It's been promised at every election for generations, but now it's a reality

It’s the rail line that even some of the Premier’s colleagues and advisers did not want her to build.

When the Sydney Metro Northwest line opened on Sunday, to the delight of tens of thousands who queued for a free ride, it delivered rail services for the first time to the burgeoning suburbs of Cherrybrook, Castle Hill, Kellyville, and Rouse Hill.

But the opening also capped a tumultuous eight years for Gladys Berejiklian and those who worked with her on the project – a group that faced criticism for the decision to build the $7.3 billion line in the first place; and later, for decisions about how the line should be built.

"It's satisfying beyond words to deliver something that is so significant to NSW," the Premier said in an interview. "Of course it is easier building a toll-road. But it is much better for the community of the north west to build the north west rail line."


It is hard to overstate the significance of the opening of the line – a 23-kilometre addition to Sydney’s rail system, but which operationally incorporates the 13km Epping to Chatswood line.

It is the first major piece of public transport infrastructure conceived and delivered by this Coalition government. The contract to deliver the Opal Card project had been signed under Labor; construction of the South West Rail Link had also started prior to the 2011 change in government.

The line also represents a major change to the way rail services are run in Sydney, in a manner that will affect the operation of trains. Using single-deck trains operated without drivers, the line is a stand-alone metro system that will aim to deliver services with greater reliability than Sydney’s regular train system.

The completion is a world away from the situation that faced Ms Berejiklian when, under former premier Barry O’Farrell, the Coalition was swept to power in March 2011.

As well as promising to build the line – a project first committed to but abandoned by the former Labor government in 1998 – Mr O’Farrell also pledged to create a new body to advise on where and how to spend significant money on major projects, Infrastructure NSW.

And though the first chairman and chief executive of Infrastructure NSW – Nick Greiner and Paul Broad – were careful not to criticise the government’s endorsement of a multibillion-dollar rail line in public, in private they were less deferential.

"There were quite a few comments at the time … from Nick Greiner and Paul Broad, about the investment of money,” said Les Wielinga, the head of the state’s main transport agency between 2009 and 2013. “I think they favoured more of a road basis rather than a rail basis.”

It is part of the achievement of Ms Berejiklian, Mr Wielinga, and others including the secretary of Transport for NSW, Rodd Staples, that they played the internal politics well enough to push the project past the powerful infrastructure advisers.

"In terms of government, if I didn't have Barry's support, I wouldn’t have been able to convince my colleagues," Ms Berejiklian said of the former premier.

"There wasn't a culture in NSW about spending money on public transport," she said. "The Labor Party built toll roads, but there wasn't a culture of public transport and that's what I wanted to change."

But Ms Berejiklian also confronted significant choices about how to build the line. Prior to the 2011 election, she had promised to construct the line to Rouse Hill as a regular extension of the train network.

Had Ms Berejiklian delivered on her promise, it would have meant commuters on the new line would have been able to get direct services to the CBD. It also would have meant the line would have run Sydney’s regular double-deck trains, with plenty of seats.

But in June 2012, Mr O’Farrell and Ms Berejiklian announced a break with that pre-election promise. Releasing a 50-year transport "masterplan", they said the line would be built as a stand-alone metro. The result would be fewer seats, and the requirement for commuters to change trains at Chatswood if they wanted to get to the city – at least until a connection through the city was opened by 2023 or 2024. (That line is now under construction).

But the expectation was that metros would ultimately deliver a more reliable and frequent service.

Last week Ms Berejiklian told the Herald she made the decision to build the north west rail link as a metro "within weeks" of becoming transport minister in 2011.

"From the day I became the Minister and I started having access to all the expert advice and all those reports it was apparent to me that the metro was the best way to go," she said.

"Do I stick to my guns and do what we'd promised, with the double-deck system? Or do we embark on a brand new metro. And I knew that there was absolutely no question we had to embark on the metro. History will show that was one of the most important decisions made in this state as far as infrastructure is concerned, because it started us off on this metro journey."

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When that decision was announced, however, it was subject to criticism that the benefits of introducing a metro-style operation might not outweigh the negatives.

Transport experts such as the former director-general of rail in Sydney, Ron Christie, criticised the focus on the metro system as coming at the expense of operational improvements to Sydney’s existing heavy rail network, which will continue to move the vast majority of commuters.

Another concern was the government’s decision to dig tunnels for the line too small to accommodate double-deck trains would limit the future flexibility of the rail system.

And transport bureaucrats highlighted the potential overcrowding problems at Chatswood Station when commuters disgorged from the metro onto full north shore trains. (This issue remains to be managed).

The government’s response has been to say that it should be judged on how things turn out.

"I have great respect that there are lots of different views on how the money should have been spent," said Mr Staples, who as project director for Sydney Metro can be credited as the architect of the scheme.

"The judgment of that is probably five, 10, 15 years away when people reflect back on the way the city is running and how the systems are working together. Personally, I am really confident we will be judged well."


For Mr Staples, the line’s opening marks the culmination of a difficult journey.

Under Labor he was responsible for delivering the so-called CBD Metro – a project cancelled by former premier Kristina Keneally at a cost of about $400 million. He admits to questioning whether he would see this project through.

"I was very doubtful that we would be here today. But nonetheless I and many others were determined to give it our best shot," he said.

When Ms Berejiklian and Mr Staples, as well as Transport Minister Andrew Constance, talk about the Northwest Metro, they tend to state that it is the start of a program.

The second stage, which is due to open by 2024, comprises a line from Chatswood, under Sydney Harbour to the CBD and Sydenham in the south, and Bankstown in the west. Another metro line from Westmead to the CBD should also be built next decade.

The complex system controlling Metro Northwest is the next generation of technology from Hong Kong’s South Island line, which opened in 2016 and is operated by MTR, the company running Sydney’s newest addition.

Engineers also drew on lessons from fully, or partially, automated lines around the world such as Paris’s Métro Line 1, Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit system, and parts of London’s Jubilee line.

The new metro line offers commuters the latest in modern railway design and technology – from driverless trains, to glass-screen doors on station platforms. Unlike the city’s existing suburban trains, commuters can gaze out the front of the metro trains onto the rail tracks, or out a window at the back.

Yet it will require commuters to adjust their expectations of riding on trains, and how they navigate the city’s public transport network. More people will have to stand.

A metro carriage has seating for about 63 passengers, compared with 110 on a Waratah carriage, the newest in Sydney Trains’ fleet. (In all, the six-carriage metro trains have seating for 378 passengers, and standing room for 774).

Mathew Hounsell, a researcher at the University of Technology’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, said Sydney under went a significant change when its population ballooned from 3.5 million to 4 million, and road speeds dropped to similar levels as those on the public transport system as they became more clogged.

That encouraged more people to travel on buses and trains.

Now, he said, the metro line offers another big change.

"If the government operates it at high frequency, and for long hours of the day, it will be transformative," he said. "As soon as the second stage is built, the entire city will reshape itself around the metro services. If you are a 24/7 city, then you have to have a 24/7 transport system."

For many of those who hopped on the first services, the line could not have opened soon enough.

"I know the growth that has occurred out there in the north west," said Tony Williams, who grew up at Castle Hill. "I never thought it would happen. It was promised every election when I was a kid."