Posts Tagged ‘Driverless trains’

Over 100,000 people used Sydney Metro today on its first day open to the public, with no fare charged for those travelling between Chatswood and Tallawong. It was the first time in Australia that a driverless train line operated with passengers, but was not without teething issues and delays.

The trains, which travel at a maximum speed of 100km per hour, had a noticeably quick acceleration and deceleration, and complete the journey from end to end in 37 minutes. Platform screen doors are in use and the gap between platform and train is minimal. The stations themselves were modern and fully accessible.

Indicators above each train door show where the train is along the line, as well as showing how far the train has progressed towards the next station. Lights above each set of doors flash red when doors are opening or closing, light up solid green when the doors are open, and light up solid white when the doors are closed.

Some problems did occur. Mechanical failures with trains occurred in both the early afternoon and during the evening, leading to delays of roughly 45 minutes and 15 minutes respectively. With Sydney Metro controlling the number of people who could enter stations to reduce overcrowding, this led to a blowout in queues. Chatswood Station saw a conga line emerge starting from 1:30PM. Many of those in the queue had travelled to Chatswood from the Northwest earlier and were now returning home.

Inside the trains, the air conditioning seemed set to maximum and in-train indicators began having problems from early in the day and were soon turned off. As a result, there was little indication that doors were closing, besides the silent flashing lights that went unnoticed by most. This, together with shorter than normal dwell times, led some passengers to get caught by the doors (including some with prams) or unable to enter/exit in time. The dwell times were noticeably longer as the day progressed, with doors remaining open for 30 to 60 seconds at stations. This would no doubt lengthen journey durations if allowed to continue. However, the in-train indicators appeared to be working again by late Sunday evening and dwell times were back down to a reasonable length.

Trains also routinely overshot their platforms early in the day. This blog’s author counted roughly one in every two trains would stop past its platform screen doors in the early afternoon, requiring the train to reverse before opening its doors. However, this problem did not persist into the late afternoon, by when it was no longer occurring.

All in all it was not a perfect first day, but a few inconveniences should not eclipse the significance of the first complete new train line in Sydney in 40 years. Many of these teething issues, such as the overshooting and in-train indicators, appear to have been fixed by the end of the first day. Tomorrow’s morning peak hour will be a big test for the new line. If all goes well, most of today’s problems will be soon forgotten.

Monday: 40km speed limits for the city

A large part of Sydney’s CBD will become a 40km per hour speed zone for cars by the end of September. The Roads Minister Duncan Gay said that “the new 40km per hour limit zone will operate in the area bound by Castlereagh Street to the east, Kent Street to the west and Hay Street to the south” and was due to be introduced by the Christmas shopping period at the end of the year. Large parts of the central Sydney area already have 40km per hour speed limits, including Millers Point, Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Redfern, Chippendale, Rosebery, Leichhardt, and Erskineville.

Tuesday: NWRL trains announced but will include 6-7 month shut down for Epping to Chatswood Line

Trains on the North West Rail Link (NWRL) will run every 4 minutes in peak and 10 minutes during off peak initially using a fleet of driverless 6 carriage trains. With platforms designed for 8 carriage trains, these can eventually be upgraded to longer trains. The line will initially have a capacity of about 17,280 passengers per hour, which could be doubled (34,560) if the maximum capacity of 30 trains per hour is reached. This maximum capacity of almost 35,000 passengers per hour is higher than the current 24,000 passengers per hour capacity for double deck trains, but will see fewer seated passengers per hour.

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

The line will require a 6-7 month shutdown of the Epping to Chatswood Line in order for it to be converted to operate on the new Sydney Rapid Transit system. This will occur in early 2019 and possibly also late 2018.

Friday: Rail workers lost right to not be retrenched

Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink employees have agreed to an enterprise agreement in which they have given up conditions which protected them from job redundancies in exchange for a higher pay in the agreement. Previously rail employees could not be retrenched if their positions were made redundant, a working condition that had become increasingly rare. The agreement was agreed to by two thirds of employees and according to Transport for NSW the state will save $20m per year.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that 200 rail employees are currently employed despite having their positions being made redundant. The organisation responsible for managing these employees, INS, spends a reported $8m in administrative costs each year. Employees will be able to be retrenched after 12 months if no job is found for them during that time.

VIDEO: Sydney’s new train unveiled as part of NWRL, Transport for NSW

Trains on the North West Rail Link (NWRL), the first part of a future Sydney Rapid Transit network, will run every 4 minutes during peak hour as part of the $3.7bn operations contract signed by the government. This is more frequent than the originally promised 5 minute frequencies previously committed to by the government, while off peak frequencies will remain at 10 minutes.

