Why are the NWRL tunnels too small?

Posted: June 25, 2013 in Transport
Tags: , , , , ,

4 tunnel boring machines like these will be used on the NWRL. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

4 tunnel boring machines like these will be used on the NWRL. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Questions about the decision to build the tunnels for the North West Rail Link (NWRL) too narrow and too steep for existing Cityrail rolling stock have resurfaced as the government signs the tunnel boring contract for them. Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian had already admitted that any savings from narrower tunnels on the NWRL would be outweighed by the costs of retrofitting the existing Epping to Chatswood Line, but it now appears likely that one of the bidders for this contract had offered to bore the tunnels at the larger diametre for the same price.

Rumours of this have been circulating, and were first raised in this blog last month on 29 May in the comments section:

“I heard that one company that tendered offered to bore the tunnels to the regular specification for double deckers at no extra charge to facilitate future integration and they were told to go away.” – Joni (29 May 2013)

It was then put to Ms Berejiklian during question time last week. She was asked whether she had received such advice, a question which she dodged in her response. Her refusal to deny it strongly suggests that she has received such advice. The response did, however, contain one of the best interjections made during questions time, by Labor MP Richard Amery:

Mr MICHAEL DALEY: My question is directed to the Minister for Transport. Given the budget appears to confirm that the North West Rail Link will be nothing more than a privatised shuttle service, has the Minister received any advice that the tunnels for the North West Rail Link could be bored to a width that would accommodate double-deck trains at no additional cost to the project?

Ms GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN: Members of the New South Wales Labor Party should hang their heads in shame in relation to the North West Rail Link.

Mr Richard Amery: We’ll have to, to get through the tunnel.

The logical conclusion from this is that the government’s decision to proceed with narrower tunnels is not due to financial considerations. Instead, it is to guarantee that the NWRL remains a segregated, privately operated system that does not interact with the existing Cityrail network.

This is the dominant vision of the transport planners at Transport for NSW, and has been ever since 2008 when they convinced the state government to build a completely segregated metro line from the CBD to Rouse Hill (since abandoned and replaced with a cheaper option that also uses portions of the existing network rather than building completely from scratch). This would prevent the new line from being operated by Railcorp, an organisation that is seen by these planners as slow, inefficient, expensive, and lacking a user (i.e. passengers) focus. Ms Berejiklian often cites that it costs $10m per day to operate, about the same as the London Underground but with about a quarter of the patronage. She is therefore leading a structural reform of Railcorp, with the creation of Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink, but simultaneously also pursuing the option of a completely new line operated by “anyone but Railcorp”.

The decision to make the tunnels narrower and steeper guarantees the independence of this new line, ensuring that the private operator can be held entirely accountable without being able to blame the government rail operator (e.g. because a delay on Sydney Trains prevented the private operator from running on time), while also neutering union opposition to advancements like driverless trains. It is the poison pill that prevents any future government from having a change of heart and integrating the NWRL into the rest of the Cityrail network. Their fear is that a future government could do this in order to, for example, once again scrap the construction of a Second Harbour Rail Crossing, a project announced and subsequently abandoned so many times that transport planners may have found a way of ensuring it gets built – by holding another line hostage in the process.

Nor would wider tunnels necessarily be some silver bullet, the tunnels would still be too steep for existing rolling stock. And it’s worth remembering that any future tunnels under the Harbour (the government is planning its Harbour Rail Crossing to be an under the Harbour tunnel) may also have to be quite steep and the existing tunnels between Epping and Chatswood are already too steep for some existing rolling stock, resulting in new rolling stock like the Waratah trains being built to be compatible with the steeper gradient. Similarly, there are few technical barriers to prevent future double deck rolling stock designed to navigate the narrower and steeper tunnels on the NWRL. But it will prevent that from happening long enough to see whether private operation of heavy rail results in better outcomes, and should be expanded; or is a repeat failure like the privately owned Airport Line, and should not be repeated.

Correction: It’s been pointed out that Tangaras, although not initially used in the Epping to Chatswood tunnels due to their steepness, now are used in them. This is confirmed by the proposed October 2013 timetable. In other words, rolling stock that was not initially able to be used on the Epping to Chatswood tunnels were later able to be used in those tunnels. This is consistent with restrictions on existing rolling stock on the NWRL tunnels, where future changes could also allow double deck trains to still be used on them.

  1. Joni says:

    A sad day for Sydney trains today.

