Thursday, July 24, 2008

Honey, I've shrunk the tram network

Oops. We lost a few lines between 1921 and 1950. Still, it's better than what we ended up with after 1961 - ie nothing. (Nothing but buses, anyway.)

So what disappeared? The Manly line went. Narrabeen went as well. Parramatta to Rosehill and Parramatta to Castle Hill, gone. Sutherland to Cronulla, gone. Kogarah to Sans Souci, gone. Rockdale to Brighton, gone.

And then in 1961 we pulled the plug on the whole Sydney system. 

Whilst we may blame our current governments for lack of investment in public infrastructure we must remember that this "trend" really dates back some 50 years or more. And it's hard to turn these things around.

So how did it happen? After the mad rush to build infrastucture and create a backbone for Sydney's development a few sums were quietly done. Whilst many tram lines were opened to win political favour as well as to profit developers, the actual patronage revealed was quite poor on the outer lines, whilst costs were absurdly high. These outer suburban lines were also isolated from the main network or were using outdated technology. So the low-hanging fruit (as we say) was plucked - the worst returns in the least politically sensitive areas went first. Light and heavy rail plans were quietly scrapped (like heavy rail to the northern beaches), scaled back or slowed down (like the eastern suburbs railway) and investment switched to cheaper, more flexible but oil-dependent buses instead. 

Of course buses use roads, and cars also need roads. So it all seemed to make sense in a world of cheap oil and post-war wealth. People liked cars after all. And it benefited the increasingly important - and powerful - automobile industry. It seems amazing that the trams stopped less than 50 years ago - and that here we are now facing a growing shortage of public transport infrastructure, in a world where trams could have played a wonderfully effective role.   

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