Stairs of Disbelief

Before I begin, an acknowledgement: yes I’ve had this one on the back-burner for a while. When I first threw it together the date that you’re about to read originally said “yesterday”. Somehow time got away from me, as it has a tendency to do in the big, bad word of ranty old man blogging. <End of disclaimer>

SydneyTrains_UnanderraStationYou have to assume the 18th of February was a very slow news day for the ABC. During that day’s main evening news bulletin, one of the top stories was that – wait for it – there’s no lift access to the platform at Unanderra railway station.

Get outta town!

The story was ostensibly derived from a video of a bunch of people struggling up and down some railway station stairs. The video apparently ‘went viral’ on YouTube and social media and an hysterical furore from the internet’s most righteous – as is so often the result with these things – thusly ensued.

Sadly, ABC News effectively ignored the broader issue and decided instead to interview some suitably under-enthused locals, giving all the focus to Unanderra station itself. By honing in on that one particular location, rather than taking a broader perspective, the ABC’s report only served to regionalise, or even trivialize, the issue. But when a social media-driven righteous hysterical furore gets legs, often there’s nothing for it but to let it run its course (which, these days, will never be too long, since most social media types have the attention span of a spec of dust).

So what does anyone even know about this Unanderra place, aside from the fact that its name is perilously difficult to pronounce correctly if you’ve never heard a local say it?**

Unanderra is about 80 kilometres south of Sydney and is a suburb of the city of Wollongong (equally perilous for the uninitiated to pronounce correctly). According to that bastion of all things factual, Wikipedia, Unanderra boasts “several local attractions”, of which the Unanderra Hotel – built all of 58 years ago, so hardly the town’s historical focal point – is apparently one of the most frequently visited. I’m guessing mostly by locals, but let’s not get bogged down in semantics.

As for Unanderra railway station itself, it was completely rebuilt in 2011, has more covered space and seating than most Sydney suburban stations and even has space for lifts to be installed – that’s because there were actually meant to have been lifts installed, but cabling was discovered beneath the intended location of a lift pit and moving them was obviously considered too difficult because – as with so many of the best laid plans of Transport NSW and its predecessors – to avoid the problem, they cancelled the installation altogether.

SydneyTrains_Unanderra3And therein lies the real point: the problem is far bigger than Unanderra.

Of course it’s all very sad for the elderly or ‘otherly-abled’ folk who want to use Unanderra railway station, but the fact remains that there are almost 200 stations across the New South Wales rail network – many of them with far greater patronage than Unanderra – that are also bereft of lift access to platform-level. That the issue is relatively more prevalent outside the metropolitan area is unfortunate; that it’s just one of many inconsistencies with our state’s rail infrastructure is undeniable.

Unanderra apparently has a population of five-and-a-half thousand, which is about a third of the population of Newtown or Redfern, or roughly equal to two inner-south western Sydney suburbs, where trains typically run in both directions every fifteen minutes. Poor old Unanderra only sees one every hour, aside from during the morning and afternoon peak times when intervals between trains decrease to between 15 and 45 minutes. There’s arguably a greater number and a higher proportion of rail commuters in Sydney than in Unanderra, so the hourly frequency of services is probably understandable.

But wait – there’s more. Unanderra station’s appalling lack of accessibility isn’t the end of the story; even after being completely rebuilt, its platforms are still shorter than the eight-car train sets that stop there at least eight times a day, thus presenting the very real risk of passengers headed for Unanderra not even being able to get off the train when it pulls up only partially alongside the platform. Is it really any wonder that wheelchair users still can’t take a lift to get down there?

Unanderra certainly isn’t alone in its woeful lack of facility. 76 of the 177 stations on Sydney Trains’ suburban network (that’s 43% of them) aren’t “wheelchair accessible”, meaning there’s either no lift, no ramp or no other accessible way for a wheelchair user to reach the platform. On the intercity network – to which Unanderra station belongs – I was surprised to discover that, while predictably worse, the stats weren’t as underwhelming as I’d expected, with 84 of 133 stations (or 63% of them) without wheelchair access.

