Event: Sydney Metro Northwest Launch Day & Analysis (26th May 2019)

Sunday marked the launch of the Sydney Metro Northwest – the first driverless metro system in all of Australia, built nearby to where I live. This new system includes eight new stations, joined up with the Epping to Chatswood rail link which has been converted to “medium-capacity” metro service. First imagined in 1998 and finally delivered 21 years later, this service finally offers residents of the Hills district an alternative to buses and private cars.

As large expensive infrastructure investments like this only happen rarely, as a heavy public-transport user and enthusiast, this event was a must see. But just days prior to the opening, the government announced a free ride on opening day with a warning that “large crowds are expected” – I had my doubts, but was soon proven wrong.

This post will be a bit of a mix of information about the Sydney Metro Northwest and supporting services, my experiences throughout the day, my measurements, observations, opinions and complaints. In this article, you will find my audio recordings of various announcements, acceleration profiles, plotted GPS track data, photos and videos. I will prefix this article with a disclaimer – I do not work for the rail industry and have never worked in the public transport industry. My views are of a general nature as an observant engineer and public transport user. All opinions are that of my own. The post is a little late – this is because I’ve been fighting with my video editing software, LTE connection and finding time to blog.

The Day Begins

I begin my day by catching a renumbered T72 (now 732) to Tallawong station. Part of the renumbering was a re-routing of the bus via Implexa Parade to Tallawong, but because Tripview wasn’t entirely updated with the new stops along the way, I ended up stopping the bus twice in the middle of nowhere … sorry about that!

Upon arrival, it is clear that this was no ordinary day as event crew were on-site and crowd control was already in place.

If you wanted to get in, you’d have to go around to the opposite side – Themeda Avenue.

I thought being 30 minutes early was enough, but I was dead wrong. Looking through the station, it was absolutely packed on the other side, but the scale of interest didn’t really hit me until I reached the other side.

The queue practically stretched right to the edge of the depot by my estimates. Even the crowd control staff were a bit surprised.

But I was happy. Why? Because it seems that people are actually interested in public transport. Back when I visited the Epping to Chatswood Rail Link on its opening week, it was dead quiet. I could take shots of the platform with almost nobody around – but I was harassed by staff who couldn’t fathom that I was not working for the press, merely a public transport enthusiast. Move forward to the launch of the Sydney Light-Rail Extension and there were a few people riding back and forth but no queue. I was again set upon by the kind staff to “move on” as they didn’t want me filming on premises.

This time, it’s different. Practically everyone was taking photos or video of some sort – perhaps this is a side effect of the pervasive nature of smartphones and social media, but whatever it is, I don’t mind if it gets people interested in public transport. This time, I wasn’t harassed by anyone … instead I felt that it got so crowded that it would be best for me to put my camera away in the interests of the safety of everyone and everything! That’s a change!

It wouldn’t be launch day without some technical guys around – Alstom were parked on the side … perhaps to rapidly address any emergencies that might arise.

Even though Cooee Busways were not operating on the day, they were around to advertise their On Demand Public Transport service which commenced Monday. I had beta tested them earlier prior to the metro’s opening and it was rather convenient – I hope others give them a try to see whether they like the service, so hopefully it means less cars on the road. For those in the Norwest area, there is another service called metroconnect by HillsBus.

They were handing out brochures to advertise their service, along with this “net” so you can make a bus on demand!

As far as marketing goes, I think this is pretty genius – now I have a scale model bus. Maybe kids would be thinking of being a bus driver as a future career? Who knows …

Whatever you do … just don’t have this side facing up …

While waiting in the queue, there were also brochures for the station you were boarding from, along with a teal-green bracelet that says “I rode the Metro on opening day 2019”. Note the bracelet has no date on it – so perhaps it’s true when the staff say they have no idea when it would be opening …

It wasn’t long before the first train pulled up, ahead of schedule and passengers were already allowed to board. This rapidly drained the queue into the station, although crowd control were careful to ensure trains did not leave fully packed, so others down the line had a chance to board the service with some level of comfort. This aspect seemed well planned in my opinion.

