Incompatible Transit – A Taxpayer’s Nightmare

I thought this would be an interesting article as we have in Vancouver two incompatible light metro systems, the Canada Line and the Expo and Millennium Lines.

The Canada Line uses ROTEM built EMU’s, standard railway fare and can be used on most standard gauge electric railways.

The Expo and Millennium lines use the proprietary, Linear Induction Motored Movia Automatic Light Metro cars and is nor compatible in operation with any other railway except its family of seven light metro’s.

The problem in Sydney is not as serious for future planning as Vancouver is now finding out. Most train companies offer dual voltage vehicles that can operate on systems with electrical supply different than the ‘home’ line.

Karlsrhue’s famous Tramtrains are dual voltage as they can operate on DC on the tram network and AC on the mainline railways.

Dual voltage trains will cost more but they would permit through operation on the other lines.

In Vancouver, LIM powered trains just cannot operate on non LIM lines, making the system all that more expensive to maintain and operate with two totally different railways.

Being LIM powered, the MALM system cannot operate on any other railway except for its family of 7 transit systems.

Being LIM powered, the MALM system cannot operate on any other railway except for its family of 7 transit systems.

Why Sydney will end up with three incompatible metro train lines

By Matt O’Sullivan

May 29, 2023

Sydney’s new driverless metro trains and stations might end up looking the same to commuters but key differences in the mega-projects mean the city is set to construct three lines run by three separate private operators with trains that cannot be switched between them.

The use of different power and trains built by separate manufacturers will make the new $11 billion metro line to Western Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek incompatible with the first two stages of Sydney’s metro rail network.

The airport line will use a 25 kilovolt alternating current to power the trains when it opens in 2026 while the Metro Northwest and Metro City and Southwest lines will operate on 1500 volt direct current.

Part of the 45-strong train fleet for the Metro
            Northwest and City and Southwest lines. Part of the 45-strong train fleet for the Metro Northwest and City and Southwest lines. Credit: Nick Moir

As a result, the 12 autonomous trains to be built by German company Siemens for the airport line will be unable to run on the Metro Northwest and connecting City and Southwest line. The airport line’s trains will be about 30 centimetres wider than other metro trains to cater for flyers who are lugging bags.

The different electric current also means the 45 driverless trains built in India by French company Alstom for the city’s first two metro lines will be unable to be switched to run on the airport line. Neither will they be able to operate on the $25 billion Metro West line – the biggest of the four lines which is due to open in 2030 – because it will run on 25 kilovolts, too.

The airport line is being designed for trains comprising up to four carriages whereas those for the Northwest and City and Southwest lines can be trains up to eight carriages long

First train crosses Sydney
            Harbour underwater

At 2am on April 21, a single-deck metro train traversed its way from Tallawong through Chatswood and North Sydney before running under Sydney Harbour.

Transport and planning consultant Alex Gooding said it was highly unusual for metro lines in the same city to be deliberately planned to be as different as the airport line was from both the Northwest and City and Southwest lines.

“We are building a system from the ground up, but the previous government appeared to have deliberately designed a range of incompatible features which makes no sense,” he said.

Gooding said a likely reason for the difference was that building the airport line to match the greater passenger capacity of the first two metro lines would have substantially increased the former’s cost, while it also avoided a “single-private operator monopoly” in Sydney.

“Instead of getting one metro, we will end up with three distinct and, to varying degrees, incompatible systems,” he said.

“Metros in cities overseas tend to have different lines but where possible they are built with consistent rail systems and trains.”

Main differences

Metro Northwest/City & Southwest

  • Power supply: 1500 V DC
  • Carriages per train: six with ability to increase to eight
  • Train builder: French company Alstom
  • Operator: Metro Trains Sydney comprising MTR, John Holland and UGL Rail

Metro Western Sydney Airport

  • Power supply: 25 kV AC
  • Carriages per train: three with ability to increase to four
  • Train builder: German company Siemens
  • Operator: Parklife Metro comprising Siemens, Plenary, Webuild and RAPT Dev

Metro West

  • Power supply: 25 kV AC
  • Other details to be decided because contracts yet to be awarded

When the main section of the City and Southwest line opens next year, it will be operated by a private consortium led by Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation which runs Metro Northwest.

In contrast, a separate consortium that includes Siemens, Australian infrastructure investor Plenary and Italian company Webuild will construct and operate the airport line.

Gooding said the decision to electrify the Metro West line between the Sydney CBD and Parramatta with 25 kilovolts and set up a special entity to manage that project was likely to result in it having a different operator to the other lines.

The new Labor government last month flagged a major overhaul of the Metro West line as part of a wide-ranging review into Sydney’s metro rail projects.

Transport Minister Jo Haylen said the integration of Sydney’s metro lines with one another and with the broader transport network was important, and was why the Minns government had commissioned a review into the projects.

“It’s important to make sure that these projects are being delivered in a way that works for passengers, and properly embed metro services into the transport network as a whole,” she said.

Sydney Metro said each line was designed to operate independently to ensure the highest reliability with train configurations to suit the customer requirements of the line. “Sydney Metro has a responsibility to procure rolling stock responsibly, driving optimal outcomes on price and safety for the benefit of taxpayers,” it said.

The agency said it ran competitive tender processes for each project to get the best outcome for taxpayers, which created resilience in the broader transport network and ensured passengers had access to the latest train technology and systems.

