Light rail returns to Sydney’s centre by Bruce Belbin

It had been a long time – 61 years and 22 days – since a member of the public could travel down George Street, Sydney, past Wynyard, the GPO, the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) and the Town Hall, in a light rail vehicle (aka a tram). However, on Saturday 14 December 2019 everything old was new again as light rail returned to the city centre, with the long awaited opening of the CBD and South East Light Rail (CSELR) between Circular Quay and Randwick. Opening festivities were centred on the terminus at Circular Quay and were relatively subdued, with none of the carnival atmosphere that had characterised the Newcastle opening earlier in the year. A large contingent of uniformed ‘helpers’ was in evidence all along the route, as was an unusually large police presence. The opening ceremony commenced around 8am, with speeches by NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian and Transport Minister, Andrew Constance, who said that the original trams “should never have been taken out”, a statement that, with the benefit of hindsight, very few of us would disagree with. The Premier then cut the obligatory ribbon and the CSELR was officially declared open. The first VIP tram departed the Quay at around 8.50am, with a second following just after 9.00am. Although it had been publicised during the week prior that public services would commence at 11.00am on the opening day, the first service to carry passengers departed Circular Quay for Randwick at around 10.15am, formed by coupled Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) 001 and 002. There were lengthy stops at stations and the journey time between Circular Quay and Randwick was 61 minutes, considerably longer than the 35 minutes advertised for services on the new line. On finally arriving at Randwick, passengers applauded before posing for photographs. The opening day was not without hiccups. A mechanical problem was blamed for a tram stalling near Circular Quay on Saturday afternoon, forcing all other northbound services to terminate at Town Hall. The power loss left the broken-down tram blocking both lines for about an hour. Earlier,
technical issues caused two trams to halt for more than five minutes near Royal Randwick racecourse. Also on Saturday, a passenger had a medical issue near Haymarket, causing trams to be stopped for about 20 minutes. Transdev Australasia CO Light Rail Operations, Brian Brennan, who also oversaw the reintroduction of trams to Dublin in 2004, said “it’s been a bumpy day”. “Tram failures do occur, it’s reality, but it has been an outstanding success today”. While the L1 Dulwich Hill line is operated using Spanish-built CAF Urbos 3 LRVs, the CSELR uses the Alstom Citadis X05, 60 having been built by Alstom at La Rochelle in France and Barcelona in Spain to provide services on the new system. The X05s are five-section low-floor articulated light rail vehicles. Each has a length of 33 metres, but in service they operate in coupled pairs, making 30 sets, each with a total length of 67 metres and capacity for 450 passengers. On board passenger information displays provide information about the route and approaching stops. Alstom’s HESOP reversible substation technologies enable the LRVs to recover more than 99% of the energy usually lost during braking. The recovered energy can be re-used to power other vehicles running on the same line, or injected back into the network. Alstom’s APS (Alimentation Par le Sol) technology, a wire-free, ground based power supply, powers the LRVs along the wire-free two kilometres of the alignment through the centre of the City. APS was first used in Bordeaux, France on part of the city’s light rail line opened in 2003. Although more than 50 cities worldwide (including Melbourne and Adelaide) operate Citadis light rail vehicles, Sydney is the first city in the world to receive the X05 model, though Nice and Avignon in France, and Kaohsiung in Taiwan have them on order. All 30 sets are housed overnight at the Randwick Stabling Yard, where light maintenance is also undertaken. The yard is also the site of the Operational Control Centre, wash sheds and inspection sheds. Any major work required is carried out at the Lilyfield Light Rail Heavy Maintenance Depot (see March 2019 RD page 13), accessed by way of a connection with the L1 (Dulwich Hill) line at George and Hay Streets. The CBD and South East Light Rail was designed and constructed, and is operated and maintained, by a private operating company as part of a Public Private Partnership (PPP), awarded to the ALTRAC Light Rail consortium, which includes Acciona, Alstom, Transdev and Capella Capital. The 12 kilometre network was delivered under a turnkey PPP model, which included the design and supply of the 60 Citadis X05 LRVs, power supply equipment including over two kilometres of wire-free ground-based power supply, energy recovery substations – HESOP, signalling, communications, depot equipment and a 19-year maintenance agreement. Construction work was supposed to finish in April 2018, but in March 2018 the Transport Minister announced that the government was “an unhappy customer” of the ALTRAC consortium and declined to put a date on the completion of the project. In October 2018, Acciona announced further delays, giving a completion date of May 2020. On Monday 3 June 2019 it was announced that the consortium would receive up to $576m extra from the New South Wales government under a settlement deal, taking the total cost to $2.7bn. The government stated that the package resolved $1.5bn worth of legal claims under its public-private partnership with ALTRAC and settled a court action brought by subcontractor Acciona, which was separately seeking $1.1bn for being misled over the project’s complexity. A central issue was claims by the consortium that it was not given sufficient information relating to underground utilities along the route. The settlement – with ALTRAC, Acciona and other subcontractors Alstom and Transdev – included an agreement on a new timetable for the start of light rail services. Up to $129m would only be paid once milestones were met, including the start of passenger services between Circular Quay and Randwick from December 2019, and between Circular Quay and Kingsford by March 2020. Despite running around a year late, causing widespread disruption to businesses along the route and costing almost double its original projected cost, the new line appears to have been well received by Sydneysiders. Trams operate to a basic weekday headway of every 10 minutes and every 15 minutes in evenings and weekends. However, widespread mainstream media and social media coverage since the opening has consistently highlighted a major concern with the new system: the inordinate slowness of travel along the route and excessive end-to-end travel times. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, respected transport engineer, Greg Sutherland bemoaned the fact that “The CBD and South East Light Rail, or CSELR, is taking on average 50 minutes to cover the distance compared with 26 minutes for the Sydney trams in the 1950s”.
He laid the blame on Transport for NSW for engaging British-based ‘heavy rail’ experts to set the parameters for the new operation. The end result being “…the acceptance and development of operating procedures which do not make appropriate use of the modern tram and light rail infrastructure now available in Sydney”. The state government has stated that, as capacity grows on the network and customers become more accustomed to the system, journey times should further improve, as the L3 Kingsford Line opening approaches in March 2020. By the time you’re reading this, the accuracy or otherwise of this statement should have become apparent.

With thanks to John Hoyle, Dominik Giemza and David Matheson for their assistance and input.