FOUR groups have been shortlisted to submit detailed proposals for a contract to supply replacements for the 498 cars in Sydney’s suburban fleet of 1514 double-deckers that are not air-conditioned.

They are: Aurora Rail, formed of Siemens and Commonwealth Bank; Bombardier, working with Plenary Group and Deutsche Bank; Reliance Rail, formed of Downer EDI, ABN-AMRO, Hitachi, AMP Capital and Investors Ltd; and STAR Transit, made up of United Goninan and Mitsubishi Electric.

Last December RailCorp decided that, rather than specify an all double-deck fleet, it would require the proposals to include a minimum of 208 single-deck cars. Given that Sydney had pioneered double-deck EMUs, and that the last single-deck cars were retired in 1993, this was surprising.

We understand that there are concerns within RailCorp about the decision, as it could lead to serious problems in the downtown loop, especially at underground stations like Town Hall and Wynyard. Claims that single-deck cars offer higher capacity than double-deck because they would have fewer seats are open to question, and fly in the face of experience in Paris, for example, where 14 more double-deck MI2N EMUs are entering service on the busy RER Line A, in addition to the 29 in service since 1997. RATP says the double-deckers have increased capacity by 40% in peak hours.

In fact, a credible plan existed to refurbish Sydney’s 498 stainless steel cars for a further 20 years and retrofit air-conditioning, but it seems that former NSW Transport Minister Michael Costa decided unilaterally to go for a new build at the end of last year.

The background to this decision was a severe deterioration in the performance of commuter services after the fatal derailment at Waterfall in January 2003. Key issues here were pressure on drivers to recover lost time, and undetected medical problems (RG 2.04 p61). The result has been over-cautious driving which supervisors dare not criticise, and a driver shortage due to unfit staff being pensioned off. All this was made worse by a poor maintenance culture and a shortage of spare subsystems to allow off-line servicing, which led to a rise in car failures in service. A well-informed industry source reports ’a public outcry and media attention such as I have never seen.’