Sydney: why have one metro system when you can have two (or more)? Part 2

In the first post in this series I took a look at the significant differences between Sydney Metro Western Sydney Airport (Metro WSA) which will connect the new airport to the Sydney Trains network at St Marys, and the combined Sydney Metro Northwest and Metro City and Southwest (Metro NW/City/SW) which will run from Tallawong in the northwest to Bankstown in the southwest when it fully opens. I also discussed some of the wide-reaching ramifications of these differences for the development of the metro network.

In part two I’m looking at how the third line under construction, Sydney Metro West (see map below), fits into this picture and canvassing some possible scenarios for the long-term development of Sydney’s metro lines.

SMW map

Sydney Metro West map (source: Sydney Metro EIS)

First, a quick recap. Metro WSA which is due to open in 2026, will be operated by Parklife Metro, a different consortium to the Metro Trains Sydney group of companies that is operating Metro NW/City/SW, the final stages of which will open in 2024/25. The airport line will use 25 kV AC electrification, unlike Metro NW/City/SW and the suburban and interurban rail networks, which all run on 1,500 V DC. Metro WSA is being constructed to handle three-car trains on opening but the station infrastructure can be expanded to accommodate four cars. This contrasts with Metro NW/City/SW which opened with six-car trains but has been designed to handle eight-car ones. 

In part one I concluded that the NSW government obviously wants to ensure that all future rail expansion in Sydney is through metro construction, but is also seeking to avoid a single-operator metro monopoly. In addition the first two metro lines have been designed around their primary purposes, to the point that they will be almost completely incompatible. More significantly, the limited design capacity of Metro WSA will constrain the line’s longer-term future as outer Western Sydney’s key north-south public transport corridor, even if the line is linked to and takes over the Glenfield to Leppington rail link as currently planned

Given the government has comprehensively separated the operations of Sydney’s first two metros, a third line adds another set of variables. I’ll try to explore some of these and the potential implications, but a word of warning – given that there is limited information about the design parameters for Metro West, especially as the key contracts to develop the stations and to provide, operate and maintain the trains have not yet been let, the following commentary is fairly speculative.

What is Sydney Metro West?

Sydney Metro West is a similar to Metro WSA in terms of length but will be closer to Metro NW/City/SW in terms of patronage – and expense. I’ve reproduced the comparison sheet from Part 1 which outlines the key characteristics of the three lines (click on the table for a PDF version).Microsoft Word - COMPARISON SYDNEY METRO LINES V2

The 24-kilometre line will run entirely underground from Westmead to Hunter Street in the CBD. It will have nine stations and is due to open in 2030. Despite its name only three stations are located in Western Sydney, none of which will significantly increase the rail catchment in the region because of their proximity to existing railway stations. In fact, only four stations on the line are located in areas currently without any heavy rail coverage.

What Metro West will do is provide a high-speed limited-stop service between Parramatta and the CBD that will provide a faster trip than the current rail line and double capacity in this corridor. This guarantees that the line will have high patronage levels which are likely to be closer to those of Metro NW/City/SW when the latter is completed than the much lower numbers anticipated for Metro WSA, at least initially. The line’s speed also paves the way for its eventual expansion to form a high-speed link from the CBD via Parramatta to Western Sydney Airport and an interchange with Metro WSA. 

As the table indicates, apart from the route, stations and travel times we know relatively little about the specification for Metro West, for example, what power supply it will use and the length or configuration of the trains. However, the fact that like Metro WSA its construction will not involve the conversion of existing rail infrastructure would suggest that it will also operate on 25 kV AC, while on the other hand it will likely commence operations with with eight-car sets.

This means that while it will probably more closely resemble Metro NW/City/SW in operation it is likely to be technically incompatible with either of the other two metro lines, in particular Metro WSA’s four-car configuration. However, compatibility with the other lines is not likely to be a significant issue with Metro West. While there will be an interchange with Metro NW/City/SW in the CBD and there may eventually be one with Metro WSA at the new airport, there are unlikely to be any opportunities for through running with the other two metros even if Metro West is extended.

A third metro line – or a third metro system?

At the time of writing we also don’t know who will build or run Metro West – the procurement process for the line had just begun, with the announcement by Sydney Metro of a “new, innovative contracting approach”. This is called the “Sydney Metro West Partnership” and has been developed as a result of “industry feedback and lessons learnt from Sydney Metro City & Southwest, and from national and international projects”. The Partnership aims to provide “a more collaborative approach to construction and support a more sustainable construction industry”.

There is little detail about how this will work, but it appears to be a departure from the Metro WSA Stations, Systems, Trains, Operations and Maintenance (SSTOM) model, in which consortia comprising groups of companies bid for a single package of contracts covering all these aspects of the project; ie, just about everything except the tunnelling and construction of the line.

Subject to further development, it appears that separate, smaller contract bundles will be developed to supply each of these components for Metro West. For example, the trains and signalling contract will include design, supply, testing and commissioning of the trains, the signalling and systems required to deliver driverless train operations.​

Separate contracts will cover the delivery of selected underground stations, as well as station development within larger Integrated Station Development packages for each of  Parramatta, Sydney Olympic Park, Pyrmont and Hunter Street stations. There will also be contracts for operations and maintenance for 15 years and “linewide”, which includes the design, supply, testing and commissioning of all other rail and linewide systems.