  2. MrV says:

    Once they have finished tunnelling could they at least immediately make a start on the second harbour crossing?
    Time for the discussion to get going now because going over the bridge (removing traffic lanes), slinging a rail line under it (watch out for those worried about asthetics) or tunnel (expensive), all options that are going to take much consideration.
    Presumably the lighter (metro) rolling stock on the NWRL will run into Chatswood then into the city, but then where is the line going to go?

  3. Joni says:

    It may not happen, they are going to build just enough each time to be re elected and eventually they won’t be re elected and all the plans will go nowhere…

  4. MrV –

    After passing through the CBD, the new metro line will connect up to the Illawarra Local tracks through to Hurstville and Lidcombe/Cabramatta via Bankstown. See: Sydney Rail Future, page 11[1].

    Thus far the government is only considering an under the Harbour tunnel, not on or slung under the Harbour Bridge. However, no analysis has been made public showing why this is the preferred alignment.

    [1]: http://engage.haveyoursay.nsw.gov.au/document/show/329

  5. Ray says:

    Agree Joni. However, don’t despair, because there is nothing to stop a future government, of whatever persuasion, from connecting a Second Harbour Crossing and CBD Rail Link directly to the existing North Shore Line tracks at St Leonards, bypassing the NWRL. Most savvy commuters from the North West will eventually realise that it is smarter to interchange at Epping to empty trains to the CBD via Strathfield instead of chancing their arm to get on overcrowded trains at Chatswood. Unfortunately, this will only put more pressure on the Northern Line which is already one of the most congested sectors. This will regrettably leave the NWRL as a glorified stand alone shuttle service from Rouse Hill to Chatswood, forever immortalising the incompetence of the current transport bureaucracy (along with the Airport Rail Link). Well, so be it.

    What has been overlooked in the government’s current strategy for the long term development of the Sydney Rail Network is the expansion of capacity through the CBD for the existing network. CityRail/Sydney Trains will remain the dominant network well into the future and yet there is no apparent strategy to address additional capacity. The proposed “Rapid Transit” concept for the Second Harbour Crossing and CBD Rail Link doesn’t allow for any expansion of services on the Western Line from Strathfield to Central and through to the North Shore, which includes the Northern Line, and which is the busiest sector on the CityRail network.

    In terms of a long term strategy, there is an inconsistent approach. The just released Broader Western Sydney Employment Area Draft Structure Plan, proposed an extension of the South West Rail Link to the North West Rail Link as an orbital rail connection, but that would involve a connection between two incompatible systems. You certainly couldn’t consider a “Rapid Transit /Metro” system in the far Western Suburbs as a viable option.

  6. Joni says:

    Very good comeback from Richard Amery–and I will add that I am not a Labor voter. Sad and worrying how what I heard about the tunnel tender is probably true and not just a rumour. .

  7. Tony Bailey says:

    “existing tunnels between Epping and Chatswood are already too steep for some existing rolling stock”

    There does not appear to be any basis for this statement – everything in the current fleet has operated on the line.

    The only restriction appears to be with terminating trains at each end, when they may require some time for the traction motors to cool.

  8. Tony –

    My understanding is that Tangaras can technically operate on the line, but do not meet certain safety minimums if they are fully loaded. Therefore, they have never been used for revenue service on the line[1].


  9. Dudley Horscroft says:

    It is feasible to increase the power of future rolling stock so as to be able to deal with steeper gradients. At present, no more than 50% of the axles are motored. Future builds, with AC motors – which are generally smaller than DC motors of the same power – could have 75% or 100% of the axles motored.

    I refer you to London’s Kingsway Tramway Subway, where the gradient at the northern end was a ramp with a 10% gradient. On it trams, ordinary rail vehicles, climbed with only half the axles motored, though the bogies were designed to put about 2/3 of the weight on the driven axles. So Sydney trains with 2/3 of the axles motored could climb a 10% gradient. I admit that there was a design flaw in London in that the top of the ramp opened onto a major intersection instead of crossing under it and opening up on the other side (not likely with the NWRL!). This meant that often the trams had to stop on the gradient, and restart. This was ticklish and tram drivers were specially trained for this eventuality. And, to make matters worse, the London Plane trees shed sufficient leaves in the autumn to provide a nice gooey lubricant, and on occasion a tram would slide back to the bottom of the ramp. I don’t advocate 10% gradients, but if they are in a nice dry tunnel with no tree leaves on the line there should be no problems.