Station and Platform Amenities

The new metro station design is said to be inspired by gumleaves, and I can definitely see the resemblance.

Stations are clearly signed in the teal green colour representing the Metro. As the station accepts Opal cards, the Opal top-up and single ticket machines are present on every station, but unlike the other machines which are accented in sky-blue, these are grey.

The barriers are of the new Opal type, at launch still covered by some protective plastic shell. The displays are left to show “Always tap even if gates are open” which is absolutely the wrong advice for a free travel day. Each metro station is equipped with toilets, which is a nice feature.

To get to the platform, you have two choices – either you can take an escalator (which are flaked by brightly coloured glass panels). The escalators are supplied by Kone if I’m not mistaken – a ride on the Hills Showground ones seemed somewhat “choppy” for some reason.

Or you can take a lift. Each station has a pair of them, although the lifts seem to be set for banked operation even though they are facing each other, so if you push the button, the lift behind you might open the door and collect your call, which is a little counter-intuitive.

The platforms feature hearing loop augmentation – I carried my homebuilt T-coil receiver and Zoom H1 to grab some recordings of on-platform announcements without the chatter:

Announcements are preceded by a tri-tone chime which is inherited from the Hong Kong MTR system. Doors closing chimes are also inherited. No surprises here, our consortium includes the MTR corporation. The voice synthesis is rather average and the wording of the announcements are poor. There seem to be no other announcements except in special circumstances such as apologising for operational issues (which I didn’t catch) or manual announcements such as this one. The announcement system seems to be dual-zoned allowing for intelligible announcements on both platforms simultaneously, as well as having a precedence such that less important announcements are “auto-ducked“. If you want to hear what the announcements sound like acoustically, here are two examples.

Train departures are shown on passenger information displays including estimated time out. This time seems to be based on the track distance the train is from the station and has been seen to be woefully incorrect especially when there is a hold-up on the network. As of now, there is no real-time data for the Metro when using transport apps either, which is a bit unfortunate.

A seating area is provided on the platform with nice wooden benches rather than the harsh metal ones of most rail stations. I would hope given the Metro’s frequency that these benches don’t need to be used … but good to have nonetheless especially for the less able and elderly.

If you look really closely, there are powerpoints as well, but there are probably not for commuter use.

While stations and trains are initially attended by staff, in the future, this arrangement may well change. There are interactive video emergency help points which have a customer information option and an emergency option. The LCD screen can show video from the remote operator, while an embedded camera can see the caller, for a more “human” unattended service.

On platform, there is a small monitor as well which isn’t always logged in. When it is, it seems to show an outdoor surveillance camera feed, so staff on the platform can get a gauge of what the crowding is like outside the station.

At the Epping to Chatswood rail line stations and above-ground stations, half-height platform screen doors are used. The screen doors are made with glass panels, with some rather odd sayings including the stylised M-logo. The screen doors operate automatically in synchronisation with the train doors, with LED lanterns to indicate when they are moving (i.e. blinking).

If you’re wondering, the glass comes from QingDao JinJing in China. Glad to know we’re supporting local industry … not. Maybe that’s why it’s $1b under budget.

At the new underground stations, full height PSDs are used, to better insulate against noise and keep the thermal comfort of the waiting area. In-ground LED strips light up as the train approaches, and decals similar to those used on MTR are used to remind passengers to exit in the middle and enter from the sides.

In the case of the full height doors, the indicator lantern is central above the doors, with the out of service indicator underneath that indicates when a door has been locked out of service (i.e. due to fault).

In case of emergency (e.g. train emergency door release operated), there may be a need to open the external PSDs. In order to do that, the green emergency handle (seen from the edge) needs to be used. This is all relatively common amongst most driverless metro systems. Platform gaps are much reduced, so many users can wheel on (with care) without requiring a ramp.

Carriage Amenities

Once onboard, we are greeted with the fresh smell of “new train” and a layout that is familiar to those who may have used metro services overseas. The train has a single-deck configuration flanked by cloth-covered seats (for comfort) on either side of the carriage. The majority of the deck is reserved for standing room, with spaces for wheelchairs and a limited number of differently coloured priority seats available. I had a seat on a fully packed Metro service and I feel that the seat pitch is perhaps a bit narrower than the regular trains – it feels just a little more “squishier”.

