May 31, 2019
Source: Australian Financial Review
Author: Jenny Wiggins
31 May, 2019
Andrew Constance says it’s a “game-changer”. The NSW Transport Minister reckons Australia’s first automated metro system – which aims to have trains zooming in and out of rail stations every four minutes – is the catalyst Sydney needs to rank alongside London, Paris and Tokyo as a truly world-class city.
More than 440,000 people have boarded Metro North West, a 36-kilometre rail line running between the Sydney suburbs of Chatswood and Tallawong, since it opened on Sunday. While there have been a few hitches in the first week, including a train breaking down, it has been embraced by the public.
When AFR Weekend hops aboard the new “turn up and go” metro at Chatswood station on Friday at 7am, there are about 20 people in each carriage heading north. Olivia, a high school student travelling to Epping, used to take a bus, but says the new train is “nicer”.
Richard Vantuno, who works in market research and lives in North Sydney, says the metro is “life-changing”. Vantuno used to drive to his job in Norwest, a journey that took him an hour.
The metro commute still takes an hour door-to-door but he hates paying toll fares (which he says have become “too expensive” at a cost of $20 a day.) Now Vantuno can read and relax, paying $3.53 for a one-way trip or $5.05 during peak hours. “Instead of two dead hours a day, I have two nice hours.”
He’s also happy his mobile phone works throughout his journey. “There are no black spots – that’s a big deal.” The metro carriages, which were designed in France and built in India, also have charging points for phone cables.
It takes 40 minutes to get to Tallawong. A customer service officer, Kris, stands at the front of the train, ready to take back control from the automated system if there is a problem.
During an eight-minute wait on the station for the next train back, announcements warn of “increasing wait time due to operational issues”. Another train has failed to let passengers off at Chatswood, causing slight delays.
But the trip back to Chatswood is smooth. Dominic Ivory, an insurance underwriter who is heading into the CBD, says he’s a fan, even though the metro trip is a couple of dollars more expensive than the bus he used to take.
Ivory is looking forward to the metro being extended so he can travel all the way through to the city without having to change to Sydney’s double-decker suburban trains at Chatswood.
Everyone has a seat until the metro passes through Epping station, where crowds of people heading into the city pile on and it’s standing room only.
Constance claims the $7.3 billion metro is already having a “phenomenal” effect on how people get around. with about 20-35 per cent of people within the north-west transport corridor choosing the new train.
But the real long-term benefits for Sydney are expected to be realised when the metro, which is Australia’s biggest public transport project, is extended into the city’s central business district and out to its western suburbs.
Constance says the expansion will have an “incredible benefit” socially by improving Sydneysiders’ quality of life and also economically by “fighting the scourge of congestion”.
“I do believe that the full power of metro will very much occur when the line is built out and that includes tunnelling under the harbour for the first time in 50 years for the purposes of passenger rail,” the minister says.
New metro stations will be built in the heart of Sydney’s CBD at Barangaroo, Martin Place, Pitt Street and Central Station. The City of Sydney wants more places connected, including Green Square, Pyrmont and Ultimo.
Metro network essential
Adrian Dwyer, chief executive of Infrastructure Partnerships Australia (IPA), says Sydney needs a metro network to move people around efficiently as its population soars.
“One of the biggest challenges for Australia is how do we go from being cities of under 4-5 million people and being the most livable cities in the world to having cities of 8 million people and still having the most liveable cities in the world?” Dwyer says. “I don’t see a way you can do that without metro-style mass transit systems.”
Sydney’s new metro will be able to carry about 40,000 people per hour, almost double the 24,000 people the current suburban rail network carries.
NSW’s population is forecast to reach more than 9 million by 2027, with Sydney accounting for two-thirds of the total, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The NSW government warned in its state infrastructure strategy 2018-2038 that Sydney may have reached “a point of inflection” in which further increases in congestion may significant reduce its high quality of life and global competitiveness.
A metro network would allow people to move between different parts of Sydney and create opportunities to develop new employment hubs, Dwyer says.
“It’s unquestionably the case that London Docklands wouldn’t have grown to be Europe’s second-largest financial centre without a mass connection to the City of London.”
London’s Docklands, which includes Canary Wharf, is linked to the City of London by the Docklands Light Railway, an automated line that opened in 1987 and connects with the London Underground.
Australia is well behind the rest of the world in opening metro lines. More than 40 cities globally already have fully automated metro systems, including Barcelona, Las Vegas, Osaka and Sao Paulo.
Singapore has the world’s largest automated network with 126 kilometres of automated lines, followed by Kuala Lumpur and Dubai. The number of automated metro kilometres in the world is forecast to triple by 2023, with most of the growth occurring in China, according to the International Association of Public Transport.
The Committee for Sydney’s new CEO, Gabriel Metcalf, who formerly ran San Francisco’s planning and urban research association, says the metro’s opening is “a huge deal” for Sydney because the city has been playing catch-up on infrastructure.
“Imagine how wonderful it would be if a new metro line opened every five or six years – eventually Sydney will end up with a network like you see in London or New York or Tokyo, a network that lets you get from anywhere to anywhere,” Metcalf says.
“Building out the rest of the network over time is going to mean less time stuck in traffic, it’s going to mean access to more jobs for people, it’s going to mean a lot more choice about where people live and work.”
The new metro system, which is being run by Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation and is currently operating trains every five to six minutes with the aim of reducing intervals to every four minutes over the next month, is by no means cheap.
If all stages currently planned go ahead, the total cost will amount to about $50 billion, according to Infrastructure Pipeline, a database of infrastructure projects put together by IPA.
The CBD and south-west extension, due to open by 2024, will cost up to $12.5 billion, and a further extension into the western suburbs will cost another another $10 billion, according to the pipeline. Another branch out to the “greater west” via the new Western Sydney Airport, which is due to open in 2026, is estimated to cost up to $20 billion.
Taxpayers subsidise the cost of rail networks, which only recoup about 20 per cent of their operating costs through passenger fares.
But Constance says demand for Sydney’s rail systems is going “gangbusters” with annual passenger trips now running at 420 million, up from 300 million five years ago.
“I don’t know if there are too many places around the world that have seen that degree of growth over that timeframe when it comes to rail. We need metro to continue to be built out.”
The sale of NSW’s electricity assets over the past few years, which raised a total of $34 billion, will pay for the metro’s expansion into the CBD and south-west. NSW will “assess its financing strategy” for the final metro stages but is confident of completing them, Constance says.
The Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) has welcomed more trains on the Sydney network, but does not want the metro to get rid of experienced train operators.
The union expects the government to gradually shift existing double-decker trains on Sydney’s rail network with human drivers to automated single-deck trains.
Alex Classsens, the RTBU’s NSW state secretary, says rail safety employees need to be on every train. “There is always going to be a problem, the power is going to go off, the computer is not going to reset, there’s going to be things fall on the track.”
When one of the new metro trains stopped working this week after losing contact with the rail systems communications network, a customer services officer had to take physical control.
Danny Broad, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), says that he expects the new metro line to be the first of many in Australia and that with some $150 billion is expected to be invested into rail infrastructure over the next decade in Australia and New Zealand, there will be huge demand for the services of companies that build and operate rail systems.
The ARA is trying to encourage younger people and women to join the rail industry because it is worried there will not be enough skilled people to operate and maintain trains due to competition for talent with other infrastructure projects. “We’re all fishing in the same pool for resources and that pool is getting shallower,” Broad says.