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Artists impression of the trains to run on the NWRL at Kellyville Station. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Trains on the $8.3bn railway will initially have 6 cars, though platforms will be built to handle 8 car trains. Maximum capacity on the line is 30 trains per hour, twice the planned 15 trains an hour required for 4 minute frequencies. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that 15 trains per hour will allow for 17,280 passengers per hour, with 5,500 to 6,000 of those seated. Assuming that the maximum of 30 trains per hour is reached, this is two thirds the seated capacity of Sydney’s current double deck trains (which are too large to fit through the tunnels being built for the NWRL) but almost one and a half times the total overall capacity of double deck trains. This will partly be achieved by having less seating, with both longitudinal and transverse seating shown on artists impressions. Unlike most of the Sydney Trains rolling stock, the transverse seating shown is not reversible.

Trains will be driverless, the first in Australia to do so. This removes the need to reserve the front and back of the train for drivers and/or guards, allowing passengers to view straight ahead or behind for the first time. They will also benefit from level boarding with no gaps between platform and train, as well as make use of screen doors at platforms. Space will be available on trains for pram, luggage, and bicycle storage.

Trains will run every 4 minutes during peak hour, every 10 minutes off peak. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

Tunneling on the new rail line began last week, 4 months ahead of schedule. The line is expected to open in 2019, initially terminating at Chatswood. An under the Harbour rail crossing would form the second phase of the Sydney Rapid Transit network, connecting it to the CBD, while a third phase would convert the Bankstown Line to single deck metro operation and extend the network further to Bankstown. The second phase is conditional on the money raised from the 49% sale of the state’s “poles and wires” electricity distribution network.

The NSW government has decided to push ahead with tunnels on the NWRL (North West Rail Link) too steep to accommodate double deck trains, despite internal documents showing it would not result in any savings when it comes to building a future Harbour rail crossing. The same documents also show that when the Federal Government offered funding for a line between Parramatta and Epping such a line was so far off transport planners’ radars that they did not expect it to be built until after 2036, suggesting it was less of a priority than 3 or 4 other lines that would have been built first, one of which may be a long mooted rail line to the Northern Beaches.

The Options

Documents uncovered as part of a Sydney Morning Herald investigation into the NWRL shed some light on the process by which the new line’s design was decided upon. A report dated 24th May 2012 proposes 3 options for integrating the NWRL into Sydney’s rail network, named “Suburban”, “Rebuild”, and “Growth”. All options involve first building the SWRL (South West Rail Link), followed by the NWRL.

2014-02-02 NWRL Options

Summary of the 3 options available for integrating the NWRL into Sydney’s rail network. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, pp. 8-11)

The Suburban option (cost: $9.8bn) is virtually a carbon copy of the Metropolitan Rail Expansion Plan (MREP) of 2005 that would see the building of the NWRL, SWRL, and a Second Harbour Rail Crossing that would fill the missing section to link the two via Macquarie Park and the Airport with a maximum capacity of 24 double deck TPH (trains per hour), though capacity constraints on the Airport Line tunnel would appear to initially cap this at 20TPH. This option would continue to use double deck trains and could retain direct services into the CBD from the NWRL’s opening in 2019, though capacity would likely be tight until the completion of a Second Harbour Rail Crossing in 2026 through the “Metro Pitt” alignment roughly underneath Pitt St. Until this occurred, some NWRL trains would terminate at Chatswood and Upper Northern Line trains would be re-routed via the City Circle rather than across the Harbour Bridge. Once the new line was completed, all stop trains from Revesby would operate via Sydenham and continue to feed into the City Circle, allowing 20TPH to operate on the new line to South-West Sydney (from a current capacity of 12TPH).

Map of the Suburban option. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 15)

Map of the Suburban option. A new Harbour crossing would link the NWRL to the SWRL, running double deck trains. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 15)

The Rebuild option (cost: $10.6bn-$12.1bn) involved converting the Harbour Bridge to single deck operation, and was championed by Infrastructure NSW. Under this plan, the NWRL would operate with some or all trains terminating at Chatswood with either single or double deck trains. A new CBD line would then be constructed between Redfern and Wynyard (previously referred to as the CBD Relief Line), utilising the “Metro West” alignment roughly underneath Sussex St, to be completed by 2026. This would then be followed by converting the line across the Harbour Bridge to single deck operation, a process that would take 4 years and necessitate the closing of the City Circle between Central and Wynyard. This would allow cross-Harbour capacity to be increased to 28 single deck TPH, up from an existing 20 double deck TPH, by 2031.