The carriage designs feature a wide bulkhead, for easy “walkthrough” access from end to end of the train. As the train is driverless, it’s possible to get a view out the front and back of the train, although there is still some emergency driving provisions which remain locked away during normal operation.

For those who are standing, there are various grab bars and hand-holds available.

Passenger information displays include the ceiling-mounted LED matrix displays and over-door LCD displays. The train has voice announcements and warning tones, although these often failed to fire and the train was sometimes indicating it was at a different station entirely or threatening to open/close doors while in motion. Needless to say, this did not affect the safety too much as there are redundant indications of door opening/closing and location can be ascertained by looking out the window. Announcements are helpful, indicating which side the doors will be opening on among other things – here are some acoustic audio samples (as I couldn’t get a decent T-coil signal, which I suspect is perhaps specific to the help point):

When it does work, the regular display includes the date, time and progress along the line. Periodically, the display may switch to pink and display the estimated time to other major stops along the line.

At interchange stations, information about interchanges appears on the display.

The LED bar above the door is worth paying attention to, as it flashes red as the doors are closing or opening, shows solid green while the doors are open and stays solid white if the doors are locked in the closed position.

Emergency exits are provided at each end of the train, with the labelling strongly suggesting that the network does not have any loops as the directions are fixed.

There are still some people who may be a little leery of boarding a driverless train even though they have (generally) proven to be extremely safe. But for those who might have an emergency, help points are located close to the door along with the carriage number. There appears to be T-coil service as well, although I couldn’t receive a decent signal from the PA system, it may just refer to the help point only.

On the opposing pillar, the emergency door release handle is available. This particular design appears to be a two-stage design requiring staff intervention before door release is granted – an interesting way to handle improper activation but I wonder if it is unconditionally safe in all emergencies.

Finally, for even more safety, it seems there are ionisation smoke detectors along the whole train and a fire extinguisher stowed underneath the seats near the bulkhead.

The Network and Rolling Stock

The metro consists of eight new stations – Tallawong (previously Cudgegong Road/Ponds), Rouse Hill, Kellyville, Bella Vista, Norwest, Hills Showground (formerly Showground Road), Castle Hill and Cherrybrook. From there, the line connects to the existing Epping to Chatswood rail-link (which I visited during launch in 2009) which has been converted to medium capacity metro.

As the metro moves underground, it’s not possible to record GPS data there, however, in the above ground section, GPS data was recorded with difficulty. I suspect the design of the train cabin impedes the ability for GPS signals to enter or somehow the train generates interference within or close to the L1 band. My phone which usually has great GPS reception being able to use almost all GNSS systems had difficulties maintaining a lock all day. My Garmin eTrex10 reported a poor quality solution but was able to make the above recording, with a 5-second averaged top speed of about 106km/h, pretty close to the 110km/h advertised.

The system is standard gauge (as most systems are) but the track construction is a mixture of ballasted concrete sleepers and slab track sections with vibration-reducing rubber.

Overhead wiring appears to be done to a similar standard as to the regular heavy-rail services, so I suspect they are running 1500V DC electrification. The conductors are doubled throughout the lengths of aerial sections, although inside tunnels, it seems a solid overhead conductor is employed which looks similar to a rail suspended from the roof.

Rolling stock seems to be six single-deck electric multiple units with three sets of doors on each side.

The stock features four-digit carriage numbers printed outside and near the emergency help points inside, but are not as prominent as on the heavy rail fleet. The side of the train also carries the MTS/MTR logo, clearly showing its “heritage”. I could not find the maker plate within the usual places in the carriage, but the door sills do have the Alstom logo clearly visible.

As the train is automatic, front and rear areas of the train are accessible. The back-up driving console is kept closed unless required in case of emergency. Trackside signalling uses small LED lanterns which provide a clear stop/go-direction aspects. Along the track length, there are a few places for trains to cross over, but with the labelling in the train being fixed as to one end of the train being towards Chatswood and the other towards Tallawong, I suspect that the network has no loops at all, being just linear segments of track.

