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Child safety at risk under Sydney light rail plan

The safety of thousands of primary and secondary school students would be severely compromised under current plans for a light rail interchange in the Sydney CBD which are being pushed through with minimal consultation by the government, says Julian Ledger, CEO of not-for-profit Youth Hostels Association (YHA).

Under the current NSW government plan for the CBD and South East Light Rail project, Rawson Place, located at the southern end of the CBD, would be closed to normal traffic to accommodate the bus/light rail interchange. This would see the existing bus drop off area closed – having a devastating impact on the Sydney Central YHA (SCYHA) youth hostel located at 11 Rawson Place.

The SCYHA, which can accommodate up to 556 guests, is one of the largest and busiest youth hostels in the world, recording over 160,000 overnight stays a year from more than 60,000 people including over 400 organised groups which are predominantly secondary and some primary schools.

The construction of the light rail interchange will result in the removal of the lay-by area outside the SCYHA. This means that the thousands of children who stay there, many of whom have never been to Sydney before, may be forced to dodge traffic across the city’s busiest roads, George Street and Pitt Street, with their suit cases and other belongings in order to access their accommodation.

“It’s not difficult to see that 50 kids and a couple of teachers trying to cross a major road with their cases and pillows is an accident waiting to happen; but we are hoping common sense prevails before anyone is hurt,” Mr Ledger said.

“The most baffling part of this decision is that the original light rail plan recommended the interchange be located at Eddy Avenue outside Central Station, which would have far fewer safety risks and less disruption to local business.

“Instead, we now have the proposed interchange at Rawson Place which is a potential death trap for young travellers.

“What we’ve been told is that young students will have to cross either George or Pitt Streets to access our accommodation – and dodge peak hour traffic in the process. The current system has buses dropping off at our doorstep.  Under Transport for NSW’s revised plan it’s an absolute lottery.

“An open air interchange at Rawson Place would also be a disaster for passengers as it is a notorious wind tunnel, so we implore the government to stick to its original plan.”

Lisa Anderson, operations manager of Trekset Tours, an educational tour wholesaler that brings school groups from interstate to Sydney, said the Sydney Central YHA was the only suitable budget-style accommodation in the city for school groups.

“If a group stays for several nights there’s a pickup and drop-off every day, so this is a serious safety issue for the teachers,” said Anderson. “Four teachers supervising up to 50 excited kids who would have to pull their luggage across the busiest streets in Sydney is a recipe for disaster and will undoubtedly mean the students miss out on these educational trips altogether.”

On average, there are 370 movements (arrivals/departures) a day at the SCYHA building, and in summer this grows to about 420 movements.

Nine in 10 organised groups staying at Sydney Central YHA arrive and depart by coach or shuttle bus at the lay-by outside the hostel, which under the government’s plan would be replaced by the interchange.

Ledger, who was recently recognised for his “Outstanding Contribution to Tourism in NSW” and at the NSW Tourism Awards, said YHA is a strong supporter of the light rail project in general.

“There are many other viable locations nearby for the CBD interchange which must be considered as we are extremely concerned that the current proposal seriously compromises the safety of students and the viability of SCYHA’s business,” said.

“The SCYHA has been our flagship property for 15 years and it is one of the few affordable accommodation options for education groups in the CBD.”

In the NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan and Sydney’s Light Rail Future documents, released in December 2012, the light rail interchange was located on Eddy Avenue in front of central station.

Suddenly and without any consultation from the government, the location of the interchange was changed to Rawson Place in the Sydney City Centre Access Strategy (SCCAS), published in September 2013. Ironically, the SCCAS stipulates that passenger safety is critical as there were 904 casualties involving pedestrians in the city centre between 2007 and 2011.

In a report titled ‘Investigation of Tourist Coach Parking in the Sydney CBD’, authored by NSW Road and Maritime Services, it is stipulated that a dedicated and safe drop off and pick up area at the facility is crucial for tourist coach movements in the Sydney CBD.

Sydney Central YHA estimates that 15-20% of the property’s current business will be lost if plans for the interchange go ahead.

The closure of Rawson Place also cuts off access to the laneway known as Rawson Lane, which provides access to vital services such as garbage trucks and couriers. These vehicles would be forced to attempt reverse out of a narrow lane on to Pitt Street at great risk to passenger safety.

Ken Morrison, chief executive of the Tourism & Transport Forum, has written to Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian to raise concerns. “TTF strongly recommends a review of the proposed interchange location, with input from SCYHA and nearby businesses,” he said.

Ledger said he was hopeful of reaching an amicable resolution.

“The government’s attitude is that this is a very major project and inevitably there are winners and losers, but the interchange plan is an ill-conceived change that will be lose/lose rather than a win/lose,” he said.

“Transport for NSW would do well to learn from the experience of light rail in Edinburgh which The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported was an ‘unmitigated disaster’ that would soon be the subject of a public inquiry.”