The so-called ‘short platforms’ are also something of an issue on the intercity network. Though it isn’t quite as prevalent as the lack of wheelchair accessibility, around half of all intercity stations have platforms shorter than an eight-car train set. Passengers travelling to these stations must navigate a series of codes which indicate where on the train to disembark from – rear car, rear door of rear car, rear two cars, rear four cars, rear six cars, front six cars or, intriguingly, “the middle doors”. Even as a creature of habit who gets on and off the same carriage every day on the way to and from work, I still couldn’t tell you if I was on the second car, the fifth car or the eighth car. I’m not even sure I’d know if I was at the front or back of the train, let alone anywhere near its “middle doors”. And by the way, exactly where are the middle doors of an eight-car train set anyway? Given that every eight-car set is nothing more than two four-car sets joined in the middle, even the most seasoned train user would be hard pressed to work that one out. To new or infrequent train users headed for one of these stations, this must be a hideously complex system to grapple with.

Short platforms obviously weren’t much of a problem in the days when four-car and six-car sets were more common – and, to be fair, some regional lines are still routinely serviced by two-car, four-car and six-car trains to this day – but most stations now see regular service by full-length eight-car trains. Too bad if a passenger foolishly assumes their destination will furnish them with a sufficient length of platform for the number of doors on the train.

SydneyTrains_FeelingUnwellcomboThere are numerous other absurdities. A prime example is the series of “Feeling unwell?” posters that started popping up on trains and platforms last year. “Don’t risk boarding the train”, and “Don’t risk staying on board”, they variously warn. “Staff can get you help faster at the (next) station”. This is probably a very helpful tip if you find yourself feeling unwell while at, or approaching, one of the 48 suburban stations that are staffed 24 hours. If you’re anywhere near one of the 129 others (that’s 73% of suburban network stations) it’s only a useful tip if you also happen to be there during the hours they’re staffed – oh and, by the way, only 39 of those are staffed beyond 7pm on a weekday.

You’re in worse luck at night, even worse luck on weekends and worse still if you’re feeling unwell while at, or near, any of the five stations on the suburban network that are never staffed at all. But worst luck of all is if you’re feeling unwell while you’re anywhere near three of those five stations and you’re in a wheelchair; not only will there be no one there to help you, but you’ll also find it damn near impossible to get on or off the platform.

Transport NSW made lots of noise about re-branding the public relations disaster that was CityRail back in 2013, yet nearly two years later they still haven’t re-branded the network’s second-most visible infrastructure – its stations. Sydney Trains might’ve changed its name but stations across its network are a mish-mash of livery and signage from at least four different eras, some dating back to the State Rail Authority days of the late-1980s, others all the way back to the 1920s.

Some stations are über-modern, while others look like unloved relics of the past. Some have plenty of covered area and seating, others have virtually none, leaving intending passengers to huddle beneath the awnings of platform buildings or underneath overhead bridges to escape the heat or the rain. Some have one of several different models of electronic indicator board, others have none. Most now use pre-recorded announcements, but some still sound like they’ve been cobbled together by a station attendant who’s never even seen the system before, much less become proficient in its use.

Meanwhile, it took several abortive attempts before we were finally offered a ticketing system that (almost) matches those of other large world cities, though pricing is still inconsistent and illogical. Tediously, Sydney Trains passengers still have to contend with summer heat on rolling stock that isn’t air-conditioned – yes, most trains are, but the fact that a city with the summer heat and humidity of Sydney still has any that aren’t air-conditioned beggars belief. Perhaps worst of all is that Sydney Trains’ customer service is staffed almost entirely by people who, for the most part, rarely appear to hold the concept of customer service in high regard. And don’t get me started on their ability – variable at best and, frequently, not in evidence at all – to deal with ‘situations’ or to effectively respond to problems.

SydneyTrains_Unanderra1In truth, I should admit that there has been some evidence of improvement over the past year or so, but the CityRail of old was well-known for maintaining a focus on issues only for as long as the public or the press kept a focus on CityRail. Gladys Berejiklian and her Sydney Trains crew have a lot of work ahead of them, not just to avoid their predecessor’s pitfalls but also to address the roll-call of issues and inconsistencies that still plague the network.

It must be daunting. And it’s a whole lot bigger than Unanderra.


** In case you were wondering, it’s pronounced as three distinct syllables: YOU – N’N – DERRA. It’s definitely not pronounced YOU – NANDRA. I’m told that’s how most people who don’t know how to say it correctly tend to pronounce it, but it isn’t right. Now you can sleep at night.

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