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Sydney Metro - Barangaroo Station

Q & Architecture: retrofitting a sustainable Sydney metro system

Senior Associate Nigel Justins compares future Sydney metro projects with the Copenhagen City Circle metro line.


Late last year, you visited Copenhagen to study the city’s recently opened City Circle metro line. How did that track extension compare to recent infrastructure developments in Australia?

Copenhagen has just completed a major extension to an existing metro. Typically defined as a driverless, frequent train service, metro is a fairly recent phenomenon in Australia with the first line opening last year in north-west Sydney.

Before comparing the two systems, it’s instructive to consider the scale, density and climate of the catchment areas served by each. The Sydney metro catchment is characterised by low density, predominantly free-standing homes outside the main centres. On the other hand, Copenhagen metro serves a more compact urban centre, typical of a European city. In Copenhagen the stations are about a kilometre apart, which is in line with the global average for a metro system. With lower population density, the stations in Sydney are more dispersed – on average about three kilometres apart. In Copenhagen the metro trains are half the size, but they run on average twice as frequently even at peak hour so can service a similar audience. In Sydney we can expect a more frequent service as demand grows over time, particularly when the line is extended through the city in 2024.

In terms of infrastructure both metros provide a combination of tunnels running under the more established urban parts and viaducts in the outer suburbs. The most significant difference is in the size and scale of the stations, influenced partly by climatic conditions and partly by the operating model.

Sydney’s warmer climate requires cooling systems to keep customers comfortable and keep a state-of-the-art rail system operational. Copenhagen metro stations don’t require cooling and are comparatively smaller. At street level above the underground stations, considerable effort has gone into concealing almost all services and supporting infrastructure below the surface. In fact, but for the distinct metro signage and glass lifts, you would hardly know the station is there. This response reflects the city’s desire to minimise the visual impact on the historic centre. The absence of any canopy cover over entry stairs is possible in a city with low rainfall and it’s a further example of the minimal design approach. Viaduct stations are also visually parred back, defined by a single horizontal canopy floating above the open island platform.

Copenhagen metro is an exemplar of restraint and precision in keeping with the best traditions of Danish design. In Sydney the new metro stations are major urban interventions, defined by their generous yet elegant canopy structures that provide customers with a high degree of weather protection while giving the system a strong visual identity.

Figure 1: Sydney Metro USDTS Stations – Barangaroo Station

Barangaroo Station

What did you learn in Copenhagen that could be applied to current and future developments in Sydney ?

Both stages of Copenhagen’s metro have been carefully stitched into an existing urban centre with many historic buildings, culminating in a sensitive response to local context and minimising the degree of intervention within established neighbourhoods. The recent metro line adds a greater richness to the public domain around the stations, which reflects contemporary thinking on the value of public space. Stations themselves aren’t burdened with over station development; instead they are treated as catalysts for urban activation, providing new or enhanced public spaces and access to a connected public transport system that serves as a stimulus for other value-adding developments within the precinct.

When Copenhagen delivered its first metro, its architects created a template for the stations and have stuck to it rigorously, with very few deviations, applying the same overall dimensions and use of repeated modular elements at the stations, which brings significant economies of scale. It’s clearly worked as, 18 years on, the newer stations are almost identical replicas of the originals, albeit with different cladding systems that gives each station its own distinct identity that has a local reference.

Figure 2: Canberra Metro Stage 1

Canberra Metro Stage 1 | Rail and transport architecture

There’s been much discussion about the social and environmental benefits of expanding and strengthening our cities’ public transport offerings. Are there any risks or blind spots that need to be considered during Australia’s infrastructure boom?

We now recognise the imperative to transition to a low carbon economy, with sustainable public transport an important part of the equation. Metro has a pivotal role to play in helping to address this, and the difference can be massive in terms of the social and environmental dividend.

In Australia, part of the challenge is retrofitting sustainable public transport networks into established parts of cities and the surrounding urban sprawl. There are many considerations when conceiving a well-thought out and highly connected public transport system, one that’s integrated with other modes of transport as part of a wider network that encourages the use of active transport and local buses. We also need to futureproof our infrastructure for the shift towards AI powered vehicles.

Funding is always one of the biggest challenges to delivering infrastructure projects. Copenhagen metro’s origins are quite interesting; it was initially funded by the sale of developable state-owned land close to the city centre at Orsetad. This model ultimately failed to deliver the integrated urban outcomes that the project aspired to, largely due to the difficulties in funding during the GFC.

In London, the Docklands Light Rail was a major catalyst to the creation of London’s second financial services hub at Canary Wharf. In Western Sydney, we see a similar potential for the Sydney Metro Greater West – a project that I have been working on for the last two years, which could become the spine for a new sustainable city.

Modern metro systems have a vital part to play in getting Australians out of their cars and onto public transport. With Metro West and Greater West both in the pipeline, Sydney is starting to catch up with other parts of the world. Architectus is also working on plans for Melbourne’s first metro, hopefully other cities will follow soon.

Figure 3: Melbourne Metro Rail Infrastructure Alliance

Melbourne train station | Rail and transport architecture

Nigel Justins is an architect and is widely recognised as a leader in the transport infrastructure sector.