gone bankrupt. They were not designed for the dedicated line, which at huge expense, we have just built.

It was underwhelming. Fine for a novelty jaunt, but not a trip I’ll bother with again. Sydney can do so much better than this. “Yes we can, yes we can… toot toot!”

Words: Russell Edwards

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