On June 5th, The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell announced that Bathurst would have a daily return rail service to Sydney from October 2011. The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by local lobby group (Rail Action Bathurst), as well as the Bathurst Business Chamber. The train is timetabled to depart Bathurst at 0540, with a 0925 arrival into Central. The return journey will depart Central at 1755, arriving into Bathurst at 2130. Tickets will be that of the current CityRail coach service, rather than the higher CountryLink prices paid for the XPT service.
However, what has really been accomplished here, and at what cost? There is no denying that a direct train service to Sydney is preferable to using a coach to interchange to an electric train service at Lithgow or Mt Victoria (especially for passengers with limited mobility). However, this is one service per day – perhaps the money would have been better spent providing a regular coach service between Bathurst and Lithgow or Mt Victoria, and transferring to existing trains. While the travel time would slightly increase (given the change of mode), this would provide improved flexibility for passengers travelling to Sydney – more services would mean a better choice of arrival and departure times.
Consider the type of train to be used – the CityRail Endeavour fleet is currently spread between Broadmeadow (Newcastle to Scone and Dungog) and Eveleigh (Central/Campbelltown to Moss Vale and Goulburn, as well as Wollongong to Bomaderry). Without ordering new rolling stock, this places a greater strain on the existing fleet. The issues with this have already been made abundantly clear within the CountryLink service spectrum – quite often services are delayed or cancelled due to late running and/or mechanical issues. With no slack time for sets to “catch up”, the reliance on on-time running to avoid flow on delays makes for a higher rate of failures. On multiple occasions, short turn-around times for XPT services have seen them stopped short of their destinations, or entire journeys being replaced by road coaches because sufficient time has not been permitted for problems to be addressed.
If the train service is designed to cut out mode changes from road coach to train at Lithgow, it would be a step backwards for the train to fail in Sydney and have the service replaced by coaches at Lithgow… This potential for problems would also extend to Southern Highlands services, as one less available set would result in the lack of a spare set should one of the Highlands sets fail – more buses replacing trains.
Perhaps the best solution would be to place a second order for Hunter Railcars, to replace all of the Broadmeadow Endeavours (at the time of writing, Broadmeadow has two Endeavour sets allocated to that depot). Transfer the spare Endeavour sets to Sydney and use them to increase flexibility with the fleet, or perhaps add capacity where it is required.
The other option would be to extend the electrification of the Sydney network to cut out one or more sets from operation. Long term plans are already in place to extend electrification to Picton, as this would be the most cost effective option. The electrification between Dapto and Kiama freed up an Endeavour set from Illawarra service to be converted into an Xplorer railcar for use on the CountryLink services to Broken Hill (Mon/Tue) and Griffith (Sat/Sun), as well as provide an additional redundancy for operations Wed-Fri.
Of course, all of the perceived issues are just that – it is quite likely (scratch that, it is assuredly so) that those in charge of such decisions would have taken all of this into account, as they would have much more information in their hands than this particular layman. Obviously a direct rail service makes things easier for people wishing to make daytrips into Sydney (the current XPT service requires one to overnight in Sydney, arriving into Central late in the evening and departing for Dubbo early the following morning). It sets a good precedent for the improvement of regional rail services to a level beyond the obligatory daily CountryLink service. A victory for the people of Bathurst, to be sure.
Currently the Dubbo XPT service is the only daily rail service between Sydney and Bathurst, departing Sydney in the morning and returning in the late evening.