Even in the modern era, to say that rail transportation is important to us as a country is a little bit of an understatement.
“Rail transport, in a fully separated corridor from road transport, is the only form of public transport travel in most areas of Sydney that is capable of competing with private cars in terms of travel speed, cost, passenger comfort and convenience”
- Tim Brooker, Associate Transport Planner at EMM
But for those wondering what the future of rail might look like, they only need to closely examine the path that has brought us to this moment in history. For Sydney in particular, that path sheds valuable insight on the direction that things are headed in moving forward.
Rail Transportation: The Story So Far
Prior to the 1990s, there were very few publicly released NSW government rail transport strategies for Sydney. Until that point, all planning was done for individual lines on a project-specific basis. This made it very difficult to fully see things as the cohesive whole that they are, limiting the rail network to being little more than the sum of its parts, with its focus being on CBD based travel.
Examples of this thinking permeated much of the 20th century, with notable achievements including the extension of the City Circle Loop in the 1920s, which was completed with the new Circular Quay Rail station in the 1950s, the new North Shore rail connection across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Cronulla Branch line in the 1930s and the Eastern Suburbs line constructed to Bondi Junction in the 1970s.
More cohesive rail transport strategies were then adopted in the 1990s. “Since 1990, successive NSW Governments have prepared detailed future rail strategy plans for the entire Sydney region – including new proposals to extend heavy rail and its latest replacement (metro style single-decker trains) into many outer urban areas of Sydney not previously connected to the rail network,” said Tim Brooker. “The most recent example being the NW Sector metro line to Castle Hill, Kellyville and Rouse Hill, which is due to open soon, with additional metro line connections through the Sydney CBD from north to south and from Sydenham to Bankstown commencing construction soon.”
Indeed, the rail network strategy decisions for Sydney made since the 1990s have created a ripple effect in the best possible way – one that has made it possible to take advantage of a generation’s worth of opportunity in the present day. Planning for higher speed rail travel throughout the Sydney region including future connections to Sydney’s two major airports is also now well underway.
Meaningful Developments Require Meaningful Action
Based on that, it should come as no surprise to anybody that the future of rail in Australia is one that is largely technology driven. Tech innovation has already helped modern-day railroads achieve what were previously unthinkable safety milestones, all while minimising their impact on the natural environment along the way. Now, certain developments stand poised to help rail providers maintain their competitive edge in the fast-paced world we’re currently living in – and those successes will only be further cemented as time marches on.
Many rail providers are already using big data to solve challenges in incredible new ways. Smart sensors give operators better visibility than ever into the realm of track and equipment conditions. Safety trends and opportunities for major enhancements that would have previously gone undiscovered are now right there on the surface level, waiting to be taken advantage of.
It’s now possible for smart sensors to indicate if a piece of equipment is approaching risk of failure, requires normal maintenance and absolutely everything in between – allowing human operators to take action now to solve a small problem before it becomes a much bigger (and potentially deadlier) one down the road.
Those gains will only be furthered when the new era of automation arrives. Positive Train Control technology already allows for the minimisation of human error and helps officials create safer and more efficient operating conditions as they’re now freed from the restrictions of human limitations.
But this phenomenon isn’t exclusively a global one. It’s already having a massive impact, right here in Australia. Innovation has long been seen as the best chance to overcome past challenges and this new emphasis on precisely that is a welcome one, to be sure.
The Future of Rail is a Bright One
When you consider how much rail travel in Sydney has changed in the past few decades, it’s truly remarkable to think about what the next few years have in store. Going beyond the efficiency and safety gains that automation will bring, one also has to consider the significant technological impact, the overwhelmingly positive environmental impact and – of course – the value of better urban networks and higher-speed rail lines. Thankfully, the safe, efficient and reliable future vision of rail transport for Sydney is now a lot closer to reality than many people realise.