Firefighter fears over Sydney metro tunnels spark lifting of alert level
  Greg Sutherland

NSW’s fire agency will require triple the number of fire engines to be sent to incidents on Sydney’s multibillion-dollar Metro Northwest rail line after firefighters warned they will have difficulty accessing tunnels in emergencies.

Leaked minutes of a meeting with the private operator of the 36-kilometre Metro Northwest line show that specialist firefighters from the state’s rail emergency response unit raised concerns about “access strategies when responding to incidents” in the tunnels.

Commuters board a driverless train at Castle Hill station on the Metro Northwest line.

Commuters board a driverless train at Castle Hill station on the Metro Northwest line.Credit:Ben Symons

The unease at the meeting in November centred on how to get large numbers of emergency workers and equipment into the line’s twin tunnels, which extend for more than 27 kilometres. The Metro Northwest line between Tallawong and Chatswood opened in 2019, and incorporated the Epping-to-Chatswood link.

A Sydney Metro official at the meeting, which included NSW Police and Fire and Rescue NSW, acknowledged that “everyone’s anxious” about the expansion of the metro network, the minutes show.

Several weeks ago Fire and Rescue NSW increased the required number of fire engines that will have to respond to an incident on the Northwest Metro from two to six appliances, as well as a duty commander.

Fire Brigade Employees Union state secretary Leighton Drury said the need to increase the number of fire trucks and personnel highlighted firefighters’ concerns about a lack of suitable resources and plans for responding to emergencies and rescues in Sydney’s metro rail tunnels.

“It is imperative that the state government and Sydney Metro provide firefighters the resources they need to protect the travelling public,” he said.

The leaked minutes also reveal that an exercise at Central Station had “identified a gap in communication” about the roles of wardens during emergencies at so-called interchange stations at which both driverless metro and double-decker trains stop.


Emergency procedures at interchange stations such as Chatswood and Epping need to be co-ordinated between the private operator of the metro line and the state-run Sydney Trains.

Fire and Rescue NSW said the agency continually reviewed resourcing needs for critical infrastructure such as metro rail lines, “taking into consideration feedback provided from our firefighters, Sydney Metro and our other emergency management partners”.

Firefighters have raised concerns about accessing the metro rail tunnels in an emergency.

Firefighters have raised concerns about accessing the metro rail tunnels in an emergency.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

Unlike the Sydney Trains network, Metro Northwest does not have a dedicated emergency response unit similar to the one based at Central Station, which keeps watch over the underground rail network in the CBD used by double-decker trains. The unit operates fire trucks fitted with wheels that can run on rail tracks to get to incidents quickly, as well as battery-powered track trolleys to transport equipment and emergency workers along lines.

Sydney Metro said in a statement that the Northwest line had been designed to “allow fast, safe, high-capacity” trains to be used to access emergency incidents from an adjacent tunnel.

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“This provides a much faster response than track trolleys, which move at very slow speeds,” the agency said.

“Metro systems have a very high level of fire and life safety provisions designed into the network and require a different approach to managing incidents compared to traditional rail systems.”

Metro Trains Sydney, the private consortium led by Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation that operates the Northwest line, said access to the tunnels could be gained at shafts that could be opened remotely for emergency workers.

“These access points are located approximately every 240 metres of each tunnel, enabling emergency services to access the tunnels and bring in equipment as required,” Metro Trains Sydney chief executive Daniel Williams said.

A report for Transport for NSW in 2018 – a year before the Northwest Metro opened – said the operator of the new line would need to provide its emergency response unit with “capabilities equivalent” to that of the firefighting team based at Central for Sydney Trains.

However, Williams said that, unlike some rail networks, a dedicated response unit was not needed for the Metro Northwest line due to the line’s “modern design and safety features”.

Fire and Rescue NSW deputy commissioner Jeremy Fewtrell said the agency was working closely with Sydney Metro to ensure the safety of firefighters, commuters and railway staff.

“We are committed to making sure there are workable solutions to any safety issues identified, and we are in regular contact with Sydney Metro and the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator to achieve this,” he said.

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