Map of the Rebuild option. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 23)

Map of the Rebuild option. The Harbour Bridge would be upgraded to operate single deck trains, with the NWRL and North Shore Lines linking up with the Inner West and Bankstown Lines as well as Hurstville Station operating single deck trains. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 23)

The Growth option (cost: $9.9bn), ultimately selected as the preferred option by the NSW Government, involves the creation of a new single deck network via the construction of a new under the Harbour Rail Crossing. Under this option, the NWRL would be built by 2019 for initial operation with either single or double deck trains where some or all would terminate at Chatswood. A Second Harbour Crossing would then be built by 2026, creating a new line which would connect the NWRL to Hurstville and Lidcombe/Cabramatta via Bankstown running single deck trains with a maximum capacity of 30TPH. The line would initially operate at a maximum of only 20TPH due to network constraints at the outer ends of the line. However, the report suggests reaching 30TPH by extending it with a new Northern Beaches Line and by incorporating the all stops portion of the East Hills Line out to Revesby. As with the Suburban option, this would also allow 20TPH to operate to South-West Sydney.

Map of the Growth option.Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 30)

Map of the Growth option. A new Harbour crossing would connect the NWRL and a Northern Beaches Line to the Bankstown Line as well as Hurstville and Revesby Stations. The new line would operate single deck trains. Click to enlarge. (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 30)

 The rebuild option was rejected on the basis that it was the most expensive, provided the smallest increase in capacity, and imposed the greatest disruption of the three. Ironically, this was meant to be the option that avoided the “prohibitively expensive” under the Harbour rail crossing, yet it ended up being the most costly as the CBD Relief Line, with a price tag of $5bn, was not that much cheaper than a new line that continued through to Chatswood, which costs $8bn, but necessitated expensive upgrades elsewhere on the network (costing anywhere from $4.3bn to $5.8bn).

The other two options cost almost the same, and provide similar levels of increases in capacity (single deck trains carry fewer passengers per train, but can operate more trains per hour than double deck trains, so the number of passengers per hour is comparable).

Steep and narrow tunnels

The Growth option included the possibility of building the NWRL with tunnels that were compatible with existing double deck trains, at a cost of $200m. This would allow some trains on the NWRL to continue past Chatswood through to the CBD from the day the NWRL opens. However, currently there is only enough spare capacity into the CBD on the Harbour Bridge to allow 1 train through in the busiest hour of the morning peak without removing services from either the Upper Northern Line and the North Shore Line.

It has previously been speculated that a steeper gradient allowed by single deck trains would allow for a cheaper and easier construction of an under the Harbour rail crossing, with stations closer to the surface at either side of the Harbour. This in turn would be where the real savings would be made, and there is little point in spending $200m to add virtually no new capacity for the few years until the new under the Harbour crossing was completed.

However, this does not appear to be supported by the costings in the leaked report, the cost of building the Harbour crossing for double deck trains is listed as $7,940m whereas for single deck trains it is $8,055m (Source: CBD Rail Capacity Programs Rail Futures Investigations, p. 34). While it does also provide $200m in savings for the NWRL, Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian is on the record as saying that the cost of upgrading the Epping to Chatswood Line for single deck trains is more than $200m. This means single deck trains cost more in both the NWRL and second Harbour crossing stages.

In other words, it would appear that the steeper tunnels not only do not provide any savings, but they actually cost (slightly) more!

That means there must be another reason why the government has opted to go with the Growth option for single deck trains. One possibility could be that it allows for complete ATO (automatic train operation), otherwise known as driverless trains, along with all the benefits that come with it (see: here and here). These require an independent and segregated line to operate on, and only the Growth option initially running shuttles to Chatswood provide that opportunity.

Northern Beaches Rail Line vs Parramatta to Epping Rail Link

Also contained in the report is the assumption that transport planners were operating under for the Growth option that the next line to be built after the Second Harbour Crossing would be to the Northern Beaches. This is mentioned not just in the May 2012 report, but is also included on the maps in the report. The maps are dated 4 May 2010 and show the PERL (Parramatta to Epping Rail Link) as being built at some point after 2036, then operating as an independent shuttle.

Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link

The Parramatta to Chatswood Rail Link was originally to go from Westmead to St Leonards. Only the Eastern portion, between Epping and Chatswood, was actually constructed in 2009, leaving the Western Parramatta to Epping portion unbuilt. (Source: Historical NSW Railway Timetables)

This means that just 3 months prior to the 11 August 2010 announcement that Federal Labor would fund the PERL, the then NSW Labor government had placed it so low on its list of transport projects it planned to build that it was not only below the NWRL and second Harbour crossing, but also behind a line that has not been seriously talked about since the 1970s.

This should emphasise the importance of putting good planning first, ahead of political considerations, when it comes to creating a good transport network. Unfortunately it appears the Labor Party tends to put its ideals in the right place in supporting public transport (importantly without the rabid anti-roads ideology of The Greens), but then implements it ineffectively by doing so through the prism of politics. As seen with the proposed funding of WestConnex, it’s not a one off occurrence.

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.

Video: The Not Zach Braff $2mil Global Short Film Project. For more details, check out You’ve Never Heard of Me.

