The forgotten station

Redfern station is the state’s 6th busiest, so how did it become so neglected?

An artist’s impression of a future Redfern station. Image: NSW Government / RedWatch. An artist’s impression of a future Redfern station. Image: NSW Government / RedWatch.

In 2004, the state government revealed plans for a $34.5 million redevelopment of Redfern Station. A year later the plans were put on hold — it turned out the money had never been budgeted. In 2017, after many more promises and proposals, the station remains untouched.

Redfern station’s oft promised redevelopment is emblematic of Sydney’s public transport planning. Promises are made without secured funding, and multimillion dollar studies are undertaken and never acted on. What results is a long neglected station with poor disability access that is struggling to cope with growing patronage. Redfern Station was  Sydney’s first City’s rail terminus (connected to a long gone tram network) before Central was built in the early twentieth century. As a result of this historical  legacy, all but one of Sydney’s main train lines run through the station, and consequently it  is the sixth busiest in the Sydney Trains network. Due to growth of USyd and the nearby area, its usage has nearly doubled during the last decade, from 16,000 passengers a day in 2005 to 30,000 in 2016.

Given the need for station improvements, local community groups including RedWatch have been running campaigns for years to spur the government into action. Lift Redfern, an amalgamation of community groups, has circulated a petition with over 11,500 signatures calling for improved disability access at the station. Despite being one of the busiest stations in the network, only two of the twelve platforms have lifts. As Lift Redfern has publicised, “Redfern/Waterloo is home to one of the highest populations of social housing communities many of whom are elderly and frail”. Under federal law Redfern Station should be totally compliant with disability standards by 2022, but the state government has not made plans to achieve this goal publicly available.

40 per cent of USyd students use the station to commute to campus, and the University expects the student population to increase by 26,000 to 75,000 in the next two decades. Director of campus infrastructure services Greg Robinson has labeled Redfern Station “inadequate” while lobbying the state government unsuccessfully for light rail and metro, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. In 2015 the University lost out to Waterloo for a new metro station as part of the second harbour crossing, and the proposed West Metro is unlikely to go anywhere near the University. Three years prior, in 2012 UNSW prevailed over USyd for a light rail link. More recently, the state government has canceled light rail planning for Parramatta Road (and given Labor’s lack of  support) it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Given the absence of planned alternative transport options for the University, Redfern Station looks set  to become increasingly important.

Previous government studies (obtained by the RedWatch community organisation under freedom of information laws) have shown that Redfern’s capacity and accessibility could be increased while preserving its heritage. The original entrances on Lawson Street could be closed, and a modern concourse with two staircases and lifts to every platform (removing the bottlenecks of the old cramped stairs)  built at the opposite southern end of the platforms.  The new concourse would have an eastern entrance at Gibbons Park near the apartment towers, and a western entrance at a pedestrianised Little Eveleigh Street or Ivy Lane. This western entrance would provide a direct walk to campus and pedestrian access far less cramped than Lawson Street.  As University of Sydney Professor of Transport Engineering David Levinson notes on the Transportist website, the western entrance would reduce backtracking and save at least a few minutes of walking to campus.

Numerous upgrade plans have been announced for Redfern over the last seventeen years,  yet none have come to fruition. At times it was because public transport funding had been cut in favour of user-pays toll roads, while in other cases it was due to state governments prioritising the necessary development of public transport mega projects  over improving existing infrastructure.

The catalogue of failures is long. The 2001 ‘Christie Report’, authored by then Coordinator-General of Rail Ron Christie, set out plans for a $30 million “capacity enhancing” upgrade needed to “modernise the aging facilities” and cater for projected “significant increases in demand” by 2006.  In 2005, the Carr government announced it planned to redevelop Redfern Station when the second harbour crossing to Chatswood was built. It never was. In 2006, Premier Morris Iemma approved some studies for Redfern station, but largely focussed on his proposed rapid transit rail network that bypassed Redfern. That too was never built. The Redfern Waterloo Authority promised to fast-track the Redfern Station upgrade by 2011. Instead, that was the year of the Authority’s dissolution. In 2010, plans were put to Treasury for a three year redevelopment of Redfern Station to begin the next year. In 2015 when the Baird government opted for a metro station at Waterloo, it also promised investigations on the redevelopment of Redfern station. Proceeds from the sale of the neighbouring Australian Technology Park were promised for funding local infrastructure including the station redevelopment, yet two years later that commitment does not appear on the government Urban Growth development agency’s website project website (although it still appears on their publicly accessible archived site). The upgrade of Redfern Station is the Urban Growth’s number one priority for the area but it is “subject to funding and Government commitments” that have not yet been made.  Transport Minister Andrew Constance recently told the Herald that in regard to Redfern Station “further transport solutions would only be considered once the necessary planning work has been done”. But after nearly two decades of planning one wonders how much further study will be needed for an upgrade to ever occur.