“I think that the size, scale and ambition of this place is something frankly, I have not seen anywhere. Sydney’s never seen anything like it, Australia has never seen anything like it.”

Big things are happening with public transport in Sydney, and as CEO of Sydney Metro, Dr Jon Lamonte is leading the charge. Australia’s largest city celebrated the opening of the country’s first metro line, Metro Northwest, in May 2019. Construction is also underway on two further multi-billion dollar projects with another two planned as the city builds the new infrastructure necessary to serve its swelling population.

Tunnelling contractors John Holland, CPB and Ghella handed over the first 20km of tunnels on the 30km City & Southwest project at the end of August. The line is effectively an extension of Metro Northwest, a 23km line between Tallawong and Epping, 15.5km of which runs in dual-bore tunnel.

As well as Australia’s first dedicated metro line, the $A 8.3bn ($US 6.06bn) project was the first to deploy platform screen doors. The line is fitted with Alstom’s Urbalis CBTC platform, offering automatic operation at Grade of Automation 4 (GoA4).

Metro Northwest has been a major success, reporting 95-96% passenger satisfaction and carrying around 22 million passengers since it opened. This equated to 90,000 per day before the Covid-19 outbreak and associated drop off in service - patronage fell to around 10,000 passengers per day at the peak of the pandemic and has since recovered to 36,000-38,000 (see panel below).

The $A 12.5bn extension will add seven new metro stations, running from the current terminus at Chatswood, beneath Sydney Harbour, to the central business district and Sydenham. Like the 13km Epping - Chatswood section of Metro Northwest, the 13km section of City & Southwest between Sydenham and Bankstown involves converting a Sydney Trains commuter line, the T3 Bankstown Line, and its 11 stations to metro operation.

“You’ll see the first bits of what you would term track early next year.”

Jon Lamonte, CEO of Sydney Metro

Lamonte reports that work is proceeding well and the line is on schedule for completion in 2024. Work on designing the stations and their associate precincts is underway while the tunnelling joint venture is on course to handover the tunnels and five of the six station sites in early 2021.

This comprises 31km of 6m-diameter dual-bore tunnel bored at 25-40m in depth using five TBMs, which was completed in May. Crow’s Nest and Waterloo station sites were handed over at the end of August, and will be followed later this year by Martin Place and Pitt Street, where excavation work is complete, and Victoria Cross in early 2021. Substantial work remains at Barangaroo, which is currently scheduled for handover in late 2022. Two new metro platforms are also being added at the iconic Central Station, which is undergoing a major refurbishment (see panel below).

CPB and UGL are working on the fit out of the tunnels and preparing to lay track from Chatswood to Sydenham. The contractors had flashbutt welded around 17km of rail at Waterloo as IRJ went to press, which is being passed through the tunnels. Sleepers will start to be laid “very soon” according to Lamonte. “You’ll see the first bits of what you would term track early next year,” he says. “There’s also about 350km of high voltage and low voltage service cabling to go in 11 new substations. That’s all going on at the moment.”

Work is also underway to expand Sydney Metro’s depot and stabling facilities at Rouse Hill as well as develop a new depot at Sydenham. An additional 5km of track has already been laid at Rouse Hill in preparation for the extra 23 metro trains that will be required in addition to the existing fleet of 22. Alstom signed a €350m contract to supply the six-car Metropolis trains and extend CBTC to the new line in 2019. The trains will operate at four-minute headways in the peak and a 10-minute frequency at other times on the complete 66km Rouse Hill - Bankstown line, which will serve 31 stations.

Construction challenge

Lamonte says the biggest construction challenge facing the project and wider development in Sydney is ensuring the supply chain and workforce is intact to deliver such a comprehensive file of work. While still dependent on support from overseas, he says initiatives are underway to offer training and qualifications to personnel in areas where it was not necessarily available before. There is also an emphasis on attracting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into the workforce.

“We really want to help the industry attract and retain a diverse, inclusive and high performing workforce in a very global competitive market,” Lamonte says. “We’ve got quite a long pipeline of work and we want to see more opportunities for Australians, more opportunities for indigenous people, and increase the skill base.”

