Sydney opened the long-awaited first Northwest section of its “Metro” line. Sydney has long had grade-separated, high-frequency train service (Sydney Trains) through its core, the “Metro” is different in that it is:
- single-deck rather than double deck, with more doors, for faster boarding times
- standing rather than sitting oriented (on a crowded train more standees than seated passengers, compared with Trains)
- automated rather than manually driven
- with platform-based as well as train-based doors, to improve safety.
In other words, while Sydney Trains is what Americans would think of as commuter rail, but on steroids, Sydney Metro is like late 20th century (early 21st century) trains built in much of the developed world, most similar to systems like BART, DC Metro, or MARTA.
To get to the Metro, we took Sydney Trains from Redfern to Epping. At Epping, one descends and descends to reach the Metro platform. The stations and controls from Epping to Chatswood were remodeled from the early 21st century trains line (when the corridor was expected to be a Trains rather than a Metro. We took the line west to Tallawong (a parking lot and near the train stabling facility), and alighted and boarded the eastbound train which we took to Rouse Hill, where we alighted for lunch, making a series of culinary choice errors at the Rouse Hill food court, though I am not clear one could do otherwise.
The good news is that demand was high (75,000 in five hours, the Sydney Morning Herald gushes), apparently exceeding expectations. People are curious about the line, want to see it succeed, want to be able to use public transport to reach the city. Even before the problems that I will soon describe emerged, it was Standing Room Only on the westbound run.
The trains had indicators showing where they were on the line. There was an emergency stop button located near the doors which look like a User Interface disaster waiting to happen (that is, there will be an enormous number of false positives as people will push the button accidentally or in the believe it is required to open the door, as in an elevator).
The braking sound of the train is very much like DC Metro, though deceleration did not induce the same kind of nausea that DC Metro does. There is nevertheless a significant uncomfortable jerk as the Metro train comes to a stop at many of the stops.
After thoroughly exploring the Rouse Hill Town Centre, we queued up to board the Metro back, to go to Chatswood, and then transfer to a Train back to Redfern.
The bad news is the service operator (MTR) was not quite ready to provide a reliable service. We may eventually discover whether someone(s) specifically screwed up, or whether failure is indeed an orphan. Apparently (I did not witness this, but people report) there were issues with platform and train doors aligning, and issues with doors closing properly and with trains overshooting the platform. This held up trains Chatswood and Macquarie Park, and thus eventually all the trains in the line, as shockwave of stoppage cascades backwards all the way to Tallawong.
It took 1 hour and 40 minutes from Rouse Hill to Chatswood. The first 40 minutes were queueing at Rouse Hill, so as not to overload the platform for the few trains making it through, it was no 90 second, or 4 minute, or 5 minute headway as variously promised by various people at various times. The remaining hour was on train from Rouse Hill to Chatswood. The scheduled time is 35 minutes station-to-station.
This opening debacle will, as first impressions are important, likely create a perception that the service is unreliable. If this is coupled with a few well-publicised rush hour breakdowns, it will take years to fully regain a reputation for reliability, and people will clamor for restoration of more express bus services. Obviously some of this technology problem is teething issues, and will be eventually sorted out, but surely this should have been worked out in testing … unless it was rushed for some reason.
The queue management was professional if indicative of problems. The communications with customers about the problems was vague.
Now, to be fair, opening day often brings about unexpected outcomes.
The opening of the Green Line light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul was marked by an automobile wrongly driving on, and getting stuck on, tracks; and the train hit multiple pedestrians in its first year.
The Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway killed a prominent Member of Parliament. So the delays on the Sydney Metro are perhaps small potatoes in the scheme of things. One just would have hoped for a better performance.
* I am not commenting on the strategic decisions about the location of the line, etc. here.