Tunnel Vision – why an infra-geek loves digging up Sydney’s transport

Last week I was in Sydney, where tunnelling seems to be becoming an obsession. I don’t know if anyone is maintaining a league table of current and planned tunnel kilometres by city (if you know please do comment to share) but I would place a bet Sydney must be near the top.

I love Sydney, but I have to say only the most committed infra-geek like I would take pleasure in the extent to which the city is currently being dug up, and the challenges of walking between any two places without being diverted round a work site.

But from an infrastructure investment perspective it is spectacular and inspiring. I attended the Institution of Civil Engineers 200th anniversary Australasia conference at the International College of Management (a historic and architecturally fascinating gothic pile in Manly), where Rodd Staples, the quietly spoken but deeply compelling Secretary of regional transport authority Transport for New South Wales, summarised the investment programme currently being undertaken.

A$ 51.2 billion over 4 years is the astonishing sum being spent, on a region of 7.5 million people and economic output of A$576 billion. I give those last two figures so you can mentally work out if where you live is spending anything near as much on a per capita or percentage of economic output basis. I doubt it.

That money is buying investments in the motorway system, light rail, new bus, tram and ferry fleets, regional transport, future transport technology and Sydney Metro, which is the main culprit of all the disruption at street level, together with the WestConnex motorway, 51 percent of which has just been sold to Transurban for a cool Aus$9.3 billion.

Sydney is still a largely car dominated city, and WestConnex is but one piece of the ambitious plan to connect the gaps between the existing sections of motorway, pretty much all by tunnels. The WestConnex M4 East project extends the M4 motorway in twin 5.5km tunnels. The WestConnex M4-M5 link involves twin 7.5km tunnels to connect the M4 and M5 motorways, and the Rozelle Interchange and Iron Cove Link will then provide underground connections from the M4-M5 Link tunnels to the planned 6km Western Harbour Tunnel. Meanwhile NorthConnex, which will link Sydney’s orbital motorway to the M1 Pacific Highway, is adding another 21km of tunnelling in twin 9km tunnels and on-and off ramps.

The road programme is inevitably controversial, particularly with those living near the new corridors, who fear increases in pollution. The New South Wales government has recently responded to those concerns by requiring tunnel operators to obtain an Environmental Protection Licence and monitor emissions from ventilation outlets.

Of course when the electric vehicle revolution finally hits Australia, the cars whizzing through the tunnels will be pollution free. And in the world of connected and autonomous vehicles, Sydney may well be grateful for its high capacity corridors through which connected cars could be convoyed, closely spaced and at high speeds – essentially a metro but with your own individual carriage.

But today most of the tunnelling is for the real Sydney Metro which comprises 66 kilometres of new rail lines, 31km in tunnels, and 31 stations. It will be Australia’s longest rail tunnel. Rodd Staples noted the 10 tunnel breakthroughs which have happened so far, and the pride which engineers rightly take at those milestones in a project. But he was also at pains to explain that Transport for New South Wales’ 2056 transport strategy is not focussed on engineering but on the real world outcomes of better place making and customer experience. As an example, a deliberate decision was taken to bore the tunnels of Sydney Metro closer to the surface than from an engineering perspective would have been most easy, in order to minimise the depth of escalators and lifts that passengers have to navigate to get to the surface.

It was my second time in Sydney this year and I was struck even more forcibly than last time at the pace of investment. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Australia is a country which has enjoyed 27 years of continuous economic growth.


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