Turnaround of the trains is very rapid. At Tallawong, the trains electronically switch ends without any noticeable disruption – a few older overseas retrofit systems can take a minute or two and blink the lights as if the whole train was rebooting. These seem to do it with no fuss. At the Chatswood end, staff ushered everyone off the train, but the train does a turnaround by driving into the siding just ahead of the platform, as the points change and the train reverses out to the adjacent platform.

Looking externally, the train seems to have a different pantograph design to what we are used to. This one is a half-pantograph which has a seemingly wide range of travel.

Despite this, while looking closely at some of the fleet, I had some level of concern when I saw this pantograph on one of the units. Notice how the carbon running shoes seemingly have worn quite significantly, concentrated near the centre. This suggests to me that perhaps the overhead wiring “stagger” (i.e. how it sways from side to side to even out the wear) may not be quite right. For such a young service, this level of wear seems unusual – but then again, this could have been a test train that did many many miles. The big risk is that the carbon block is completely consumed resulting in line welding, taking down the overhead wiring entirely (as it famously caused a rail meltdown in the past) or damaging the overhead wiring, causing damage to other pantographs, which in turn cause further damage to the wiring.

As the rail network relies on passenger screen doors to keep passengers safe, alignment of the train to the screen doors is critical. A certain tolerance is often allowed, but in the case of the first train that came in to pick me up from Tallawong, it failed to align itself to the platform correctly. This provided everyone a laugh as it was caught on video by the enthusiast in front of me. The laughs further continued as the train reversed too much … then had to advance before getting it “in the zone”.

While a lot of people like to claim this is unacceptable, I personally think such teething issues are quite normal for driverless trains. Depending on the way the train is designed, it may only have a limited amount of inputs to gauge variables such as whether the track is wet and slippery or dry and whether the train is heavily loaded or light. Many systems have calibration data which is based on test runs which provide an understanding of the unchanging variables – such as where to (ideally) stop and what the gradient, route and speed limits may be. As a result, when the system hasn’t quite been tuned enough, occasional overshoots or undershoots are normal – being there when the Singapore MRT East-West line was being retrofitted with driverless technology, much worse results were typical. Likewise, with MTR’s rushed introduction of the South Island Line (which I visited merely months after opening), the train would overshoot at every station rather than once or twice in a whole run. Count yourself lucky here, Australia!

But when it does overshoot, it seems the system is either too timid at recovery, or too aggressive. As a result, sometimes it backs up but not quite enough. Other times it goes too far. So normally two retries is the lucky number here, whereas the South-Island line in Hong Kong normally only required one retry. It’s all about balancing the speed at which the train can stop and go (to reduce time spent “aligning”) and avoid sudden changes in acceleration (jerk) which can knock people off their feet and cause accidents. While some people think such a problem is simple as the train knows its position to millimetric accuracy, the truth is that the response of the train in terms of its lag and inertia, added with the constraints that humans are fragile and sensitive, really makes it more challenging than it appears. Regardless, this is something that normally gets tuned in soon afterwards and is nothing to worry about.

If you want to hear what the motor sounds of the rolling stock are like, I’ve made a magnetic flux recording you can listen to here. This recording picks up the T-coil announcements as well, but misses out on the noises of the commuters, which is preferable.

Because I’m a bit of a nerd, I decided to carry along a Windows Tablet and my Accelerometer Microphone to measure the accelerations in the train cabin at 800Hz. Blu-tacking the unit to the ground, aligned along the axis of travel, I have isolated just the acceleration X component channel to understand what the acceleration and deceleration profiles are like. I believe the numbers should be correct … but don’t quote me on them!

For the ride from Chatswood to Tallawong, the overall profile looked as follows. Note a lot of “zero” because of the dwell times due to operational issues at the time.

