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Forgo the glory, declare the thing open, slip away

They opened the Dulwich Hill light rail extension at 7.15 am last Thursday. It was a sort of thief-in-the-night opening but set in the cold wet light of a sullen morning.

I’m the co-convener of EcoTransit Sydney, and the project has occupied a big part of my life since May 2008, when we launched the fight for the extension, until we were sure it was really in the bag – which was sometime after the O’Farrell government came to power.

The actual official opening was at the Hawthorne stop, between Marion Street and Leichhardt North, next to the off-leash dog area, but pre-dawn Thursday morning nobody knew that – it was just a rumour until it happened.

I arrived at 5.40am at the Dulwich Hill stop, next to Dulwich Hill Station, with the aim of recording history in the making for EcoTransit’s YouTube channel. It was pouring rain and the only person in sight was a security guard sheltering under the canopy at the lift. I shot a ‘piece to camera’ as an opening for the video while a few other people started to drift in: three schoolboys, a scribbler and a snapper from the Daily Telegraph, and Balmain MP Jamie Parker, who was in the fight for the extension right from the get-go and is currently campaigning for light rail along Parramatta Road and an extension from Lilyfield into Balmain.

Down on the sodden platform there was an air of nervous anticipation. A young lady with a baby arrived. It was going to be the first baby on the extension and everybody wanted Jamie Parker – who was instinctively behaving as if he were actually opening the line – to kiss it for the camera. Backing up for a group shot, the Tele’s snapper almost fell backwards onto the line. “First death on light rail”, Jamie quipped.

When the first service to Dulwich Hill roled in, it turned out to be an older Variotram rather than one of the CAF Urbos units leased from the Spanish town of Malaga. The driver rang the bell, flashed the headlights, and we cheered, climbed aboard and headed back up the line. You couldn’t see much outside the tram, but at each stop there were a few excited people, determined to be on the first service.

We rode up the line to Lilyfield and then back down to Dulwich Hill. Coming south we caught one of the new trams. They’re very technically advanced, and spiffy on the outside, but the interior fitout is ghastly. The unrelieved glaring white colour scheme makes you feel like you’re riding in a hospital corridor. There are few seats and a serious deficiency of handholds for those standing.

By daybreak it was beginning to look like the Hawthorn rumour was correct, so we rode back up. The signs were good: the media started gathering, a gaggle of very expensive suits with umbrellas appeared and a small shelter had been erected in the park.

Suddenly the premier and Gladys arrived and everybody surged down to the shelter. It was more a banal photo op than a triumphant opening. Barry said a few words and Gladys said a few words. It certainly wasn’t the Gettysburg Address and she didn’t look too happy. She might have mentioned the community campaign, led by EcoTransit, that gained cross-party support for the project against entrenched political and bureaucratic opposition; she might have graciously acknowledged her Labor predecessor, David Campbell, who had the courage to buck the opponents, or even Kristina Keneally, who gave the extension the go-ahead, but she mentioned only the construction company and the operators.

There were a few questions before the official party repaired to the platform to unveil a small plaque with ‘just one each please’ representative of John Holland and Transdev, the operating company. We all hopped on the next tram going south for a few more pics and then it was over.

Back in the day, the first tram would have arrived at some godly hour, festooned with flags and flowers, to be met by His Excellency the Governor, the local mayors and MPs, the clergy and other local dignitaries. The Fire Brigade Band would have belted out a triumphal march and there would have been eloquent speeches, a marquee with a decent cold collation and bottles of ale. I’d always envisaged a festive community opening and a week of free tram travel, but there wasn’t even face-painting for the kiddies. Here we were, in the gloom and the rain, watched only by a couple of tram tragics and early morning dog walkers.

You don’t have to search far for the reason. There’s no doubt the political staffers were terrified of giving inner westies a chance of venting their anger over the increasingly unpopular WestConnex motorway proposal with its attendant ‘urban activation zones’ – the swathes of heritage cottages the government is hell-bent on resuming and on-selling for high-rise redevelopment. Far safer to forego the glory, declare the thing open, and slip away.

My video about the opening can be seen on the EcoTransit Sydney YouTube channel:

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