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Five weeks a year on a train
Jordan Baker Transport Reporter
June 5, 2007

PEAK HOUR on the Central Coast begins at 5.30 in the morning, when
bleary-eyed commuters climb into their cars for the half-hour drive to
Gosford or Wyong stations.

By six they are gathering on the platform, waiting silently in the
dark. The train pulls in, and they read, sleep or stare out the window
until it arrives in the city an hour and a half later.

At the end of the day they do it in reverse. Four hours a day, 20
hours a week. Each year, these commuters will spend 800 hours - almost
five weeks - getting to and from work.

But problems with road and rail links to the Central Coast make the
commute longer than it needs to be. One in four of the area's workers
travels to Sydney every day using the F3 or the train, both of which
are overcrowded, and struggling to cope with a growing population. For
most of them it is a lifestyle choice. The four-hour daily commute is
a sacrifice they are willing to make to live close to the beach, or
stay near their family on a CBD salary.

While there are pay-offs for long trips - such as a better job or
cheaper housing - people who spend more time commuting tend to report
lower wellbeing, research from Europe shows. And the travel time has a
social impact. Gosford City Council, in its community plan, raised
concerns about the impact of parents not coming home until well after
dark.

For Krystal Lockwood the four-hour trip is the only way to further her
career as an account manager. "If I was willing to earn only $30,000 a
year I could work here no problem," she said. "I wish there was more
work here, but there's not."

Matthew Hall, a company solicitor, used to live in Neutral Bay, which
was three bus stops from his office. For two years he has been
travelling an hour and a half each way from Woy Woy.

"I moved up here because I wanted to move near the water," he said.

"I wouldn't want to go any further than where I have to get off. It's
becoming a bit of a waste of time."

Most people drive to the station from suburbs poorly serviced by
buses, such as Terrigal or The Entrance. Few residents use public
transport to get around the Central Coast. Parking at Gosford station
can be difficult by 7am.

Commuters pass the time on the train by working, listening to music,
or studying. Most of the time it is bearable. But they lose patience
when trains are late, cancelled or overcrowded.

"The mornings are a bit of a disaster," Mr Hall said.

Transport experts say commuters who use the Sydney to Newcastle line
are among the most disadvantaged on the network.

Overcrowding is a big problem, and can make the journey uncomfortable.
In the four months after the new 2005 timetable, the Central
Coast/Newcastle line had more crowding complaints than any other.

The new train carriages that have long been promised to outer suburban
commuters are yet to arrive.

Reliability is a problem too. Passengers share the highly congested
track with freight. While passenger trains are supposed to be given
priority, it does not always work out that way.

The chief executive of the Australasian Railway Association, Bryan
Nye, said the line was facing the highest growth in demand on the
network. He called for a dedicated freight line. "It's a choke point,
and it's going to get worse as the population ages and more people
catch trains."

A transport expert, Ken Dobinson, said the existing track was
circuitous, making the trip needlessly long. Many areas are not served
by trains, although new stations are being built.

A fast rail link on the Central Coast could halve commuting times, he
said.

"That would ease the other line which is given priority for freight.
You couldn't get very fast rail on the existing track."

Some prefer to avoid the crowded carriages and drive to the city.
Locals say there are two peak hours: one for trades people, about
5.30am, and another from 7am.

The drive is faster than the train, but there are other problems.

Whenever there is an accident on the F3, the road can be completely
shut down. There is no alternative road that can cope with even a
fraction of the traffic that relies on the F3.

When the freeway finishes at Wahroonga, the cars spill into traffic
jams along the Pacific Highway.

Planning is under way for a tunnel linking the F3 and the Sydney
Orbital, but the route is still uncertain.

Half the morning traffic on the F3 enters the freeway at the Kariong
interchange, which, along with feeder roads such as the Central Coast
Highway, is congested.

Mr Dobinson, a former director of the Roads and Traffic Authority,
said he supported a proposal to build another road between Western
Sydney and Ourimbah, bypassing Gosford.

"The other thing is, of course, there's no plans at the present time
to look to the future," he said.

"The F3 is going to be six lanes to Gosford. Within a decade you're
going to need eight lanes. That's pretty much impossible."

The state and federal governments are considering how to fix the
problems. They are building new stations and are looking at the most
viable route for a link between the F3 and the Orbital.

But Central Coast residents have their own solution: for 10 years they
have been calling for a fast ferry to Sydney in the hope of a scenic
alternative to traffic jams, crowded carriages and slow trains.