Sydney’s first electrified tram, a Pyrmont service, ran on George Street in 1899.
The street would become the backbone of Sydney’s western line trams, which ran past the University of Sydney and extended to Leichhardt, Annandale, Abbotsford, Ryde, Drummoyne, Lilyfield, Glebe, Balmain and Birchgrove.
By the 1950s, 1 million people a day used Sydney’s trams. That is as many as use the train system now. It is four times as many as use Sydney Buses.
When Labor’s transport minister Ern Wetherell declared they would be replaced by buses in 1953, the main complaint against trams was that they used up too much road space. Another complaint was that they were too full.
But as the central business district groans under the weight of buses clogging up city streets, trams may yet return.
The O’Farrell government will say in the next month or so if it is prepared to bolster the existing Central to Lilyfield line and bring back trams to George Street and possibly to the eastern suburbs.
If it does – if the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, is to line up alongside the vision of the lord mayor, Clover Moore, for the CBD – the tram advocates in the Premier’s government will be bruised from the battle.
To bring trams back to central Sydney would require advocates to win an argument about numbers: is it possible for trams to carry enough people to replace a major part of the bus network?
And it would require winning another battle of political will: convincing O’Farrell to disregard advisers who have said returning trams to the middle of the city would be an unmitigated disaster.
In the 60 years since they began tearing up the city’s tram tracks, transport planners shifted to the bus. Apart from one new rail line – the eastern suburbs line – the chief means of adding new public transport into the city was to add bus routes and layer buses on old routes.
Today, about 1500 buses converge on central Sydney in the busiest two hours of the morning, bringing in about 60,000 people. They clog up the Harbour Bridge, Elizabeth Street, George Street and York Street. In the peak hours, they move at a crawl. There is a general consensus something needs to be done.
Until recently, the main proposal to free space in the CBD has been to take some buses out of George Street and replace them, ironically enough, with trams. Trams can carry more people than a bus. Transport for NSW says it is looking at trams that can carry 300 (100 sitting, 200 standing) while the standard State Transit bus carries about 50.
O’Farrell took this policy to the election, declaring in publicity material that his government would build ”light rail in the CBD”. When he won, that commitment became ”subject to feasibility”.
Laying a tram line in the Amazon might be unfeasible; laying one on George Street is not. But the tricky thing about returning trams to the city is figuring if it would be worth the disruption to existing traffic and existing bus users to put them there.
In the absence of the latest thinking – all that ”feasibility” work is under departmental lock and key – it is possible to build a hazy picture of what CBD light rail would mean for buses.
For a start, those buses that enter the city from north of the harbour would be unaffected. Those buses would continue to bank up over the bridge, many stuttering into a crowded York Street. Light rail would not fix that problem.
But commuters who enter the city on buses that run via Broadway and along George Street, the old western line route, would face a change. In the peak two hours of the morning, about 8800 people enter the city this way, on 250 buses from Parramatta Road or King Street, Newtown.
If George Street was cleared of buses, and a new tram line put in its place, many of these people would have to switch.
A 2010 study by GHD, commissioned in the latter days of the former government and obtained using freedom-of-information laws, shows how this might work. The interchange was then planned at Rawson Place, just north of Central Station between George Street and Eddy Avenue, flanked by the Central YHA and a government office. In the morning, buses would turn right from Broadway to meet an island platform at Rawson Place. Crossing the island, commuters would leave buses for trams to take them north to Circular Quay.
Those Broadway buses, meanwhile, would return to the inner west or head off on new routes to the eastern suburbs. They would not run through the city.
The inconvenience, therefore, would be for the thousands now forced to change at Central. But the upside would be a potentially faster run through a George Street cleared of traffic and turned into a pedestrian and light rail boulevard. It is understood modelling since by Transport for NSW shows travel times, even including the forced interchange, would be faster for commuters switching to George Street trams than remaining on George Street buses.
(The status quo is a slog: just 19 per cent to 34 per cent of George Street buses currently arrive within two minutes of their scheduled time, according to the Department of Transport.)
The rest of the city would benefit from removing those buses. Newtown services, for instance, would not need to make their way back south through the city along Castlereagh Street. Some eastern suburbs buses could then shift off the notoriously slow Elizabeth Street to Castlereagh.
In terms of patronage, if Broadway buses were the only ones to be replaced with trams, there should be plenty of room. Transport for NSW says light rail down George Street should be capable of carrying 9000 people an hour, meaning that even if every one of the 8800 Broadway commuters over two hours transferred to trams it would be a comfortable fit.
But the government is also working to extend light rail to the eastern suburbs, via Surry Hills and Anzac Parade. If it did so, it would start to draw in some of the 8000-odd peak commuters who arrive in town via Anzac Parade.
By this stage, those peak hour trams are starting to fill up. Just like in the 1950s, new trams in Sydney could well be victims of their own success.
Standing in the way, however, is O’Farrell’s self-appointed adviser, Infrastructure NSW.
Infrastructure NSW, chaired by the former premier Nick Greiner, rejected Transport for NSW’s analysis of the possibility of light rail for Sydney before it had even been released. In its state infrastructure strategy last month, Infrastructure NSW said trams down George Street would be too slow, their benefits too marginal and installing them too disruptive to warrant the cost and bother of trying.
”People’s love of rail transport is independent of economic realities,” Greiner told a lunchtime audience in September last year, quoting the British economist and columnist John Kay. ”The answer seems to be that there is something psychologically irresistible about vehicles on iron roads.”
Greiner’s report, released last month, proposed an underground bus tunnel running off the Harbour Bridge, stopping at Wynyard and Town Hall and coming out at an unspecified location off George Street. It said the tunnel could carry 20,000 commuters an hour and offer relief to all those buses from Sydney’s north that would not be helped by a CBD tram line.
Infrastructure NSW also went nuclear on light rail, explaining what a quixotic enterprise trams would be.
”If you add light rail to George Street today, you will not fix a problem you will create a problem,” the chief executive of Infrastructure NSW, Paul Broad, told the ABC. ”You’ll walk as fast as a tram down George Street.”
It would disrupt traffic on cross streets. And it would not add much to transport capacity in the city.
Both proposals have attracted their fair share of criticism. At a public meeting this week, organised by Moore in support of light rail, there was plenty of bemusement about what Greiner and Broad’s bus tunnels might mean.
Industry groups do not typically criticise infrastructure proposals but Trent Zimmerman of the Tourism and Transport Forum was scathing.
”This is a clear case where the gate keeper has become the kite flyer,” Zimmerman said. ”This proposal that emerged from nowhere was frankly one I had not seen on the agenda before they had raised it.”
The chief executive of the Australian National Retailers Association, Margy Osmond, said it would be a lost opportunity to revitalise what should be a major shopping strip.
”The fact that they are thinking of putting buses under the city with only two access points is hardly going to make it an easier city to navigate,” Osmond said.
Moore, meanwhile, distributed flyers saying the bus tunnels would demand closing Town Hall and Wynyard Stations for up to two years and require exhaust stacks in the middle of the city.
Tim Williams, the chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, said: ”I don’t think they’ve thought through this enough.”
O’Farrell must make his choice in the next month.
Does he risk tearing up the city in the lead-up to an election to build a tram line his transport department wants but his infrastructure advisers say is certain to fail? Or does he stall and flesh out a bus tunnel idea whose proponents admit remains far from developed and which the big end of town remains wary of?
The search for the right combination of numbers and politics will soon end.
Photo: the good old days of Sydney transport