The existing public-private partnership (PPP) contractor for Metro Northwest, The Northwest Rapid Transit Consortium, will continue to operate the service until 2034 after an agreement was reached with Sydney Metro to extend the arrangement agreed in 2014. The consortium comprises MTR, John Holland, Leighton Contractors, UGL Rail Services and Plenary Group. The revised deal includes a $A 1.7bn for the trains and railway systems as well as $A 2bn for the 15-year operations and maintenance component.

The PPP is based on a service delivery agreement with the contractor, which is incentivised to offer good customer service. New South Wales (NSW) sets the fares in line with its existing Opal scheme, bears the revenue risk and owns the infrastructure. Lamonte says it was always the intention to extend the PPP to the new line. However, it took around three years to conclude the deal due to its complexity.

“It’s one thing to have a provision in the contract to extend the PPP, but we know from global experience that PPPs aren’t the easiest things to extend, especially when you’re going to incorporate a brand new line through the city, and the conversion of a brownfield site down to Bankstown,” Lamonte says. “There are a lot of new elements to add into the equation, so everyone needs to know what is involved… and frankly the logistics of how you do it, how you sequence it are challenging. But we’re there now, we have a deal, we’re working together on how the relationships can work and we’ll get a good result out of it.”

Work is also gearing up on the Metro West project, a new 25km automatic underground line that will connect the centres of Parramatta and Sydney.

The $A 18bn plus project will have eight stations and promises to offer a 20-minute journey time and double the current rail capacity between the two city centres when it opens in 2030. The project has received $A 6.4bn in funding so far from the NSW government.

Lamonte says the scheme will create 10,000 direct and 70,000 in-direct jobs. And with many of these created through the tunnelling element, Sydney Metro is focusing on developing this element of the project first, shortlisting three consortia for the first two packages at the end of August. These packages will take the line from the Bays precinct, just west of the city centre, to Sydney Olympic Park and Westmead.

“Our target is to get the first TBM in the ground before the end of 2022,” Lamonte says. “And in order to do that we took possession of the first bit of land at the Bay’s last month, which is going to be the construction site to allow the TBMs to go in.”

Western Sydney Airport

Work is also advancing on the Western Sydney Airport project.
Unlike the other projects, which are entirely funded by the state of New South Wales, the federal government is contributing $A 5.25bn to the $A 11bn cost. The 23km line will connect St Mary’s suburban station via Orchard Hills, Luddenham, the Nancy-Bird Walton Airport terminal and airport business park at Badgerys Creek, and the Western Sydney Aerotropolis.

Lamonte likens the new airport site to a Dubai or Heathrow in terms of scale. The 11,200-hectare area will also feature commercial, agricultural, industrial and residential development, and is expected to drive the creation of 200,000 new jobs, effectively developing a new city in western Sydney, which will be the country’s third largest regional economy by 2038.

Expressions of interest to construct 10km of dual-bore tunnel between St Mary’s and Orchard Hills, and between the airport and Aerotropolis, were invited last month and preliminary construction is expected to start by the end of the year. “We deliberately refer to it as the Western Sydney Airport line, because it’s designed to coincide with the opening of the airport at the end of 2026, early 2027,” Lamonte says. “We’ll be there to open alongside it.”

“Yes, we build railways, yes, we operate them, but we’re also a fundamental agent for change in the places around them.”

Jon Lamonte

As for the lessons learned from Metro Northwest, which Sydney Metro is applying to the current developments, Lamonte says everything done so far has reinforced the importance of being customer centric: from good communications, good customer service, clear wayfinding, and end-to-end journey planning. The line is completely accessible, which has been well received by passengers and a major point of pride for Lamonte.

Last month’s appointment of Ricardo as shadow operator for the Metro West and Western Sydney Airport projects emphasises the continuation of this approach with the new projects.

The consultant will provide advice and technical input from the viewpoint of prospective operations and maintenance contractors for the project, and will support the handover once an operator is formally chosen. Ricardo has also partnered with Seoul Metro, which will offer insight into the day-to-day operation of a fully automated railway throughout the design, procurement and construction phases of both projects.

Seoul Metro’s involvement reflects Sydney Metro’s work since the start of Metro Northwest with “world class” operators from neighbouring cities in the Asia Pacific region, including Taipei and Singapore.

