Scope#34 | Sydney Metro

By William Sposato

Sydney had a problem. Its economic success and reputation as one of the world’s most livable cities had brought growing traffic jams that lengthened commutes. Yet more highways were no longer the answer, prompting the government to turn to a team of global experts for a new solution. The result: The Sydney Metro Northwest Project.

Sydney Metro is a new world-class railway for Sydney. Services started in the city’s North West in May 2019 on Australia’s first fully-automated railway, with 13 metro stations and 4,000 new commuter car parking spaces.

Sydney Metro Northwest delivers, for the first time, a reliable public transport service to a region which has the highest car ownership levels per household in Australia. Over the coming decades, an extra 200,000 people will move into Sydney’s North West, taking its population above 600,000, or same size of Washington, D.C. The project will ease traffic congestion on major and local roads in Sydney’s North West and connect the booming housing suburbs of the outer northwest with the economic zones.

Sydney’s fast, safe and reliable metro trains are fully-air conditioned with new customer benefits like multi-purpose spaces for luggage and parents with prams, as well as wheelchair spaces and priority seating in each carriage.

Technology like platform screen doors – used for the first time in Australia –keep people and objects away from the tracks, also allowing trains to get in and out of stations much faster.

The stations are not just start or finish points. With soaring architecture, new public spaces and wide-open concourses, they are new focal points for local communities.

With running speeds of 100 kph, trains smoothly whisk in and out of stations at peak-hour intervals of four minutes with the technical capacity to shave that time down further. Customers don’t need a timetable, they’ll just turn up and go. The AUD 7.3 billion Sydney Metro Northwest is Stage 1 of Sydney Metro, Australia’s biggest public transport project.

A Project that is Local and Global

The Northwest Rapid Transit (NRT) consortium delivered the AUD 3.7 billion Operations, Trains and Systems (OTS) contract, the largest of the three major delivery contracts for the North West project.

The OTS contract involved the delivery of the Sydney Metro Trains Facility, 22 new metro trains, eight new railway stations, two services facilities, 23 km of new track, 4,000 commuter parking spaces, installed a new power supply for the operation of the project between Willoughby and Chatswood, converted the 13 km Epping to Chatswood Rail Line to metro status and the current operation and maintenance of the system for 15 years.

The contract was awarded on 15 September 2014 and was the largest Public Private Partnership (PPP) ever awarded in New South Wales at the time.

The NRT consortium brought together a wide range of global players. Design and delivery was led by domestic firms John Holland Group, CBP Contractors and UGL Rail Services, along with Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation, one of the world’s leading mass transit operators. The 22 metro trains were designed and manufactured by French group Alstom. Operations are now managed by Metro Trains Sydney (MTS), a joint venture between MTR Corporation, John Holland Group and UGL Rail Services.

“The new metro gives people a new option that’s reliable and stress free.” said Steve Herman, CEO of NRT.

The Role of Marubeni

A key issue was how to successfully blend the public sector needs with private-sector expertise and financing. Enter Marubeni Corporation, a veteran not only in how to put together such Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), but also in the Australian rail sector. The company had played a key role in the highly successful GoldlinQ Light Rail Project in the popular Gold Coast tourist area.

For Sydney Metro Northwest, Marubeni has been a primary investor, with a 20% stake in NRT, making it one of the largest equity investors, and one with a long track record of success in this area.

“Pulling together the finance package was extremely complex,” said NRT’s Herman. “The investment capability of Marubeni, both in Australia and other countries, has been a huge assistance to the project.”

Beyond that, the company has leveraged its experience to actively oversee and monitor the work of contractors during construction and the service providers for the ongoing daily operations, including staff seconded to NRT’s headquarters.

“We have been assisting with financial and commercial matters and have contributed to the team to ensure on-time delivery,” said Marubeni’s Michio Takeoka, who had been dispatched from the company’s headquarters in Tokyo and served as finance and commercial manager at NRT.

“I have seen the project proceed each step of the way and had a real sense of excitement when I saw the trains begin operation on opening day.”

An Australian First

Sydney Metro is Australia’s first fully automated driverless passenger railway system. On average there are 100 CCTV cameras at stations and 38 CCTV cameras on each metro train. The Operations Control Centre is able to monitor the metro system constantly to ensure the safety of customers. While saving on personnel costs, this also allows for faster recovery in the event of a mechanical or operational problem. With no drivers, the trains can be more quickly repositioned to return operations to normal.

Sydney Metro is the first Australian railway to use platform screen doors, which are common around the world. These doors are a glass barrier keeping people and objects like prams away from the tracks and allowing the metro to get in and out of stations much faster.

Despite the high level of automation, the Metro experience is a personal one. A Metro Trains Sydney (MTS) Customer Journey Coordinator is present at each station every day, all day and night in addition to staff at the Operations Control Centre who will answer inquiries made through the video help points at each station.

“We want to be different from any other public transport operator in Australia, to show everyone what a real customer service-oriented operation looks like,” said David Screen, General Manager Customer Journeys & Operations for Metro Trains Sydney, who is a third-generation railway employee with more than 26 years of experience.

“Our frontline staff are there to make our customer’s journey as pleasant as they can.” But their work goes beyond customer engagement. Staff ensure the rail corridor is safe prior to passenger operations each morning and are trained to operate the trains manually, if required.

Stations as Meeting Places

Another notable feature of Sydney Metro is the attention paid to create expansive and light-filled stations with architectural styling that go far beyond the purely functional designs of many other transit systems.

According to architect Ross de la Motte, who led the project for Hassell, one of Australia’s largest design firms, the high canopies, wide-open entrances and use of natural light were key elements in the design of the stations.

“The experience of the customer coming into the station is to be sheltered but also welcomed,” he said. “It’s transport but it’s so much more than that, it’s an urban place where the stations become markers in the landscape for people to meet, play. It’s about a new public place in the city.”

Sydney Metro is Australia’s first fully accessible railway. “Every Sydney Metro station has lifts and there is level access between platforms and trains for people with limited mobility and parents with prams. This means no more steps into carriages. Access has been made easy with features such as wider Opal gates, accessible toilets and level access between platform and throughout train carriages,” said NRT CEO Herman.

The project has already proven to be a success with the travelling public with more than 7 million journeys in the first four months and customer feedback reported as highly positive.

“We were quite impressed, everything is new and it’s all very smooth,” said first-time rider John. “I think it’s great for Australia, quite high tech”, added his wife Margaret.

With construction sites dotting the landscape around many of the stations, the investment is already paying off for the community. “For a small business owner like me it has brought many benefits, bringing many people into the area. It has also had an impact on the environment, with fewer traffic jams, people can take trains into the city, everywhere,” said Gavin Gui, owner of the Youeni Foodstore in Castle Hill, one of the Metro stops.

Training for the Future

From Marubeni’s perspective, this experience with Sydney Metro Northwest has added to its own knowledge base for such projects rooted in similar projects that the company has done in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America since the 1980s. “With this experience, I would like to take part in other transport infrastructure projects around the world,” said Marubeni’s Takeoka.

He may not have to move very far. With the Northwest project up and running, Sydney Metro is preparing for Stage 2, a new 30 km extension that will take the Metro into the heart of the city and beyond. The extension will make the expanded metro line with 31 stations in 2024 and ring in a new era for passenger transport in Australia.

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in August 2019.