A tale of two metros: London Crossrail and Sydney Metro compared

As readers of this blog will know I have written extensively (and often critically) about the Sydney Metro. In July 2016 I published a series of articles comparing four major Australasian CBD rail projects – Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. While I plan to update this soon to reflect progress on all four projects since then, I thought I’d make a different comparison: London’s Crossrail (which will be renamed as the Elizabeth Line later this year, though I’ll use both names interchangeably here) and the Sydney Metro.

Why compare these two projects? They share a number of similarities, and of all the antipodean projects listed above, only the Sydney Metro approaches the scale of the Elizabeth Line – and in some important aspects exceeds it. And while there are a number of major metro expansion projects in other cities overseas, most notably China and India, Crossrail is one of the few that is directly comparable with Sydney’s new line (and also one of a limited number for which comprehensive information is available in English).

There are also some interesting and fundamental differences. The following discussion briefly outlines each project and their key features are also summarised in the following table.

Elizabeth Line (Crossrail)

The Elizabeth Line is 118 kilometres in length, with two branches at each end and over 21 kilometres of mostly new tunnelling. It runs from Heathrow Airport and Reading in the west through central London to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. There are 41 stations, all accessible, with 10 new ones and the remainder upgraded. Of these, 24 will provide interchanges with existing rail services.

Elizabeth Line route map (source: Crossrail)

As well as new tunnelling, the project also involves the integration of a number of existing lines, particularly to the east and west outside central London. It has already started to open in stages and will be fully operational by 2019, at a cost of over $31 billion. The Elizabeth Line is projected to carry 200 million passengers annually when fully operational, with a train in the central section every two and a half minutes in peak hour, increasing central London rail capacity by 10%.

Elizabeth Line map (source: Transport for London)

Sydney Metro

The Sydney Metro will be 66 kilometres in length when completed, with over 30 kilometres of new tunnels and 13 kilometres of upgraded tunnels. It will run from Tallawong (formerly known as Cudgegong station) in the northwest then under Sydney Harbour and through the city to Bankstown in the southwest. When fully completed there will be 31 stations, all accessible, with 15 new stations and the rest upgraded. Of these, six will provide interchange with existing rail services, and two with light rail.

Sydney Metro map (source: Transport for NSW)

Like Crossrail the project will involve both new tunnels and the integration of existing lines. The line is being built in stages, with the first, Sydney Metro Northwest, also due to open in 2019. The second stage, Sydney Metro City and South West, is due to open in 2024. Total cost is estimated to be around $19 billion. When fully open the Sydney Metro will have a target capacity of around 40,000 passengers per hour (though potentially up to 46,000 per hour). Trains will then run every two minutes in peak hour and the line will increase the capacity of the city’s rail network through the CBD by 60%.


The discussion above demonstrates some of the similarities between the two projects. Both involve combining massive tunnelling projects with upgraded existing lines to improve links between outer suburban areas and each city’s centre, as well as substantially increasing the capacity of the overall rail networks through the central area.

Each line will also integrate with a number of existing rail lines and services, though in both cases several potential interchanges have been avoided to reduce the number of stops and provide a faster service. There are some other similarities operationally, with comparative train frequencies and passenger capacities.

Both train fleets provide broadly similar features in terms of accessibility (including spaces for wheelchairs, prams, etc), real time information screens, air conditioning and other features. Each line’s train cars have three sets of doors on each side – and will provide seats for only about a third of total passenger capacity.

Crossrail train exterior (source: Crossrail)

Sydney Metro train exterior (source: Sydney Metro)

… and contrasts

There are also some interesting differences between the two projects. In terms of construction cost and overall length Crossrail is the bigger project, though the Sydney Metro actually involves more tunnel construction (30km compared to 21km); when complete nearly two thirds of the Sydney Metro will be in new or upgraded tunnel, compared to less than 20% of the Elizabeth Line.

It has to be said however that while tunnelling for each project is undoubtedly complex, the challenges of constructing a new underground line through central London probably outweigh even those involved in tunnelling under Sydney’s harbour and CBD. Another point of difference is that while both projects integrate several existing lines, the Sydney Metro, unlike Crossrail, involves extending a new line into outer suburban areas as well as through the CBD.

Conversely, while the two lines are broadly similar in capacity, the Metro will have a much bigger impact on increasing Sydney’s overall CBD rail capacity than Crossrail will in London. This is because Sydney has only a fraction of the number of existing CBD and inner-city lines and stations that London has.

Another key difference is in the relationship of each line to the existing rail network. While Crossrail like the Sydney Metro will have its own dedicated fleet (the former will involve nearly twice as many rail cars as the latter), its trains can venture onto the existing rail network with relatively minor modifications to infrastructure. The Sydney Metro is however completely incompatible with the city’s existing rail system, which means that both the existing lines to be taken over for the Sydney Metro will require extensive conversion.

Like Crossrail (but unlike all current Sydney trains) Sydney Metro trains will be single-deck. This means they are considerably smaller than Sydney’s current rolling stock while on the other hand Crossrail trains are physically larger than London’s existing tube trains. Seats on the Sydney Metro are entirely longitudinal, while Crossrail trains will have both transverse and longitudinal seating.

Despite this the capacity of rail cars on both lines is broadly similar. However, because Crossrail will have nine cars each when the system is fully operational, they will each carry more passengers than their six-car Sydney Metro counterparts. Potentially this difference will disappear if and when the latter line moves to eight-car trains.

And of course, the biggest difference of all will be in operation. While the Elizabeth Line will be partially automated its trains will all have drivers; meanwhile the Sydney Metro will be fully automated and completely driverless from the first day it opens. In this respect the Sydney Metro may have a much bigger impact on its host city than its London counterpart.

Sources: Crossrail, Transport for London, Transport for NSW, Sydney Metro, other sources

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4 Responses to A tale of two metros: London Crossrail and Sydney Metro compared

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  4. Glenn Stewart says:

    Great article. But both project aim to tackle a different issue. The idea behind Crossrail though is best paralleled to Paris which has two primary systems; the Metro and the RER.

    The RER (Réseau Express Régionale / Regional Express Network) is a commuter service which uses low frequency, high capacity, double deck trains with infrequent stops, to bring commuters from greater Paris into the Metro system. The Metro system is then low capacity, high frequency system which has all the hallmarks of a traditional metro including short distances between stations, frequent unscheduled service, mostly underground.

    Crossrail was intended to be to London what RER is to Paris.

    Conversely, Sydney’s system is arguably purely similar to the RER. Once again, high capacity double deck trains with infrequent but scheduled running times and large distances between stations.

    A critical decision point for the Sydney Metro was to ensure that rolling stock was small enough to allow high frequency, unscheduled running (further supported by automation).

    Sydney Metro therefore is to Sydney what the London Underground is to London and Paris Metro is to Paris. The only exception would be that it extends to the suburbs, and the distances between stations is not as short as a traditional metro would be. But then again, Sydney has a much lower density than large metropolitan populations such as Paris, London, New York or Tokyo.

    Crossrail and Sydney Metro can be compared easily in engineering terms, but not in their intended goal. Coincidently, many of the engineers have crossed over directly from London to Sydney.

    Thankfully, Sydney Metro seems to be progressing at a much faster pace than the continually delayed Crossrail project.


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