Lamonte says the goal is to adopt best practice and “really challenge ourselves as to how we can drive for high reliability.” And while many of the systems the metro is introducing are new for Australia, they are established practice elsewhere, which Lamonte says suits the authority just fine. “We don’t necessarily want to be right at the cutting edge of technology,” he says. “We’re quite happy to be one step behind thanks very much. We’ll pick the best from everywhere.”

Lamonte adds that Sydney Metro is benefitting from an acceleration in the planning process introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also in close communication with the state Department of Planning as well as local councils, to align thinking as projects evolve. He says that when a new hospital or other public facility is planned, it is now done so with transit integration in mind.

“I think it has changed the way Sydney Metro thinks about itself,” Lamonte says. “Yes, we build railways, yes, we operate them, but we’re also a fundamental agent for change in the places around them, whether it’s over station developments, whether it’s precincts we’re serving, whether it’s development opportunities around the sites. We are very much integrated into that.”

Sydney Metro’s experience with PPPs on Northwest and now City & Southwest is a model which Lamonte expects to continue with Metro West and Western Sydney Airport, although no official decision has yet been made.

He says that while a proven concept in road in Australia, there was limited history with rail projects. However, with the government of NSW pushing ahead with an unprecedented investment in public transport infrastructure, he reports a general willingness from the private sector to participate. This, he says, is particularly pleasing because the initial experience with Northwest shows that the PPP model is working.

As good as it gets

Lamonte says the scale of what is happening in Sydney is “as good as it gets for metros.” This is what ultimately attracted him to leave his previous role as chief executive of Transport for Greater Manchester, where among other items he was overseeing the steady expansion of the Metrolink light rail network (IRJ April 2018).

Of course, big infrastructure projects are complicated. The track record for delivering such schemes on budget and on time around the world is patchy at best - as London’s Crossrail will attest.

Lamonte recognises that there are always risks, particularly when you are developing multiple projects at the same time. However, the structure adopted in Sydney is intended to minimise this and ensure robust delivery.

For example, while part of Transport for NSW, Sydney Metro acts as a separate entity with its own board drawn from all walks of life, but particularly Australian Stock Exchange companies. Indeed, Lamonte says Sydney Metro is run almost as though it is a private company with all the associated disciplines.

“They set the overall strategic direction and we’re accountable to the board for meeting our targets and ensuring that delivery is done on time and to budget,” Lamonte says. “They keep us very focused, which is good.”

In addition, as well as the project management disciplines you would expect from such a large scheme of work, Lamonte says Sydney Metro has adopted a portfolio management approach, which takes the best of each project and applies it across the body of work. This both offers a level of consistency between the different schemes and ensures that the lessons learned from one project are applied to the next, and so on.

On City & Southwest, monthly sessions with all of the CEOs of the companies involved in delivery - one on the programme and one on safety - look at what can be done for the best of the project. For example, meetings between Lendlease, which is working at Victoria Cross station, Systems Connect, which is installing track and systems in the new tunnels, and the tunnelling contractors have been brought together to troubleshoot so they might achieve joint access to the site, work together and allocate sufficient space and resources at the right time.

“We almost put the contracts to one side and ask what’s the best way of delivering the project and what’s the safest way of delivery?” Lamonte says.

“I think all the companies involved have really bought into it and said, ‘Yeah, let’s see how we can do it.’ Because of that we’re driving out time and buying ourselves more time at the end of the programme, and that’s what you need.

“Everyone’s really trying to work together,” Lamonte continues. “There will always be issues along the way, but at least if we’ve got the right behaviours, then people can work together and smooth those out.”

Many of these lessons are likely to feed into further metro projects proposed for Sydney’s Southeast. The NSW government’s South East Transport Strategy envisages new metro lines between Kogarah and Randwick, a new east-west line to Kogarah from Eastlakes, Sydney Airport and Brighton-le-Sands, and an extension of Metro West from Green Square to Malaga or La Perouse.

Completion of the La Perouse line is slated for 2041 and Kogarah by 2056, a prospect Lamonte admits will be beyond his time. Not that he doesn’t have enough to get on with. Whether it is tunnelling under the harbour or putting new tunnels in the middle of the city, Lamonte says the technical challenges he has faced since heading Down Under have been amazing. However, for him out of all of the new projects, the Western Sydney Airport line is the most enticing.