The North West Rail Link (NWRL) as currently planned, will require many passengers to get out and change trains at Chatswood. Based on government estimates, two thirds of passengers from The Hills in Sydney’s North West would have to do this in order to reach their final destination on the Lower North Shore or CBD. This would continue until a Second Harbour Rail Crossing is built, something which currently lacks a start date, end date, or funding.

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill, plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: NWRL EIS - Introduction, page 1-3.)

The Northwest Rail Link will include a new railway from Epping to Rouse Hill, plus a retrofitted Epping to Chatswood Line. (Source: Transport for NSW)

One alternative would be to build additional capacity through the CBD first, and then extend that capacity into the outer suburbs second. In other words, build the Second Harbour Rail Crossing now, and the NWRL and South West Rail Links some time next decade. From a purely engineering perspective, this makes perfect sense – there’s no point in building new lines in the outer suburbs, if all they are going to do is dump passengers in the inner city once they reach a bottleneck.

Melbourne is doing exactly this. It’s current proposal is the Melbourne Metro, a new underground line through the CBD. And it is building this despite calls to build lines to places like the airport or to Doncaster (the latter has similar transport challenges to Sydney’s North West). Not only that, but this has put the Melbourne Metro at the top of Infrastructure Australia’s priority list, resulting in the Federal Government committing $3bn in funding to its overall $9bn cost.

A strong case can be made that the Victorian Government has got the policy right, while the NSW Government has not. But what could be argued is that the NSW Government has got the politics right. This is for a number of reasons.

Building a Second Harbour Rail Crossing will not guarantee that the NWRL will be built, but building the NWRL will force a future government to build a Second Harbour Rail Crossing. In a world where political realities make long term planning a dream rather than a reality, and where transport projects are announced, cancelled, changed, re-announced, and then cancelled again, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The narrower and steeper tunnels, which force the new line into being run completely independently from the rest of the network, will also allow the government to trial new methods of service delivery, such as franchising or driverless operations on trains. The former has allowed for Sydneys bus network to see improvements to services, lower fares paid by passengers, and reductions in operating subsidy paid by the government to provide them. The latter would reduce the marginal cost of each train service, allowing the government to increase services without as large an increase in operating costs. Neither of these could work effectively if the NWRL was integrated into the rest of the network.

Vancouver Sky Train

The SkyTrain in Vancouver is a driverless metro with frequencies that mean you never wait more than 8 minutes for a train. (Source: Jeffery Simpson)

These sorts of changes are possible on an existing line, and the Eastern Suburbs & Illawarra Line has often been touted due to it operating virtually independently from the rest of the network. But it is much harder to convert an existing line compared to a new one. Unions are likely to resist change, and existing passengers may have fears of the unknown. Both of these fears would be eased by seeing such changes in operation first, and if they work then they can be rolled out to the rest of the network.

Of course, for those who consider a Second Harbour Rail Crossing an expensive and unecessary expense, then there is little reason to support what the government is doing. The same goes for those who oppose one man or driverless operation. For everyone else, while this may not be smart policy, it certainly looks like smart politics.

NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian confirmed earlier today that the North West Rail Link will have driverless trains. The new line will be run independently from the rest of the network by a private operator, featuring screen doors and completely automated rolling stock.

Driverless trains are a massive game changer, and have many potential benefits. The most significant is the reduced marginal cost of operating an additional train service. It’s the marginal costs that matter, because it indicates the cost of providing an additional train or savings from cutting one. With lower marginal costs, a much lower level of patronage is needed to maintain a reasonable level of cost recovery via fares. Anecdotal evidence from Vancouver’s Sky Train driverless network (where you never have to wait more than 8 minutes for the next train, even late at night) shows that driverless trains there resulted in marginal cost of $11 per hour.

But there a also reliability and safety benefits. An automated train never calls in sick, or turns up to work late. Meanwhile, human error was responsible for both the Waterfall and Glenbrook disasters, both of which resulted in fatalities.

The transport union has decided to oppose this move, which is unfortunate. Their suggestions that driverless trains will be less safe flies in the face of the Waterfall and Glenbrook examples previously mentioned. It also overlooks the fact that modern aircraft run on autopilot all the time, despite being massive flying machines, where there are many more chances for something to go wrong than a train on a fixed guideway. They probably also fear job losses, but the benefit of driverless trains means that limited resources can be better allocated, to have more station staff or more staff roving trains (something which neither drivers nor guards on trains currently do).

Other concerns have been raised. Advocacy group Action for Public Transport raises the issue of assisting passengers on a train that breaks down between stations on the NWRL, which can be up to 6km apart.

Shadow Transport Minister Penny Sharpe suggests that this represents a broken promise, given that the government had previously said it had no plans to introduce driverless trains. That criticism boils down to how much you consider weasel words to be a broken promise.

Ultimately the decision to go with driverless trains is a good one. It will benefit passengers, and has been proven to work well in many other cities around the world.