    An advantage to using more, but smaller, AC motors is that the floor height can be reduced, and hence the overall height of the train reduced, so that double decker trains can fit into the smaller tunnels. And an idea can be borrowed from what in the UK were known as “Lowbridge” buses, where the gangway on the top deck was at the side, meaning lower headroom over some of the seats. In Sydney this could mean a top deck with a central gangway as at present, but a lower deck with gangways at each side. Hey Presto, a double deck train which will comfortably fit into the reduced diameter tunnels!

    In truth, politicians are at the mercy of their civil service advisers. Forty years ago this meant the monorail aberration. Today this means the smaller tunnels for the NWRL. There is no significant saving to be made from smaller diameter tunnels till one gets to the size of the London Tubes. In fact, smaller diameter tunnels means greater operating costs as air resistance increases as the train more closely fits the tunnels.

  10. Joni says:

    THIS sort of info makes it even more distressing that the NWRL is going forward with the single deck privatised service.

  11. Ray says:

    Tangaras do now operate on the ECRL. I’ve seen them.

  12. Ray –

    A quick look at the proposed October 2013 timetable supports your claims. It appears that although Tangaras were not initially used on the line, they were introduced at a later point. A correction has been made.

  13. Ray says:

    That’s fine

  14. enno says:

    It’s silly to compare the rolling stock restrictions of the current Macquarie Line tunnels and the future NWRL tunnel.
    The initial restrictions on various current rolling stock in the Macquarie tunnels were about motor power capacity and also noise issues. Valid concerns, being initially conservative, and after testing and experience and apparently some noise amelioration measures, deciding that it is apparently OK to run those trains.

    To say this is “consistent” with a view that double deck trains might be able to be used in the NWRL tunnels is just plain silly. It’s not a question of just measuring the noise level or checking how hot the motor windings get running up a long incline. You can’t fit a 6 metre tall train into a 5 metre tall tunnel.

  15. Jo says:

    Once done, it cannot easily be undone….

  16. Jo says:

    The whole NWRL will end up as just another MONORAIL….

  17. Ray says:

    Spot on. It will become an isolated sector of the Sydney Trains network forever. I’m surprised that they didn’t actually alter the track to narrow gauge, which would save even more money. What a bunch of morons. The only hope is that Les Wielinga’s replacement, as Director General of Transport for NSW, will acknowledge the absurdity of this whole farce and offer Gladys some frank and fearless advice, as well as cleaning out the current lot of rail transport planners, including Rodd Staples who is one of the main protagonists of the push to convert parts of the Sydney Trains network to single deck metro style operation, before it’s too late to change things.

  18. Jo says:

    I hope so…I think the way Gladys is pushing it through as quickly as possible is suspicious.

  19. Ray says:

    Yes, it makes you wonder what their agenda is and whether their ideological push for privatisation has transcended any rational assessment of the best outcome for the development of the Sydney rail network.

  20. Jo D says:

    I think the Epping to Chatswood section belongs to taxpayers and should not be given over to privatisation.

  21. Bill says:

    A great day for trains in Sydney. The fact (however sad) is that CityRail/Sydney Trains is a monopolistic, union-dominated government agency that is inefficient and expensive and provides poor customer service. Basically it is crap. Anything that gets us away from that monopoly is a good thing. Anyone who is genuinely interested in better public transport should support the NWRL plan – I think that people who oppose it are just ideologues who are anti-private because they have some sentimental attachment to government owned stuff. Not grounded in facts or logic though.

  22. Ray says:

    You can’t be serious? I’m certainly not an ideologue or anti-private, but I am passionate about transparency and anti-spin. The O’Farrell government’s line in justifying the current plan for the NWRL and the future extension to Hurstville and Cabramatta is all bull****, and they know it. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Rest assured, it may take time, but the chickens will eventually come home to roost.

    As for fact or logic, how can you possibly justify imposing a “metro” solution to what is a low density “suburban” rail environment, whether publically or privately operated? And as far as privately operated public transport systems go, the Connex experience with Melbourne’s suburban rail network was hardly a great success and the recently privatised Sydney Ferries is not looking too rosy. Although serviced by CityRail, dare I mention the Airport Rail Link debacle with its unrealistic patronage forecasts with its high cost station access fees. Tell me of one rail public transport system in the world’s major cities which has been successfully operated by the private sector.

    However, one point which I will agree on is the inefficient operation by the current union dominated system, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The present publically operated system could be reformed to operate more efficiently if the government had the intestinal fortitude to confront the unions and impose their will, as has been done in other jurisdictions. O’Farrell and Berejiklian obviously don’t have the ticker to do so, instead taking the easy option by trying to sideline the unions altogether with an ill-conceived plan to throw the problem to the private sector in the hope that they can be absolved from any further responsibility.