“How many people in their lives get to create a new city?” he says. It is certainly an exciting prospect for Sydney and all of NSW.

Sydney Metro responds to Covid-19

THE government of New South Wales elected to keep transit services running at full capacity during the Covid-19 lockdown, which commenced at the end of March.
For a fully automated railway, this posed no significant issue to Sydney Metro operationally, with services remaining available to transport essential workers. The metro was also readily available as people began to return to work, university and school.
Equally operator Metro Trains Sydney was quick to rollout signage for social distancing and has been diligent with introducing a new cleaning regime, according to Lamonte.
The pandemic similarly brought changes at Transport for New South Wales. The authority’s 10,000 employees, including Lamonte, shifted to home working. This provided an opportunity to review and improve IT systems and he says has generally gone well.

Metro Northwest operator Metro Trains Sydney has introduced an intensive cleaning regime.

There were also significant changes at construction sites with signs painted on the ground to support employees to maintain a safe distance while working and a greater emphasis on hygiene and cleaning at all sites. With less demand for rail services, Lamonte says contractors and maintenance crews took advantage by increasing the window for work to take place. The peak was in turn extended to make up for lost services later in the day and to support social distancing on trains.
“People responded incredibly well, and kept going,” Lamonte says. “I think it’s been a real success story for construction. Covid allowed us to do even more even faster. We were able to take advantage of the fact that there were so few people travelling on the network, whether ours or heavy rail, to see what we could accelerate. With less road traffic around the city, we could have more truck movements going on. We were also able to do extended hours, some weekend and public holiday working that we might not already have been able to do.”
Lamonte says infrastructure investment is a cornerstone of the NSW government’s strategy for Covid recovery, as emphasised by the government’s announcement to proceed with the Western Sydney Airport Line.
As for traffic recovery, Lamonte says he doubts it will return to previous levels any time soon, and nor would he want it to while social distancing is in place. The PPP model used for Metro Northerst means the risk is on the state rather than the operator with this sector taking a hit like all others. However, with the need to combat congestion, he believes demand for public transport will continue although it may serve different needs.
“We anticipate that people might want to work from home more, but actually, they may spend more time on leisure and social activities,” Lamonte says. “We anticipate that there might be changes in passengers switching from long-distance commuting into shorter distance journeys, but this reinforces the place for metro.
“We’re thinking long-term here,” Lamonte continues. “We’re looking at lines that are here for the next hundred years. We’re obviously hoping for better days post Covid, but this is a government which is committed to infrastructure and future development.”

Revamped Sydney Central Station begins to take shape

A major revamp of Sydney’s 114-year-old Central Station is underway, including the construction of a new roof, which is set to become another eye-catching feature of the city’s skyline.
Installation of the 2240m2 span vaulted roof commenced last month and is already more than two-thirds complete after workers installed the steel girders, which resemble a hockey stick, and cassette roof sections, which offer kite-shaped skylights to the mezzanine below. The exterior is the same aluminium finish as the historic grand concourse roof.
Constructed by Laing O’Rourke and designed in partnership with John McAslan + Partners and Woods Bagot, the design takes inspiration from London’s King’s Cross. The roof rises to 16m above the station’s northern concourse, spanning 32m north-south and 70m east-west. The roof itself was prototyped offsite at Kurri Kurri, assembled, dismantled and transferred in sections to site where it is being reassembled. Most of the work on the roof is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Work to reassemble the pre-built new roof for Sydney Central Station
began at the end of August.

The station, which by some is considered the gateway to Sydney and Australia, serves NSW TrainLink inter-city trains as well as Sydney Trains commuter rail, light rail and bus and coach services. It will also be home to Sydney Metro with two new platforms under construction in the bowels of the station. New escalators are also being installed to offer seamless connections between different modes of transport.
Demand at the station is expected to increase from around 270,000 people today to around 450,000 in the next couple of decades. To accommodate this, a new 19m wide underground concourse will eliminate many of the station’s existing small and torturous passages. This is due to open in 2022.
Outside, sandblasting will take place to preserve the heritage features of the original sandstone building, which will be made fit for the 21st century.