This opens up a number of possibilities with interesting implications regarding how – and by whom – Metro West will be managed and operated. Two completely different consortia are involved in operating Metro NW/City/SW and Metro WSA, but instead of awarding a large omnibus contract package for Metro West to either of these groups or to a third consortium, a range of individual companies will be contracted. This could pave the way for companies that are members of either of the current consortia to bid in their own right, along with companies which are not involved in either metro group.

The move to this approach could be as much about pragmatism as it is about the virtues of collaboration. Even though it is a similar length to Metro WSA, at an estimated cost of up to $26.6 billion, Metro West will dwarf it and each of the Metro NW/City/SW stages in terms of cost. There is probably a limit to the number of completely independent consortia that could be formed to make a single bid for a project of this magnitude, and by breaking up the project into several smaller packages the government has almost certainly widened the number of potential contenders.

Sydney Metro map and costings SMH

Sydney Metro costings (source: Sydney Morning Herald)

The dynamics of how the Metro West partnership will work in practice will be very interesting. While the station delivery projects will involve relatively little interaction once the projects are finished, the train supply, operations and maintenance and linewide contracts will inevitably involve a high degree of ongoing interaction. It is not clear how this will be managed, but one thing is obvious – the new partnership model means that a third group of companies will operate Sydney’s third metro line.

The inevitable conclusion is that rather than having three metro lines, Sydney will have three metro systems, each largely independent of each other. As an arm of government Sydney Metro will provide an overlay of integration and consistency particularly in terms of the interface with passengers, but each line will be separately managed and operated by different groups of companies, each will have separate workforces, and each will be to varying degrees technically incompatible with the other two.

How many more metro lines – and systems – into the future?

While it is tempting to think that the pattern of creating new groups of contractors will be repeated as Sydney’s metro network is expanded, I suspect that there won’t be any further expansion in the number of separate metro operating groups, or for that matter the number of lines, for the foreseeable future.

The current round of metro-building will finish in 2030 with the completion of Sydney Metro West, by which time Sydney will have 113 kilometres of track spread across the three metro systems. What happens next is less certain; while the government has released a Future Transport Strategy with maps showing “committed, funded and visionary” rail infrastructure plans, there is little detail regarding potential modes, actual routes or construction dates. 

Future_Transport_Strategy_lowres_2 (1)

Existing and future rail network (source: Transport for NSW Future Transport Strategy)

The metro maps prepared by various government agencies are slightly better, but even they show only indicative routes and there are inconsistencies between them regarding some of the details. However, these all suggest that the next phase is likely to involve extensions of the metros currently under construction rather than the commencement of completely new lines. Indeed, the only concrete metro proposal at this stage is the announcement of  the development of a jointly-funded federal-state government business case for the extension of Metro WSA to meet the south west rail link at Leppington and to incorporate the SWRL between Glenfield and Leppington into the airport line (this is discussed in more detail in part 1).

Metro Map Appendix E- Design Guidelines (1)

Sydney Metro lines in operation or under construction, and selected proposed extensions and lines (source: Sydney Metro)

This points to a period of consolidation in the management and operation of the separate metro systems. The extension of the existing lines might result in the formation of different groups of companies to undertake some of the station development and infrastructure installation after the completion of tunnelling, but the operating groups established during the first stages of each of these lines are likely to be engaged to operate and manage any extensions as they open. For example, the companies involved in supplying the original trains and signalling systems are highly likely to be engaged to provide additional rolling stock and to extend these systems.

I noted in part one of this series that developing the metro network as several independent systems would have the side-effect of making it more convenient for the government to privatise the metros. Several people have responded, suggesting that this is the government’s primary goal and that the development of these separate systems would also make it easier to break up and privatise the existing rail network in a similar way.

With the government claiming that it is not seeking privatisation the jury is still out on this, and I think it will be so for quite some time. While the development and sale of Sydney’s motorways has been suggested as a precedent, there are fundamental differences in the financial structure of metros, including the fact that unlike motorways they are highly unlikely to become self-supporting and will continue to require government subsidies. The metro lines will take years to become firmly established and the current lines will probably need even longer to be be built out to their fullest extent. Many governments will also come and go before any proposal for privatisation could realistically be contemplated.

What is certain, however, is that the government has succeeded in its more immediate aims of building an automated metro network with limited staff numbers (and, consequently, union engagement) but with strong private sector involvement through the extensive use of PPP arrangements. At the same time it has avoided the creation of a monopoly by deliberately splitting this network into three incompatible systems, each with separate operators.

Through the strategic positioning of these metro lines accompanied by the conversion and integration of selected sections of Sydney’s existing suburban rail network, it has also made it virtually impossible to expand the rail network for the foreseeable future except through the extension of these metro systems. Whatever you think of these achievements, they will be pretty hard for any future government to undo.

This entry was posted in Infrastructure, metro, Planning, Public Transport, Rail, Sydney Metro, Sydney metro area, Transport, Western Sydney and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sydney: why have one metro system when you can have two (or more)? Part 2

  1. Pingback: Sydney: why have one metro system when you can have two (or more)? Part 1 | StrategicMatters

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