The typical acceleration profile looks as above – a rather gentle rise to a “fixed” 0.1G acceleration until the target speed is reached, then the motors cut-out. The motors and brakes cut in and out as necessary to maintain track speed limits (much like cruise control in a car) until reaching near the station when the brakes are applied at about -0.8G. Just prior to stopping, there seems to be a “blip” in the acceleration, which appears to be normal, followed by the train actually coming to a halt and “oscillating” as the couplers and suspension jostle about.

Looking closer at another develeration profile, we can see the same “blip” along with the oscillation more clearly. The oscillation is with about 0.5s period.

If the train has overshot/undershot the stop, the realignment profile looks something like this – we can tell the train came to a stop, followed by a dwell, then another short movement and a stop. In this dwell, the MTR system normally announces for people to “hold onto the handrail”, but our metro does not.

Tallawong station is slightly odd, as we can see there is a track on the left side which has no platform attached to it. This is the “phantom” Platform 1, as the remaining two platforms are labelled 2 and 3.

Looking further up the track, leads to the yard just beyond Tallawong station that is the depot where trains “rest” when not in use. The rightmost track in the image is likely for reversing or shunting operations only. As all of the systems are networked including the cameras, help-points and other infrastructure, control is centralised in an operations centre at Tallawong.

Here is my full-ride time-lapse video, sped up by 10x:

Operational Issues

By now, it’s no doubt you’ve heard of the Metro’s first day as being overcrowded and perhaps even somewhat bungled. It seems like Aussies love a good whinge and social media makes complaints spread like wildfire … so perhaps let me add my “moderated” fuel to the fire.

The complaint of overcrowding is perhaps justified. Being used to the luxury of double-deck heavy rail carriages that carry perhaps 60-80% more people, this level of “crush loading” is perhaps rarely experienced outside of peak time. But I think the people complaining are forgetting that this is because of the attraction of a new system providing free rides, so overcrowding is an expectation. Being a Sunday service, frequencies are in the 10-minute per service as planned, thus exacerbating the issue. If you take a trip overseas to other Metro systems, you’ll actually find that this level of crowding is not exceptional, and so perhaps you might need to live in the knowledge that you’ll have to stand for a 42-minute commute in close proximity to others – so hopefully everyone remembers to be considerate of their fellow passengers.

I suppose it would be nice to have more capacity – but with a system that has its patronage yet to be proven, it’s hard to be sure. The alternative is an over-cost, under-utilised system which would do a public-private partnership no good in terms of being profitable. It seems that platforms do have some space where the trains may be expanded in length by one or two carriages, if the appropriate PSD equipment were fitted and stopping points adjusted.

The next most common complaint was that of service intervals and being “stuck” or “stranded” at certain stops during the day. In truth, several incidents occurred during the launch day, some of which are the fault of the Metro, others not so much. Issues with getting train alignments with doors as noted earlier slowed down service but only slightly. Bigger impacts included a parent losing their child resulting in this message flashing up on screens, a failure of doors on a train and people getting things stuck in the gap.

I think the Metro may be partly to blame, but as an engineer, I understand and respect that things don’t always go to plan and things break. As long as an adequate response is in place, then everything is fine. They may have taken a little longer than people would have liked to address the issue, and owing to the nature of the railways, this means services across the whole line are held up. But this is the thing – the system is designed to be safe, and in the end, nobody was critically injured by the system and that to me is a big win. You might think this is setting the bar very low – but consider that the system only has a limited number of inputs and must remain safe under a lot of perhaps unforeseen scenarios which humans will throw at it, and I think it did its job. Unlike human drivers – after a delay, there is no “risk taking” in overspeeding to try and catch up to timetable (as is a problem in Japan due to their strict schedule adherence failure penalties leading to derailments in the past). Likewise, trains didn’t move with open doors either.

But this does remind users to be considerate of others – holding the doors on a train on a service which relies on short headways to make capacity will disrupt the network entirely. So don’t do this. I don’t know if the doors have beam sensors or if they just try to shut and retry if they fail – but whatever the case may be, it tries to keep humans as safe as possible. If you should ever get stuck inbetween the PSD and the train, open the doors with the emergency exit lever immediately – this should stop the train from attempting to pull away which could lead to serve harm.

