Last week I joined the thousands of people who tried out the new Sydney Metro Northwest. I was going to say half-million people, but the total patronage for the first week of operation of over 546,000 obviously includes return and repeat trips. Still, this is an impressive figure, and even if the first day’s patronage (when travel was free) is taken out, average daily use for the working week was nearly 80,000.
I started my trip by taking a train from the line’s current eastern terminus at Chatswood to the final station in the northwest, at Tallawong. I then retraced my journey in stages, stopping at Rouse Hill, Norwest, Hills Showground and Castle Hill before returning to Chatswood. I was trying not just to get a sense of how the new line is working but also its relationship to the centres and communities along the corridor.
I’ve described the trains in more detail previously and I’ll revisit them in a future post, but in summary there are 22 six-car 132-metre long trains with 378 seats and a total capacity of 1,100 passengers. These have been manufactured in India by Alstom and are a variant of their Metropolis model.
The trains are energised at 1500 VDC from overhead catenary and are driverless, with operations overseen from a control centre near Tallawong where they are stabled. There are three doors per carriage side with 100% longitudinal seating and spaces for wheelchairs, prams and bikes.
The total 36-kilometre trip from Chatswood to Tallawong takes around 37 minutes, an average speed of just under 60km/h. The equivalent car trip is slightly shorter and takes a few minutes less out of peak hour but can be greatly affected by traffic. Metro trains run every five minutes in the peak and every 10 minutes at other times, but these frequencies will be increased.
There are 13 stations, five of which are on the Epping to Chatswood link which opened as a Sydney suburban rail line prior to conversion to become part of the Metro. There are interchanges with the existing rail system at Chatswood and Epping, and with bus services at many of the stations. The average 3 km distance between station is comparatively large by metro standards, though station spacing is very uneven, with long gaps from Chatswood to North Ryde and both sides of Epping station.
The journey – Chatswood to Tallawong
Arriving on a Sydney Trains service from the CBD there is a surface cross-platform interchange to the Metro services departing Chatswood (which will be the Metro terminus until 2023/24). A separate platform provides a similar interchange between Metro services terminating at Chatswood and citybound trains. I was travelling in the early afternoon, when services were departing every 10 minutes.
Metro trains arriving at Chatswood deposit their passengers on the citybound interchange platform before going on past the station, reversing and coming in on the outbound platform to pick up. Here is where you notice two key features of the Metro – the platform doors and the small gap between the platforms and the trains. I was also a witness to a third feature which others have commented on – the way Metro trains occasionally make small adjustments after they arrive at a station to ensure the platform doors and those on the train are fully aligned. There is limited time to board the train.
The trains themselves are spacious, well-lit but, but the interiors are bland and little distinguishes them from most current metro trains anywhere else in the world. All the seating is longitudinal; the seats themselves are not excessively padded but I have experienced worse. The emphasis is clearly on maximising internal space for the peak period, when the majority of passengers will be standing. You should hang on though; the Metro trains accelerate and deaccelerate noticeably faster than their Sydney Trains counterparts, though apart from that the ride seemed reasonably smooth.
Standing at the front of lead car gives you the best view in the house – straight down the tracks as the train takes off. In contrast with driverless trains I’ve travelled on elsewhere however, the use of longitudinal seats, the narrowness of the front window (which doubles as an emergency exit) and the presence of what appears to be concealed emergency driving controls means that you have to stand to see the spectacle.
There is lighting and an emergency walkway along the entire length of the tunnel; this seems narrower in the new tunnelled section, like the tunnels themselves (this has raised some concerns about safety which I may discuss in a future post). There is little else to say about the tunnel section, once you get over the novelty of watching it unfold in front of you from what would have been the driver’s position.
The train emerges from the tunnel finally just before it reaches Bella Vista station. From there it turns northwest before running onto the viaduct which continues for most of the rest of the trip until Tallawong. The view is more interesting above ground than underneath, both in terms of the visible infrastructure such as the bridge over Windsor Road near Rouse Hill Station and the perspectives it provides of north western Sydney.
On my trip to Tallawong there were relatively few people on the train, but the numbers grew through the afternoon as I made my way back to Chatswood. Obviously there were plenty of people like me who were making a special trip just to see the new Metro, but I was impressed by the number of “regular” commuters – workers, schoolkids, shoppers and others – who already seemed comfortable using it as their normal transport service.
I didn’t have the time to visit every station, but I saw what I think is a representative sample. There is a strong uniformity of design based on detailed system-wide principles, with subtle variations for each station. In terms of design these can be placed in four broad groups:
Epping to Chatswood stations. There are five existing stations on the Chatswood to Epping section which opened in 2008. These include the interchange stations, Chatswood and Epping, which were already substantially developed. The other stations, North Ryde, Macquarie Park and Macquarie University are all underground and their original design was very consistent. I didn’t stop at any of these stations, but in passing through their appearance all seems little changed by the Metro except for new signage, displays and the addition of platform doors.