  23. Joni says:

    Very well said, Ray. If you haven’t already done so, please sign the petition against the Private Metro NWRL and pass it on to all parties as Barry O’Farrell has promised to discuss the NWRL Metro solution in parliament if 10000 signatures can be raised..http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/no-metro-construct-the-nwrl-to-suit-a-compatible-double-decker-operation?utm_campaign=friend_inviter_chat&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition&utm_term=permissions_dialog_false

  24. As I understand it, Barry O’Farrell’s promise RE: petitions applies only to formal petitions submitted to parliament. That means physical petitions actually signed, not online only petitions. Happy to stand corrected.

  25. Joni says:

    The people behind the petition believe that with 10,000 signatures they would get high volumes of media and broad community support. It is important to keep the pressure up against a downsized NWRL … an aberrant result for the travelling public – and the residents of the Northern Line area that have had acceptable rail transport for well over a century.

  26. Chris O'Rourke says:

    Jacob Saukwick in Fairfax Media: Tunnel vision
    Coincidentally I put in a FoI (GIPA) request for information about the NWRL and Second Harbour Crossing and they wanted to charge me nearly $800 for it!
    It would be easier to change Railcorp / Union work practices.

  27. Joni says:

    I can only conclude that there is a more sinister reason behind the deliberate planning of the NWRL to be a privatised, single deck shuttle and that is to for commuters to get back onto the roads and pay tolls. The comments on the petition (link above) show that faced with 3 changes of train each way ( instead of the current direct route) many will get back into their cars. Ot it will be like the M2 where it was made too narrow despite advice to the contrary and later widened at considerable extra cost to taxpayers.

  28. The M2 widening was paid for by Transurban, not by the government. It’s fair to say that M2 users will end up paying for it, but not that all taxpayers will – only those who benefit directly from it.

  29. Ray says:

    It just demonstrates how secretive the O’Farrell government has been in failing to release important information which is crucial to allowing public debate. It’s the same situation with the WestConnex proposal. Gladys has also demonstrated how she has been conned by her bureaucrats and consultants and is out of her depth.

  30. Joni says:

    I really hope we don’t end up with a lemon and all pay the price…

  31. Paul McCann says:

    The NWRL will be a railway from nowhere to nowhere if commuters have to change trains at Chatswood. The cheapest option for a second harbour crossing is to rip up the two eastern traffic lanes on the harbour bridge and return them to rail as they were originally intended. Then NWRL trains could run through to Wynyard in the interim until new tunnels are built to connect Wynyard to Central and beyond. Also regarding the PERL, has a connection from Granville east onto the existing Carlingford line ever been considered? It would cost a fraction of the cost of new tunnels from Westmead to Rosehill and would only add a few extra minutes running time to the services. It would also enable better transport to the proposed Badgerys Creek airport as well. Maybe we need some transport planners with vision for the future transport needs instead of building projects to keep the Liberals in power.

  32. @Paul McCann –

    As far as I’m aware, there are 2 corridors reserved under the CBD surface for future rail lines through it: Metro West (under Sussex St) and Metro Pitt (under Pitt St). Neither of these goes through Wynyard, so it would be quite difficult to link up a CBD line to this station. As a result, you could easily have a Second Harbour Crossing to Wynyard, but it would terminate there and not continue through to Central. This is why rail planners are proposing an under the Harbour link to connect to either of the Metro West or Metro Pitt corridors.

  33. myrtonos says:

    Note that the cost of tunnel boring is not an ongoing cost, and a larger tunnel will indefinitely allow double deckers to pass through it.
    And why was the other boring company rejected?

  34. myrtonos says:

    Imagine if even the track gauge were also narrower, for instance the same as on Queensland railways, would there be even more complaints?

    Also, looking at the historical backdrop, Sydney had the first double decker EMUs in the world, back in 1968, 4 years after introducing double decker trailers. In Paris, there had been interrupted metro for 75 years when they introduced their first double decker EMUs, and these trains did come later than the ones in Sydney. Other cities with both single deck metro and (double deck) suburban trains almost invariably had the metro first.

    And just some food for thought, Olympic park station is double track with both island and opposed platforms, and therefore a platform on each side of both tracks, might double deckers dwell faster there then what a single decker could get with a platform on only one side?

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