I do wonder why there isn’t more education on the characteristics which distinguish driverless trains from their regular brethren – there’s no point in having all this safety equipment if people don’t learn how to use it!

On the subject of doors – door sequencing is also important. I caught one train where one of the doors opened ahead of the others – I don’t know the cause but it shouldn’t happen. Likewise, there was a yard-bound train that pulled into Tallawong and sat for minutes with the doors shut, before opening them to release relatively “relieved” passengers. Signage is an issue for yard-bound trains as they’re not clearly marked and passengers may board anyway.

But the biggest issue is the potential to be wedged in the door. On several trains pulling into Tallawong, I witnessed the doors opening for about 10 seconds before shutting to the surprise of many commuters. Then the doors re-opened a few seconds later.

This would not have been so bad if it were not for the fact the passenger information system onboard the trains was also not performing correctly. In a number of instances, the train was showing it was pulling into the wrong stop, announcing the wrong doors, announcing door opening/closing while running along the track or being absolutely dead silent with no door chimes at all. Without these cues and without education on the visual cues, people may get themselves into sticky situations.

The LED displays also proved to be somewhat funny as some of the messages seemed to have randomly capitalised words. I still don’t know exactly why.

Still on the subject of doors, when a door malfunctions and is locked out, the train actually does announce that the door is out of service on the screens. Unfortunately, the train still opens its doors which leads to confused passengers staring at a shut PSD. Luckily no passengers felt the need to grab the emergency door release handle, as that may well have halted the network in some way.

On one or two trains, I witnessed the LCD over the doors being blacked out entirely.

The way the Metro is arranged at Chatswood, passengers arrive on Platform 2 where they can walk across to Platform 1 to catch a train towards the city. This is a convenient set-up, but in the case of the “free ride” day, this resulted in people continuing on their journey without tapping on and perhaps incurring a default fare as they tapped out (or evading a fare). This part of the arrangement wasn’t well thought out. I tried to do a “bounce” at the Chatswood end, but the staff would not let me ride the turnaround … oh well.

Because of the confluence of modes at Chatswood, the interchange will likely be very busy. The logos … somehow remind me to do some mountain-biking …

It also seems that not all the equipment at the new interchanges is operating correctly.

In the end, it seems first impressions do matter and some people seem to have left the Metro with perhaps less-than-favourable opinions. Part of the reason is that many of the elderly found the service difficult to use as they require seating for a long journey, but there are very few reserved seats and fewer people willing to give their seat up. Others were unimpressed as they were already reaping the benefits of the >8km fare band on the Bus mode, and changing over to Train mode fares would cost them more. Combine the two, and it can be seen why some may prefer to trade time for comfort and desperately hope that the bus service is not reduced or removed entirely.

Some people were rather misinformed, thinking that the Metro service would cost more for some reason. It is under the Opal system and charged as a train – fares are identical.

I’ve documented some of the issues as I went along in this “vlog” style video:

Other Changes

If you thought the Metro opening day was all about the Metro, you’d be wrong. A lot of work has gone into supporting the Metro including service adjustments, route renumbering and a lot of construction.

For example, at some Metro stations, there are new locked bike parking areas.

New parking stations and signs were set-up.

People had to be informed about the service changes, which included putting up a lot of signs, handing out pamphlets amongst other initiatives.

New interchange facilities had to be established in other places – including this rather nifty solar-powered e-Ink based real-time updating bus timetable sign. Now, it’s no problem if you don’t have your phone with you. New Night Bus services had to be introduced to provide time for engineering adjustments.

Other transport services are not resting on their laurels either. Chatswood now has lines on the ground to remind passengers how to board and where the doors are.

Passenger information displays have been updated to show carriage loading for the trains which support load measurement (Waratah, Waratah Series 2). Instead of only seeing it on your phone – now you can plan where to board while you’re on the platform. It’s these changes which are data driven that are truly revolutionising the convenience of public transport.

