The metro look

Metro cross section

If all goes to plan, in a year's time, two tunnel boring machines will start crunching about 25 metres underground from White Bay in Sydney's inner west towards Central Station, building the twin tunnels for Australia's first urban metro train system. It is just possible the machines could be somewhere under their two Sydney Harbour crossings, at Pyrmont and Barangaroo, by the time of the March 2011 state election.

With the CBD Metro poised to become a hot election issue, all Sydneysiders currently know is that the metro will involve a seven-kilometre route with six new stations. The design of the trains and stations and how they will look and operate are still unknown a year from the construction's scheduled start. Rodd Staples, Sydney Metro's acting chief executive, says, "Metro is a concept to which Sydney will adapt." But what exactly is that concept?

Like metros in European, Asian and North American cities, Sydney's will differ from the suburban heavy rail system that has operated since the 19th century in three key aspects: frequency, speed and reliability. Staples says trains will not run to any set timetable but at a frequency of one train every 2.5 minutes in peak hours, and about five minutes in non-peak.

The trains themselves are likely to have no drivers, reflecting the latest highly automated metro technology. Sydney Metro has short-listed two consortiums, Kujika and Met One, to bid for the contract to operate the CBD Metro (three separate consortiums are bidding to build the tunnels and rail). Both Kujika and Met One companies have run metro systems in London, Copenhagen, Dubai, Lyon, Lille, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Staples says Sydney Metro's contract will not prescribe that the Sydney system be driverless. "But we anticipate the short-listed consortia will offer that," he says. "It's a more proven and efficient system around the world. I think we can move into that market now with a lot of confidence. Ten years ago, perhaps not."

The six underground stations will be at Rozelle, Pyrmont, Barangaroo (which will link to the existing Wynyard station), Martin Place, Town Hall Square and Central. Staples hopes the Town Hall Square station, with a Pitt Street entrance, will be a catalyst for the City of Sydney's plan for a grand public square opposite Town Hall. The plan involves demolishing all buildings fronting Park Street, between George and Pitt Streets. The City of Sydney has already acquired most of them; Sydney Metro is buying the remainder.

All we know about the stations so far is that each platform will have automatic safety doors, separating passengers from incoming trains. The model for that is the Jubilee Line, the latest and smartest on London's Underground system. Driverless trains (albeit with at least one attendant on board), and high-tech underground stations would allow the metro to operate independently of the rail unions and RailCorp's administrative bureaucracy, both of which can, and do, drag down efficiency on Sydney's existing system. Says Staples: "It has the advantage of being separate from other transport systems. So if something goes wrong on the roads or heavy rail, metro will keep running."

As for the train designs, Les Wielinga, head of the new Department of Transport and Infrastructure, says he expects the winning consortium will "come up with an average model, so we can buy the rolling stock off the shelf". There is no decision yet whether the trains will be made in Asia, Europe or Australia. Each carriage is likely to have three doors for faster access and shorter stopping times. Wielinga says each will hold up to 100 people, about two-thirds standing, like many metro models.

Wielinga and Staples make much of the fact that the metro's broad role will be to service parts of Sydney that lack fast mass-transit systems. Lines on Sydney Metro's "aspiring map" wend to the northern beaches, Malabar in the south and the Hills district in the north-west. Yet Sydney Metro, under instructions from the Rees government, is putting all its initial focus on two areas that do have such systems: the CBD Metro, followed by a line west to Parramatta and Westmead (see main article).

Wielinga argues the Western Metro (or Stage Two as it is called) is needed to relieve Sydney's "heaviest crush" on the existing heavy rail line between Strathfield and Central: that corridor represents one-third of Sydney's, and 12 per cent of Australia's, GDP.

So with all this frantic activity to sow the seeds of a revolutionary (for Sydney) new transport system as March 2011 looms, surely there is a case to give its platforms, trains and other everyday features something that seems in danger of being lost: a design stamp that speaks uniquely of Sydney and Australia. There is still time for Sydney Metro to launch a competition for public ideas, so that for once, the Australian model ends up not just a bland conglomerate of overseas imports.