The design of the Metro Northwest and the City and Southwest lines was also influenced by the need to convert existing stretches of track such as the Epping-to-Chatswood rail line which, like the existing suburban rail network, operated on 1500-volt power.


4 Responses to “Incompatible Transit – A Taxpayer’s Nightmare”
  1. Major Hoople says:

    On our side of the pond, the politcal demand for subways almost bankrupted every transit operator in the late 70’s and 80’s. This subway financial reality laid the ground work for the light rail revolution in Europe. Our trams easily will do the work what many of North American subways struggle to do, at a far less cost.

    Extensive studies have been done in the past 40 years with subways and we can find no evidence that subways actually attracts new customers to the system.

    Except for cities like Toronto and New York, where there is so much latent demand for subway expansion, that new subway construction is a must. We find Vancouver’s penchant for subways is fiscally irresponsible and despite what your TransLink says, we can find no evidence that your subweays actually attracts new ridership.

    If one were to believe TransLink’s ridership numbers for the Canada Line, there would be a line up at their door seeing how a very limited , two car train system could carry so many people.

    Unknown to TransLink, the Canada Line has been well studied and the ridership figures presented by TransLink are merely for politcal and public consumption and real ridership is somewhat less.

    If the ridership numbers were to be true, everyone would be copying the system. no one is, for obvious reasons.

    Vancouver has actually three rapid transit systems; the ALRT Expo line; the ART Millennium Line and the ROTEM Canada Line.

    TransLink is now faced with a very expensive problem, upgrading the the ALRT line to ART standards.

    I do hope the taxpayer has a lot of money.

  2. Hope says:

    Bombardier did bid to build the Canada line and wanted to use the same tech as expo line. BC liberals cheaped out and picked a cheaper bid that built a line with stupid 40 meter platforms.

    Canada line could have been connected to expo line at waterfront station. A train from Surrey could have gone to the airport if Bombardier built it. It would have been built with 80meter platforms.

    Zwei replies: The Canada Line was supposed to be a “show-case” P-3 project and the trouble was, the Expo and Millennium Lines used a proprietary railway. As no one else made compatible vehicles, a P-3 was all but impossible.

  3. Haveacow says:

    P3’s can work and be a blessing but just as often, they are a curse. The Canada Line project contract could have stipulated from the beginning that Bombardier’s Movia Light Metro trains were going to be the operating vehicles just like that.

    However, that then severely limits the companies that can realistically bid for various portions of the contract. If you use the standard “Skytrain” technology then you are limited to using SNC’s Lavlin’s track communication equipment mounts, track connection components, rail base component arrangement as well as their prefered concrete provider and concrete formulations.

    Yes, other engineering companies could design compatible equipment, techniques and therefore build experience but, they would be doing it from scratch and could legally argue (quite successfully), that the contract was biased against them from the beginning by using Bombardier’s trains as the standard vehicles.

    Lastly it has become the norm that groups of companies or consortiums are bidding on P3 contracts against other consortiums. Each consortium has its own builders, engineering companies, rail vehicle providers, even their own financing companies and banks. Virtually guaranteeing that each seperate contract builds a different type of train line. Any attempt by a city, to then limit the trains for the new line or an extension to an existing line, to the existing train design and engineering cuts out competition and may force, two different designs from separate companies that, are or were bitter rivals to work together, something that may not be a great idea.

    For example, Kiewit Construction (an American engineering and construction conglomerate) was part of the consortium “KEV” that is building both the eastern and western extension to Ottawa’s existing Confederation LRT line, The Stage 2 LRT Project. There are several tunnel portions on the western extension that Kiewit wanted to use their standard cable mounting technology and duct bank design. However the existing downtown LRT tunnel built as part of the Stage 1 LRT project, uses Draggados Canada’s Cabling and Duct Bank design (a Spanish company and big time competitor to Kiewit). The existing hardware and some of the software technlogy used on the existing system is incompatible with Kiewit’s so a work around answer was designed. Like most compromises, no one is happy but the project must move forward.

  4. Jichi says:

    In theory, can non-LIM trains run on Expo and Millennium lines? They still have 650V DC third rail for lighting, air conditioning, etc. Can we use that to power the train’s motor instead?

    Zwei replies: Interesting question that has been asked before.

    First, the Expo line to New Westminster was designed for the old ICTS/ALRT system and has some tight curvatures. The Millen nium Line was built to accommodate Bombardier’s ART system which was a complete rebuilt of the ICTS/ALRT cars. Now ALRT/ICTS cars can operate on ART trackage and vias versa, only the longer and heavier ART cars must traverse the switches very slowly because of a long wheelbase and larger trucks or bogies. ICTS/ALRT cars cannot be operate in multiple unit with ART cars as the ATC cannot deal with it.

    A little confusing but I hope it has been explained.

    In theory, you could operate non-LIM cars on the Expo and Millennium lines but it would mean that you have to stop using LIM powered vehicles. The automatic train control system cannot operate LIM powered cars and non LIM cars on the same track due to many issues including wheel slip, etc.

    But only a modular articulated tram, because of its short wheel base could operate on the Expo Line, but could without much problem on the Millennium Line.

    As TransLink is replacing the entire MK.1 fleet with MK.2 (Mk.5 cars), there will be no need for conventional cars on the Expo and Millennium Lines. By the time those cars are retired the guideway will be far past its 50 year life expectancy.

    By the way, the 650V DC also powers the LIM’s.

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