The Variotram pictured before delivery from its builder Adtranz.
A Variotram alongside a Darling Harbour monorail train.
Tram stops in Capitol Square, Sydney.
The Sydney LRT maintenance depot with trams ready for services.
Trams pass on the street in Sydney.
A Variotram pauses at one of the underground stations.

Light rail came to Sydney, Australia, in 1997 with the opening of its first modern tramway route from Central Station to the urban area of Pyrmont. The light rail route joined the eight-station monorail loop – which was completed in 1988 – and heavy rail commuter and bus services in providing public transport into the city.

However, while the A$85m project has attracted substantial numbers of passengers travelling to and from Central Station, it has been limited by a lack of extensions into the central business district (CBD).

“There is a 24-hour service between Central and Star City and from 06:00 to 23:00 to the terminus at Lilyfield.”

The population of Sydney has risen above 4.2 million, and the road traffic system reaches virtual gridlock at peak times.

In March 2008 an A$12bn European-style metro rail line for Sydney was unveiled, which would service growth areas from the CBD to the city’s north-west.

The North West Metro is the first major transport initiative to be unveiled under the Sydney Link programme, which plans to begin construction in 2010, with the first trains operating in 2015.

The project has since taken its first step forward with the announcement on 1 September 2008 that geotechnical investigation vital to building the metro’s tunnels had begun.

The project

In 1994, the Sydney Light Rail Company was established, and construction of the first line took 16 months, starting on 25 January 1996. Much of the original 3.6km (2.2 miles) alignment was former tramway and railway with track laid in city streets and the old railway corridor around Darling Harbour and Pyrmont Peninsula. Previous tram services were withdrawn in 1961 because they were uncompetitive compared with road transport.

Following the extension from Wentworth Park to Lilyfield on 13 August 2000, the system is now 7.2km (4.5 miles) long, of which 1.5km (1 mile) is street operation. There is a 24-hour service between Central and Star City and from 06.00 to 23.00 to the terminus at Lilyfield, midnight at weekends. The peak hour frequency is ten minutes.

Leading transport operator Connex manages the operation of the Sydney Metro Light Rail route on a seven-year contract (ending in 2008) and is also tasked with managing the city’s monorail loop.

The current light rail route is just the beginning of what could become an extensive network.

The New South Wales Government has initiated SydneyLink, a series of major transport projects, including a North West Metro, an M4 extension, the south west rail link and possible future metro to the west and south east.

Metro Link is a key part of SydneyLink and will transform Sydney’s public transport with a number of metro rail lines, the first of which is the North West Metro.


The current light rail network is designed to provide doorstep access to Chinatown and Paddy’s Markets, the Entertainment Centre, Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, National Maritime Museum, Sydney Casino and the historic Pyrmont Peninsula.

Except for the street section from Darling Drive (next to the Entertainment Centre) along Hay Street to Sydney Terminal, the track of the first section is built on the old Darling Harbour goods line. On-street track is reinforced concrete slabs enclosing the rails with special consideration given to three locations where there is a potential noise and vibration problem. Conventional ballasted track using second-hand rail is used on the route through the former Ultimo freight yard.

Now complete, the system has 14 stopping points. On-street stops, similar to bus stops, are equipped with CCTV surveillance cameras.

Rolling stock

Seven German-design Variotram vehicles, which are 100% low floor (floor to rail level 300mm), have been adapted to suit local conditions and were manufactured in Dardenong, Australia, by Adtranz (now Bombardier) at a cost of A$25m. Running under 750V overhead catenary, they have had their design weight reduced to compensate for the addition of climate-control air-conditioning equipment.

“In March 2008 an A$12bn European-style metro rail line for Sydney was unveiled.”

During tests, up to three trams have been coupled together, allowing a maximum capacity of 600 passengers in one train if required.

The Variotram design is modular and has been extended for the Sydney system. The bogies have no axles between the wheels and the powered bogies are fitted with gearless hub motors. The articulated design allows a wide body car without overswing on curves.

Power for the three-phase, water-cooled, hub-mounted traction motors is drawn from a 750V DC overhead supply. The Sydney trams are bi-directional and the seating layout has been changed to increase capacity. Folding seats behind the weathershields by the doors can be lifted to accommodate wheelchairs.

The three doors each side have enhanced safety systems with obstacle detection interlocked with the traction system.

Signalling and communications

There is no on-street signalling, but it is needed in the dedicated corridor. The driver sees three-aspect ground signals. Maximum vehicle speed is 80km/h, reduced to 70km/h on reserved sections, road speed in street running, and 20km/h in pedestrian malls. Tram movements are given priority over road vehicles at intersections.

Communications is based on a fibre optic digital network carrying communications, signalling data and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), controlling both signalling and traction and providing data on ticketing sales via an interface with the ticketing system.

The vehicles are equipped with Ebicab 9000 automatic train protection for both on-street and reserve track operation.

The future

The North West Metro will feature 17 new stations and will run from Rouse Hill via Epping to the CBD. The first stage from Epping to the Hills Centre will be completed by 2015, with the entire line from Rouse Hill to the CBD to be completed by 2017.

As well as providing a high-quality mass transit link for residents in Sydney’s rapidly growing north-west, the North West Metro will also bring rail for the first time to inner Sydney suburbs along the Victoria Road corridor.

The metro will operate as a stand-alone system incorporating world-class design and technology. Easy access stations and interchanges will be constructed along the route with Sydney’s existing transport services, including bus, rail and light rail.

“The North West Metro will feature 17 new stations and will run from Rouse Hill via Epping to the CBD.”

Prior to the investigations into a metro system for Sydney, planning had already begun on the North West Rail Link. The NSW Government has decided to build this rail connection as a metro line. The planning work already conducted forms a solid foundation for development of the North West Metro. The NSW Government will fund construction of the North West Metro.

Since the announcement of the North West Metro in March, the project team has begun the first of four phases for the delivery of the metro service.

The first phase deals with progressing of the detail work, defining the route alignment and station locations for the metro as well as planning for the entire customer experience.

To maximise customer satisfaction, the team is looking at a range of factors such as integration with other modes of transport, commuter car parking, ticketing, station design, train design specifications and operations.

In addition, the project delivery strategy is being prepared and the preliminary environmental assessment is underway. The railway is expected to begin operations in 2015.