JOHN AUSTEN. Sydney Metro – a disaster in store.

Nov 14, 2016

The public has been given no serious justification for why Sydney needs a separate, distinct and very expensive new rail system like Metro. All we have is a very big bill and more on the horizon.

Sydney could spend almost as much on its metro rail as Australia will pay for its new submarines, with little to no scrutiny of whether metro is the right solution and whether it might actually be working to the detriment of the existing commuter rail network and therefore to the detriment of Sydney’s economy and people overall.

Almost half of this amount – around $20 billion – has already been spent or is committed to be spent on Sydney’s north-west and city and south-west metros.

The glossy, content-light material about metro expansions released recently suggests the New South Wales government is not taking the public into its confidence about future plans for metro and explanations of how the system will work alongside the existing ‘Sydney trains’ (Cityrail) commuter rail system – a system which it might not even be able to interact with at all.

The recent material includes a discussion paper on western Sydney rail needs. A summary business case considers extending the metro under Sydney Harbour, through the CBD to Sydenham, then taking over the existing line to Bankstown. [1] Badgery’s Creek is also mentioned.

Is any of this following a sane and efficient plan for Australia’s largest city? Or is a political thirst for announcements and construction company thirst for multi-billion dollar builds controlling public transport plans?

The last serious public look at Sydney rail issues was led by Ron Christie AM in 2010 – Christie was a former head of the NSW railways and road authority. [2]

The Christie Inquiry is not to be ignored. It considered in depth the pros and cons of metros – which are modern single-deck trains with limited seating. Similar metros are now spruiked by the Coalition government as an answer to Sydney’s transport woes. These metro trains have less than half the seats of Sydney’s double-deck commuter trains. Even accounting for more metro trains being able to run, seat capacity on a metro line could be 20 to 40 percent less than on a commuter train line.

Some earlier posts have made the point that the metro trains will use different (smaller) tunnel dimensions and different platform designs to CityRail trains. No good reasons have yet been given to the public for the small tunnels, yet it seems likely that they will forever preclude CityRail type trains on these routes. This would break the cardinal rail transport planning rule of ‘interoperability above all’.

In the early 20th century Bradfield, of Sydney Harbour Bridge fame, built Sydney’s railway tunnels to be capable of handling much bigger trains than those of his day. Trains such as today’s double-deck commuter trains are running thanks to his vision. With Sydney metro, the Baird government looks to be doing the opposite – deliberately engineering out future possibilities and growth. Quite remarkable.

Christie’s inquiry heard claims that introducing metro might actually harm Sydney commuting, among other reasons by occupying the crucial remaining space for future CityRail crossings of the harbour, to allow Sydney’s commuter rail system to grow into the future.

Other darker motivations have been speculated on – metro can be fully privatised; metro projects and operations can avoid unions.

Some people are likely to avoid commuting by metro because seating is a key issue for trips taking longer than 20 minutes, such as from most of Sydney to the CBD. Yet despite this fairly obvious oversight, long multi-billion dollar metro rail extensions are being planned into the suburbs.

Travel to Badgerys Creek airport and commuting to Sydney’s global arc or to Parramatta – the second CBD – depends on having honest answers to questions about metro. If metros (or light rail) actually undermines commuting volumes or amenity, Sydney commissioner Lucy Turnbull’s idea for ‘three cities within Sydney’ might very soon start to look more like ‘three islands’.

Six years since the Christie Inquiry, the public has been given no serious justification for why Sydney needs a separate, distinct and very expensive new rail system like metro. All we have is a very big bill and more on the horizon.

The current plans for metros do differ from those considered by Christie’s Inquiry. However, in the light of the Inquiry two fundamental questions about the plans need to be answered clearly: will metro tunnels be sufficiently large to allow future potential use by other trains? Does the CBD-harbour metro route allow for another future CBD-harbour crossing for commuter trains?

These matters will affect most people in Sydney and they will affect the mobility of everyone in western Sydney – for generations to come.

The recently released glossy government material gives no detail on these possible impacts of metro operations that might cost taxpayers a further $25 billion dollars.

Remembering Whitlam: time for Commonwealth action

In recent weeks there were calls for remembrance of former Prime Minister Whitlam.

Amongst the contributions, there was no discussion about Whitlam’s interests in railways, western Sydney, and the role of the Commonwealth in shaping a better city for all the people of Sydney. Yet such a discussion has never been more apt.

Like Whitton and Bradfield – the fathers of the NSW railways – Whitlam might be turning in his grave. Not just because of the possibility of metro doing lasting damage to railways, to ordinary people and to western Sydney, but because of apathy in the commentariat, the community and most of all the Commonwealth, whose Government represents you and is set to spend more money on metro.

‘It’s time’ this changed. And it’s within the gift of the Commonwealth to change things.

The Commonwealth shouldn’t stand for State government nonsense even if Sydney’s commuters are being forced to at present. A public Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry into metro and its many as yet unanswered risks and benefits is overdue. 


[1] Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Transport for NSW, Western Sydney Rail Needs Scoping Study Discussion Paper, September 2016, (Discussion paper) at:
Transport for NSW, Final Business Case Summary, October 2016, at

[2] Independent Public Inquiry into a Long Term Transport Plan for Sydney, Final Report, May 2010 (Christie Inquiry) at:


John Austen is a former state and Commonwealth transport official, now happily retired in western Sydney. More detail is available at:

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