Ending My Day and This Blog Post

I practically spent the whole day on the Metro, hopping off at Hills Showground to run an errand, while chatting to a few people along the way, some just general members of the public showing an interest in public transport. If there’s one thing we agreed on, it’s the fact that it’s good that we have another option – that includes not only the Metro but the On-Demand public transport services. It’s something the Hills district have deserved but could be a double-edged sword that drives the sprawl even further out.

Returning to Tallawong station by about 5pm, I sat on the platform conversing with staff for almost an hour, reporting observations and asking them what other people had said. In all, I watched the crowds die down dramatically as the sun set, with the Metro station now being more sedate and calm compared to the morning rush. It seems that news had spread all over social media, as many were all too happy to criticise the system based on a few hiccups on its first day of service. Sensationalist news tends to get the clicks …

But if you ask me what I thought of the Metro’s first day … my answer would probably lie along the lines of “It could have been better, but it could have been much worse.” On the whole, I think the Metro had a decent first day – it operated safely and it operated as reliably as you would expect a system on its debut to run. Compared to say the launch of the Millennium train which caused network-crippling delays as it locked up under overhead power sags, this was a smooth run.

In the end, on a Sunday timetable operating with greater than anticipated crowds, it delivered people to places they may not have been able to visit as quickly or directly as they would have before. It is the beginning of new transport possibilities, and things should get better as they continue to refine the system.

I think the biggest failing is with the door timings and the passenger information systems. Commuter education could probably do with some help as well. But as most engineers will say – that’s a “software” problem, which is much easier to fix than a hardware problem. In that sense, I feel that the Metro has passed its most important test to date.

The Metro Night Bus service will take over evening operations on Sunday through to Wednesday for the first six months, to allow for time for the staff to make adjustments to the system. I think this is needed, and it’s good that it has been planned for, so that the system can eventually reach the four minute headways promised.

There was a lot of discussion about the Stage 2 developments, which will bring the line into the city and move the Bankstown line over to medium-capacity metro. While some think it will be a good idea and is a way to take the line away from Sydney Trains into a public-private partnership, I think the issue of capacity and travel time perhaps needs to be considered. With a 42-minute ride into Chatswood, the Bankstown line is another 45 minutes or so from the city under present-day operations. Add the segment in the middle and it will be close to two hours for an end to end ride – for a metro that has very few seats and has to serve more people, I think this may not be an ideal scenario for passenger comfort nor capacity. It also puts the Y-segment between Bankstown and Liverpool, and Bankstown and Lidcombe in potential jeopardy – will it be a shuttle service or will there be no service at all? Only time will tell, but I’m not sure it’s a great idea …

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Visited: Vivid Sydney 2019 (24 May: Circular Quay Precinct)

As someone who likes to take photos from time to time, I couldn’t miss yet another Vivid Sydney light festival. The festival opened last night on Friday 24th May and runs through to 15th June. Even though I’m extremely busy around this time, I thought I’d take the time and brave the opening night crowds to visit the Circular Quay precinct.

This year, it seems we have fewer exhibits and a slightly smaller crowd than in previous years. The installations seem to be even more interactive than in the past, which can be a bit of an issue when there are significant crowds, but it does get more people “involved” in the artistic experience.

As usual, I toted my camera and slightly-wonky tripod along to get some photos.


My night began at Circular Quay station. Looking out, the difference from previous years was immediate – there are a lot more spot beams in the sky. Wow.

With night photography, especially with so many coloured LED lights around, getting the right white balance is not easy. By default, the image comes out very much blue – so it’s a great idea to shoot in RAW.

I couldn’t help but pay attention to the technology involved. This is a Light Sky motorised beam light, which looks like it could be an AQUABEAM440 or similar. I also spotted a DragonWave AirPair microwave link system as well.

While Vivid Sydney is all about lights, there’s always the unintentional light show of the city, including the traffic, as well to contend with.

This year, it seems the health and safety guys have decided to go with industrial-style danger signs. That’s new … but I suspect it won’t affect anyone who is sufficiently drunk and considering entering the water. Fences and guards remain on patrol.