Underground stations. These comprise the new underground stations at Castle Hill, Hills Showground and Norwest. The layout of these stations is similar to the established underground stations, with lifts and escalators from the platform level to the concourse and a large atrium. One difference is the use of skylights to allow natural light into the station. Long escalators and lifts to the surface form a strong visual focus at the end wall of the atrium.
The entrance areas above the concourse are roofed by distinctive wave-shaped curved canopies incorporating large glass sections. There is a consistent colour theme at these stations, with lots of red-orange glass, for example in the escalator balustrades and in the skylights at the top of the atriums. The finishes seem a little more articulated than at the older underground stations, with perforated panels.
Stations in cuttings. The stations located at Cherrybrook, Bella Vista and Tallawong follow the same broad design principles as the underground stations, with lifts and escalators to a surface-level concourse under curved canopies similar to those at the underground stations. There is the same extensive use of coloured glass, in this case green.
Elevated stations. There are two stations on the viaduct section, at Kellyville and Rouse Hill. These dispense with the curved canopies, with the platforms having more conventionally shaped covers. The ground-level concourse is surprisingly open, with the underside of the viaduct and platform structure forming an atrium effect similar in effect to the underground stations (at least at Rouse Hill Station – I didn’t see the arrangement at Kellyville) with lifts and escalators to the platform level. The outer sides of the atrium space are lined with vertical glass panels arranged in a triangular prism-like arrangement.
In summary, the new stations are well laid out with lots of natural light. I don’t have mobility issues, but for those using wheelchairs or walking aids or dealing with prams or strollers, access from street to train appears to be well thought out. Signage also seems adequate. My main criticism is that the stations in each category are almost too alike, though there are subtle differences.
Catchment and role
Epping to Chatswood stations. While these stations service residential areas, they function predominantly as interchange and destination stations providing access to major employment and education precincts. The major change in their use is the heightened interchange role of Epping and Chatswood, with the latter becoming the major point of exchange between the incompatible Metro and Sydney Trains systems.
The new stations from Cherrybrook to Tallawong all provide bus interchanges (either with local services or in the case of Rouse Hill and Kellyville, with the bus T-way), “kiss and ride” and taxi spaces as well as bicycle parking. In terms of function they can be divided into two groups:
Residential catchment stations. The primary role of Cherrybrook, Bella Vista, Kellyville and Tallawong stations is to provide access to the metro for commuters from nearby residential precincts; those in the immediate walk-up catchment of these stations mainly comprise relatively low-density housing, so many commuters will come from further afield by car or bus. A total of 4,000 spaces have been provided, but there are reports that some station car parks are already full.
The effect at some stations is quite striking. At Kellyville and Tallawong car parking and bus stands are the most obvious urban features nearby; Kellyville has a multi-storey car park next to it which is bigger than the station itself. Several of these stations neighbour yet-to-be developed residential release areas so the population in the immediate catchment is likely to grow.
Stations serving major centres. The remaining four stations, Castle Hill, Hills Showground, Norwest and Rouse Hill, are located close to major retail or business centres. They function mainly as destination stations for both the users and employees of these facilities, though they also provide access for commuters from nearby residential areas. Hills Showground and Castle Hill in particular both service commercial and residential precincts, while areas around Rouse Hill continue to develop.
Overall, I was impressed with the Metro’s operation. The only glitch on the afternoon I travelled was the temporary closure of Macquarie Park station due to a false fire alarm, but the trains kept running. The emphasis is on functionality over form; as I indicated previously, while their appearance is striking the stations are actually very similar to each other, which does make them easy to negotiate. Similarly, the trains’ exterior appearance is distinctive, but their interiors are a little bland. In effect the trains operate as a set of horizontal elevators and are about as anonymous as their vertical counterparts.
The metro’s opening also means that at last, Sydney’s fast-growing northwest finally gets an efficient, rail-based transit option, something which successive state governments promised, planned and promised again over decades, but repeatedly failed to deliver. However, I’m still not convinced the metro option was the best choice for the northwest, given the limited seating and the comparatively long travel times. It still looks and feels like a high-capacity short and medium-distance transport technology has been stretched to act as an outer-suburban long-haul commuter service (read Jacob Saulwick’s article for a more detailed discussion about this).
However, a lot depends on how the Metro is used; if the majority of trips are made over short distances within the northwest, then it may prove to have been an inspired choice, but with the service due to extend through the city and out to the southwest in the next five years this seems less likely. Consequently, a lot more people are likely to end up standing for a lot longer than the 40 minutes I spent doing so.
I understand that questioning the Metro is now a moot and pointless exercise; it is here to stay and with the re-election of the state government the conversion of the Bankstown line to metro standards is certain to occur. The Metro’s apparent successful implementation to date also means that the links planned to Parramatta and the Western Sydney airport are certain to be constructed to similar standards, and the conversion of other existing lines is also possible.
I would however question whether such conversions are necessary to obtain the “metro experience”. It should be possible to remake the existing suburban lines to the same high standard of design and technology, and still retain double deck trains. The Metro’s attractive and seamless street-to-train-to-street experience could, and should, be applied over time to the existing double deck network.