The Sydney Metro Northwest tunnels — death traps in the making

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Driverless trains unveiled for the Sydney Metro projects (Screenshot via YouTube).

Gladys Berejiklian and Sydney Metro have cut dangerous corners when it comes to emergency evacuation plans, writes John Maconochie.

IN THE EVENT OF a Metro train emergency – such as derailment, fire or deliberate sabotage – what chance does a passenger have of escaping through the Metro windscreen in the dark along with hundreds of other passengers?

Now imagine this passenger was faced by another three Metro trains barrelling down train tunnels behind them, just minutes apart at a speed of 100 kilometres per hour.

In 2013, NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian committed the NSW Government to the construction of the Sydney Metro Northwest (formerly the North West Rail Link). The project includes two tunnels, each 15 kilometres long, running automated driverless trains from Epping station. Each metro can carry up to 1,152 passengers into the Sydney Metro’s narrow tunnels.

What would an evacuation of these tunnels look like?

There are two exits for 1,100 train passengers through the front and rear metro windscreens, with no evacuation staff present. The tunnels are so tight, their walls would be mere centimetres away from the train windows. Locked side doors and radioed evacuation instructions may engender a panic-driven crowd to crush stampede towards the only exits. That situation cannot be simulated — such tests are known to have been suspended on safety grounds.

Up to three following trains (totalling up to 3,456 passengers) could barrel along in the tunnels behind at up to 100 kilometres per hour. No-one can be "asleep at the wheel" of the driverless train. The vaunted Urbalis signalling system – which minimises the time trains are stopped at stations and regulate the four-minute interval between each speeding train – needs to work perfectly every day.

A Metro derailment, or traction motor, or even gearbox fire, in these tunnels could cause concertinaed wreckage or toxic gases. What are the chances for 1,100 passengers, including mothers with prams, the aged and infirm, with all their shopping and travelling paraphernalia, in that scenario?

Meanwhile, passengers must remain inside the train carriages because their move onto the 0.8 metre-wide side walkaway through unlocked side doors could cause larger-sized people to be crushed inside the tight kinematic envelope space between the train and the small tunnel walls.

In the six-kilometre-long tunnel between Epping and Cherrybrook stations, no trackside ground level UK-type counterflow walkways exist for emergency and rescue workers. That would have enabled the carriage doors on both train sides to open for direct trackside/walkway passenger escape.

As for the proposed sky train? Evacuating passengers must walk along the tracks up to 13 metres above ground – day or night, in any weather – four kilometres between Bella Vista and Rouse Hill stations after exiting through the front windscreen.

The current safety measures

It's time we examined the desperate scramble to retrospectively jam implausible passenger safety into Sydney Metro’s tight tunnels. We need to take a closer look at Northwest Rapid Transit's (NRT) detrainment safety risk assessment process and the window dressing "accreditation" from the National Rail Safety Regulator (NRSR).

In June 2017, Premier Berejiklian doubled down, inexplicably authorising the same tunnel design for the Sydney Metro Stage 2 that will run underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This decision certainly guaranteed Sydney Metro independence from the existing Sydney Rail, because the tunnels are just too small to run their double-decker trains. Sydney Metro safety has been outsourced to NRT to insulate Transport for NSW from responsibility, while also blunting union opposition to driverless trains.

Safety questions are habitually conflated with the existing and wider Epping to Chatswood Rail Link tunnels — possibly in an attempt to bestow some legitimacy on the Metro’s tighter tunnels.

Passenger evacuation safety could and should have been determined at the original design stage to avoid putting the Metro cart before the horse.

I believe the NRSR safety accreditation isn't enough. The NRSR is apparently being pressured to retrospectively accredit the Sydney Metro's safety plan. Plainly, it is not an independent assessment on its merits.

So here we have a situation where the Government prioritises spending on rebuilding two footy stadiums over metro safety.

Chairman of Infrastructure Australia, Mark Birrell, noted the Government's urgent need for 'long-term vision' — and without it, they're likely to stuff up future projects such as the high-speed east coast rail.

The Sydney Metro website suggests the trains being built by Alstom for the project are the same as those 'used in 25 cities including metros in Singapore, Barcelona and Amsterdam' with some customisations. What the website doesn't tell you – as I was informed by NSW Transport metro engineers at a meeting last year – is that the "customisation" for the Sydney Metro project is a considerate downsize from the standard-sized trains Alstom provides to other cities. This is due to the dangerously narrow tunnels.

NSW MP and Engineer Dr Mehreen Faruqi has persistently raised concerns about Sydney Metro, particularly the privatisation of Sydney's transport systems and their increased likelihood of inefficiency. Faruqi had also suggested that the Government, by outsourcing safety, is in breach of a duty of care it owes to the public.

Sydney Metro trains cannot match aircraft U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's emergency standards that require a full evacuation of passengers and crew to be completed in under 90 seconds using half the available exits.

This Government-mandated Metro roulette is risking thousands of lives. Sydney Metro users are now condemned to 50-odd years of riding a dangerous Metro death trap. It also reduces any possibility for any future fast rail through central Sydney.

Dwight Eisenhower ran the D-Day landings in Europe before his election as 34th U.S. President.

In a 1957 speech, Eisenhower stated that:

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction, because when you are planning for an emergency, you must start with this one thing: the very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning."

The precise problem with Sydney Metro's safety plan is that any incidents are assumed to happen exactly as planned. Sydney Metro's trains won’t always be able to be brought into stations for passengers to detrain if necessary. Complex electro-mechanical devices (such as driverless trains) don’t actually always work perfectly.

Meanwhile, the Sydney Metro website proudly proclaims:

'... safety of customers is the number one priority.'

John Maconochie holds a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours from the University of Melbourne. He is an experienced engineer, investment fund manager, project developer and electronic platform pioneer.

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The Sydney Metro Northwest tunnels — death traps in the making

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