The Metro Tunnel – Victoria’s biggest transport infrastructure project in more than 40 years – has reached an historic milestone, with two test trains entering the twin 9km tunnels deep beneath Melbourne in the early hours of 25 July 2023, putting the new infrastructure, and its smart signalling system, to the test.

As most of the city slept, the trains successfully made a 1.7km journey at low speed from the South Yarra entrance to Anzac Station – one of five new underground stations that have been built as part of the city-shaping project. The trains continued their inaugural trip the following night, passing through Town Hall, State Library and Parkville stations before reaching Arden Station and returning to Anzac.

A new chapter for the project

The landmark moment was years in the making and marks the start of the project’s next major testing phase inside the new tunnels and stations. Rail Projects Victoria (RPV) CEO Nicole Stoddart was among a small group on the Anzac platform to cheer the first train through.

Ms Stoddart said train testing in the tunnels was the start of a “long and complex phase” for the project. “We need the time to be thorough and ensure a safe and enjoyable travelling experience for our future passengers,” Ms Stoddart said.

“The new cutting-edge signalling system is a crucial part of this work. We’re making sure these systems can communicate and work together, to help us run more trains, more often for the people of Victoria.”

Metro Trains’ Operational Standards and Safety Manager Sam Eades was one of the drivers behind the first trains, describing it as a “surreal” experience. “It’s an honour,” Mr Eades said. “There’s been so much work leading up to this. It’s been so long coming. It’s kind of a little bit surreal to have two trains in the tunnel.”

Over the coming months, the seven-carriage trains will run back-and-forth deep under the CBD and Yarra River testing various equipment and systems to ensure they are working seamlessly and safely.

Fundamentals – such as lining the trains up with the platforms – will be tested first before the team gradually increases the complexity, from one train at low speed using minimal power, through to multiple trains at greater speeds.

Everything from lifts, escalators, security systems, communications, lighting, plumbing, power and the Victorianfirst platform screen doors will all be rigorously tested to ensure all systems are working together with the new trains.

In 2024, teams will trial train services running from Clayton to West Footscray through the Metro Tunnel using the new signalling system, with station staff and drivers in a ‘dress rehearsal’ before opening to passengers in 2025.

This period will simulate timetabled services and a range of scenarios to confirm that everything is safe, reliable and efficient. Metro Tunnel Project Director Ben Ryan said launching trains in the tunnels was a significant achievement for the team.

“This is a huge part of our work to make the Metro Tunnel passenger ready,” Mr Ryan said. “We’re making sure all the pieces that fit together to set our stations up for day one are in working order. That includes things like lifts, escalators, lighting, tunnel ventilation and power.”

Long-awaited network upgrade nears completion

The Metro Tunnel is an unprecedented upgrade of Melbourne’s train network, and the first major metropolitan rail investment since the City Loop opened in 1981. It will allow more connections and faster journeys by joining the Sunbury and Cranbourne/Pakenham lines via a new tunnel, creating a new end-to-end rail line under the city from the north-west to the south-east.

The project will provide rail access to Parkville’s medical and research precinct – destinations such as the University of Melbourne, Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre – and the St Kilda Road employment precinct for the first time, reducing travel times.

Passengers on every other line will have an easier transition between City Loop and Metro Tunnel services with pedestrian interchanges from Melbourne Central Station to State Library Station, and Flinders Street Station to Town Hall Station. Since major construction started in 2017, the team has successfully:

  • Launched four tunnel boring machines to excavate the twin 9km tunnels
  • Brought the five new underground stations from concept to reality
  • Installed the Victorian-first platform screen doors
  • Upgraded Melbourne’s decades-old train signalling and systems
  • Laid the final lengths of steel rail through the tunnels

Complex journey ahead to integrate smart technology

But arguably the most complex phase of the project is just starting: integrating the cutting-edge signalling system that will control trains through the tunnels. Before the ribbon is cut on the Metro Tunnel Project, a huge program of testing needs to be carried out to ensure all the new systems are working in unison.

A crucial part of this is the project’s High Capacity Signalling, with teams installing 21st century technology alongside a 20th century system along sections of the busy Cranbourne/Pakenham and Sunbury lines – and both systems need to communicate with each other.

It’s the first time in Australia that High-Capacity Signalling has been installed on an existing network alongside a decades-old signalling system, with the two needing to be integrated seamlessly.

“Digging the tunnels and building the stations is hard – really hard. But installing a brand new, high-tech signalling system, and ensuring it works safely and smoothly with the rest of the network, is arguably more challenging,” Mr Ryan said.

“We have some of the best signalling experts in the world right here in Melbourne, working on this project – so I’m confident we’ll get there.” The High Capacity Signalling – which works in a similar way to adaptive cruise control in cars – will gather information from Melbourne’s new fleet of trains and equipment located along the rail line and transmit the data to signal control centres in Sunshine and Dandenong.

Highly qualified signallers and controllers will then direct trains along the line and through the tunnels using real-time information to maintain a safe distance between trains and let drivers know when to safely go or stop.

The existing system has been used on Melbourne’s rail network for more than 70 years. It’s safe but uses coloured signals – like traffic lights – to let a driver know when it is safe for a train to go, which limits how closely trains can run together.

The upgrades mean trains can safely move closer together, meaning more trains, more often. RPV’s Deputy Director Systems Andrew Nelson described the signal control centres as the “nerve centre” for the Metro Tunnel. “As we move forward to services in 2025, this area is key to our ability to test and control all our network,” Mr Nelson said.

“When the railway networks were first built in Melbourne, all of our signalling equipment was manually controlled. “We’ve moved on from there. We can do all of that out of this control centre.”

Are we there yet?

The Metro Tunnel will change how people move around the city, suburbs and state – but Ms Stoddart said there remained significant work to be done. “While we know this milestone is worth celebrating, there’s a lot more work to do,” Ms Stoddart said.

“We’ll also be looking at the High Capacity Signalling equipment and the systems and we’ll be making sure the train is talking to those systems. Just like the platform screen doors need to align to the train, other systems need to send information to the passengers of that train.

“We’ve got lighting, power, communications, safety, security, all of these systems to come together, including our platform screen doors.” When finished, the Metro Tunnel will create capacity for more than half a million extra passengers to travel by train during peak times every week.

As the long and challenging period of testing inside the tunnels continues into 2024, the project team will be buoyed by the knowledge they are working towards a once-in-ageneration transformation of Melbourne’s rail network.

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