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This tram’s been a long time coming

Dulwich Grove tram stop. The simple 5.6km conversion of the old goods line to light rail has taken twice as long as the 1420km Alice Springs to Darwin railway. Photo: Gavin Gatenby

Sydneysider: A personal journey

They’ll be opening the Dulwich Hill light rail extension any month now.

It was supposed to be opened on February 1, but the long-awaited day came and went because the whole job is being done in John Holland’s own sweet time – like some builder’s personal vanity project; the showcase home that gets worked on only when there’s no other, actually paying, work going.

The extension would never have happened if it hadn’t been for a relentless political campaign by EcoTransit Sydney, the public transport group of which I’m currently co-convenor.

We kicked off our campaign for the extension in May 2008. At the time, the second extension of the line, to Lilyfield, had been running for eight years but the final leg, to Dulwich Hill, had been relegated to the bottom of the priority order and powerful political and bureaucratic forces were determined it would go no further.

Not that there had been any lack of prodding. At various times, local governments had commissioned expert studies urging the completion of the full project. These generated the occasional headline, after which the push predictably died.

It was only when EcoTransit turned the issue into a running political sore that things started to happen. We made it a community campaign that wouldn’t go away, spearheaded by three editions of our occasional campaign newspaper, EcoTransit News. These were distributed through the proposed extension’s catchment and they generated an enthusiastic response across party lines. Thousands of people signed form letters to the premier supporting the extension. At the same time we lobbied state government politicians. Local MPs gave unofficial support, but it wasn’t until David Campbell that we found a transport minister prepared to buck the bitter opposition of treasury and the transport department.

Finally, in early 2010, the Keneally government decided to go ahead with the project, but work didn’t start until August 2010 when the track was entirely (and unnecessarily) replaced along the 5.6km route.

By the time the O’Farrell government came to office in April 2011, the project already had planning approval. The Keneally government hadn’t needed approval for the track replacement, because it was already an operating rail line. All major engineering works – the cuttings, viaducts and bridges – and the Glebe tunnel had been completed in 1917 when the old goods line opened. Trams were scheduled to start running in 2012, but the incoming Liberal government deferred the opening until 2014.

Under the O’Farrell government – in May 2012 – John Holland won the contract to build the nine little tram stops, install the (totally unnecessary) signalling system and string the power supply. They’ve been pottering along with these risible little tasks ever since. This tells you a lot about the cosy symbiotic relationship between the engineering duopoly and governments of both major persuasions.

By the time the line opens, its construction will have taken as long as the 10km tunnelled Airport Rail Line and almost as long as the First World War. The 50km Channel Tunnel took only a couple of years longer. The 1420 km Alice Springs to Darwin railway, with its six major and 87 minor bridges and 1500 culverts, was finished in half the time.

Yes, the tram has a been a long time coming – or rather, coming again. But the unconscionable pace of construction is nothing compared to the political obstructionism that had to be overcome.

The present light rail had its beginnings in 1992 when the Federal Labor government introduced the Building Better Cities program to encourage new approaches to urban development.

The Fahey state Liberal government added practical support to the federal dollars and there were some private funds as well. When Carr came to office in April 1995, work had already begun on the first section from Central to Wentworth Park and planning for the further extension to Lilyfield was completed.

Carr got to open the first section of the line in 1997 and if you go to the Jubilee Park light rail stop you’ll find there a plaque recording that he opened the extension to Lilyfield in August 2000. Of course, he wasn’t really responsible for this extension either, because it had already been planned during the Fahey government.

At the Jubillee Park ceremony Carr said: “I think the revival of light rail will be one of the great themes of living in Sydney, over the next few decades”.

That’s classic Carr, that is: it sounds like he’s going to do the right thing, but notice that he said “next few decades”, not “next few years”.

Every time the man said or wrote something progressive, you just knew he was about to do the opposite.

The CBD extension, the Dulwich Hill extension, and other inner suburbs routes were expected to follow quickly, but Carr was only buying time for more tollways.

In a cynical political feint, he appointed a Public Transport Advisory Council, one of whose tasks included investigating further light rail options. It produced numerous recommendations, but none of them were ever acted on.

CBD light rail was ‘deferred’ until after completion of the Cross City Tunnel. In 2006 the Iemma Government quietly killed it off.

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