Sydney’s subway stations need a revamp

I am one of those people who hate going in the train subway system – I don’t hate going on trains, just the subways.  So much so, that I will catch a bus or walk in preference even if it takes longer.  This hate of subways has a lot to do with a fear of crowds in confined places, coupled with a (potentially) irrational worry about being under the ground.  I feel uneasy when I am not able to see the outside world.  All in all, the subway system is not a good experience for me.

Recently, I was in Sydney’s subway going from Wynard to Town Hall (just one stop) on my way home from the city, when I noticed how dirty and uninspiring the Sydney Subway actually is.  I normally just hold my breath and get out of there as quickly as possible, but I had to wait fifteen minutes for my train so I was noticing everything.  People just stood around with blank looks on their faces, tired after a day’s work and just wanting to get home as quickly as possible.  Sydney’s subways are so dirty and dark, you could be mistaken for expecting a steam train to come through those tunnels instead of electric trains from the blackness and grime everywhere.  It is hardly a welcoming place to go!  If you didn’t have to worry about the cost of road tolls, petrol and parking and could drive your car instead of going on the train I think that many people would opt for the car experience.  Apart from being on your own schedule, most people’s cars are far more welcoming and comfortable than our trains and train stations.  In Sydney’s subway, the tiles on the walls are old and dirty, the dirty posters on the subway walls are often ripped or out of date,  and they just scream cheapness.  It all gives you a feeling that the subway is not cared for and that as rail passengers we are just second-rate. 

St James Subway

I understand that some of the stations, like the Museum and St James Subway Stations were works of art in their day so lets preserve them alongside something that is functional and inviting for people in 2011.

Sydney is such a beautiful city.  Built around the famous harbour,  the city itself is welcoming and bright, with gleaming buildings under a blue as blue Australian sky.  In contrast, our train transport system is hardly a tourist attraction, in fact it is the opposite!  Unlike the New York subway or the London tube it is not even interesting.  You don’t hear excited tourists saying “Gee, I can’t wait to see the Sydney subway”.  The noise is another thing.  Apart from the noise of the oncoming trains,  the noise of lots of people in a small space and then  the boom of the rail staff announcements.  These are usually done in a bored hurried fashion over crackling speakers, done by someone you usually can’t understand anyway.  All of this adds to a feeling that you are no one – you become invisible, lost in the noisy dirty blankness, surrounded by people feeling the same “just get me out of here” sense of acceptance that this is the subway experience and I have to put up with it.

Sydney Opera House

I am sure that there are ways of minimising the noise of the approaching trains,  the crowds of people and the announcements that would make the experience more pleasant.   Our subway’s could become clean, bright, artistic hubs for people to gather whilst waiting for their train’s instead of dismal places to just get through as fast as possible.  I know that all of this costs money, and most likely lots of it, and yes, there have been some improvements to stations across Sydney.  Only recently North Sydney station was upgraded, and whilst an improvement on what it was, it is still an uninteresting place.  The emphasis of the design is on ease of maintenance – almost like a toilet block that can be flushed out with a hose instead of being washed properly, it has that “easy clean it” feeling – sterile and cold.

Sydney, like most big cities has a problem with the amount of cars on the roads leading to traffic congestion, the high cost in maintaining roads and increased pollution.  As commuters, our government encourages us to take the bus or the train to limit this congestion, reduce pollution and to save on parking, but the train and bus alternatives are hardly welcoming and inspiring.

It seems to me, that by travelling on the train in Australia we become second class citizens – having to use public transport instead of being able to drive to work in one’s own car is seen as the cheaper alternative for the masses.  I often hear people say “I have to catch public transport” like it is a chore – and in my experience it is a chore!  This second class feeling reinforced by a second class subway experience that is crowded, dark, dirty, noisy and just plain uninspiring.  Really, is this the sort of experience that you would get if you were valued as a customer?  I don’t think so.   Australians are used to a small population with plenty of space.  We have a culture of driving everywhere across long distances so maybe we don’t have the same respect for efficient public transport as people in other countries.  It is more common in other countries where they just don’t have the space, but have larger populations and they know how important it is to move people about effectively and efficiently.  It is much more normal and accepted that public transport is your primary mode of transport, instead of just jumping in your car.  A good rail system environment for its passengers would be important and a good rail system environment essential.

Sure, there are some terrible subways and train systems everywhere, but how much more inviting would it be to go on the train if Sydney had a fantastic subway system that was something that people wanted to visit?  Surely, this would make you feel good about going on a train and naturally take some pressure off the roads and traffic congestion.  Not to mention a cleaner city where fewer cars is a result. 

Sydney City Council and the NSW State Government could change their approach to the positive.  Instead of focusing on making it more difficult and expensive to take your car into the city – make train stations clean and inviting, design subways that are exciting to visit and travel through , get the trains running on time, and you will find more people travelling on them.  We often focus on trains not running on time as a reason for less use of them, but I think that this is only part of the problem.  Better, people friendly environments would also help to improve the our perception of train travel and would help to improve the level of service we now get from station staff.  Many, must be sick of working in such dingy environments and this is often clear in the laboured bored way that they make announcements or are rude when you complain about something.  I just can’t imagine how tiring it is to work in one of the noisy subways in Sydney, no wonder the announcements are boring.

Come on its 2011 and its time to update our convict train tunnel mentality and design a subway system that is truly inspiring and matches the rest of the city.  Here are some great examples of subway stations around the world.


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