While walking around, I tried to photograph some of the exhibits I found interesting – but I definitely didn’t photograph all of them.

This exhibit titled “What is a City but the People?” (25) seemed to attract quite a few people taking selfies. A long exposure captures the people interacting with the exhibit – perhaps a key point of the message conveyed in the title of the artwork.

Even the event signage got an upgrade, with colour-LED matrix displays displaying animated slides.

On entering the Royal Botanic Gardens precinct, the hedges spelt out a rather provocative phrase – “Bite Me”. Did someone get fired?

Right next to it was the Empyrean (29) exhibit which features an interesting web of lights which flash in a sequenced manner. The artist claims it “explores the correlation between cosmic events and mechanical workings of the human brain” but I digress.

But it seems people do enjoy it – or at least, this visitor who filmed the installation for a while.

Continuing along, KA3323 (30) caught my eye. There’s no disguising it – that’s a C-band mesh dish dressed in LED tubes. The installation wasn’t quite working as expected, but it’s apparently motorised for “scanning” the skies. I just liked that it somewhat resembles a flower in its current incarnation.

But I don’t think we’ll be watching any TV in the direction it’s pointed.

We Are One” (30) was next door, which spelt out the word “MANY” as I passed by. It’s interesting as this is done quite literally by manipulating light with mirrors.

The magic is plain for all to see through the perspex side window in the shipping container. But line yourself up properly, and you’ll see a “1”. Quite cool.

Harmony (35) seemed to draw in a lot of crowds as an interactive exhibit. Children (mostly) loved to jump on the pads and control the streams of light that make up the “tree”.

Circa (38), rather appropriately named, consists of a series of LED rings spaced along the lake. When viewed end-on, various mesmerizing patterns are formed.

Firefly Field (39) was by far the highlight. Who would’ve known that a field consisting of a multitude of point light sources moving pseudo-randomly would look so mesmerizing. A photo doesn’t really do it justice, although long exposure does result in a firefly trail.

Interested, I looked closer to see how it works. It seems that perhaps the point light sources are the end of fibre-optic threads that are tied/weighed down. The core consists of what appears to be a light source, servo with a controller that rotates the head randomly, with the fibre-optic threads waving randomly in the wind and due to its inherent springiness. Clever!

Dancing Grass (41) was also interesting, as it looked like a very sparse field of giant grass, each being like an air-inflated sock lit up from the inside. It makes the city look smaller, perspective wise, although it didn’t seem to dance very much. A few blades seemed to have succumbed to overly curious visitors.

The exhibit on Customs House is titled Under the Harbour (20), a very colourful presentation which I found rather artistic. I liked it more than the projections on the MCA and the sails.

Samsung Electric Playground (S1) and Galaxy Studio (S2) was definitely extremely popular. There were long queues to enter, but even staying just outside was rather impressive. But it seems their Neon sign has suffered a malfunction … how unfortunate.

There was an exhibition involving LED sticks projecting images relying on persistence of image. Using long shutter speeds is necessary to capture such images – but the resolution and quality of the images was rather impressive.

Great effort Samsung – it was so impressive that I heard a few people in the crowd wanted to buy them.

The projections on the MCA (Let Me Down – 17) was less impressive from my perspective. But I couldn’t stand and enjoy it much – the crowds were just too dense and inconsiderate visitors kept jumping in front of the lens. Never underestimate how much a wide-angle lens can see – ducking doesn’t keep you out of the frame!!!

The projection on the sails is titled Austral Flora Ballet and seems to have images of warratah/bottle-brush dancing to motion capture mixed with various other textures and colours, some seemingly “underwater”. It’s easier to photograph from across the quay, but the downside is the propensity for boats to photobomb the shot – but I didn’t mind this one because #ilovesydney.

Ballerina (11) drew quite a large audience as well, reminding me of a zoetrope. With many individual figures timed to music, it is quite a large-scale installation. Some people were intent on photographing the row of figures, while others were more concerned with imitating the figures.

The row of figures had a great position – you can see the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House depending on which side you look from.

Goo (8) is an example of the interactive exhibits which you might see. In this exhibit, people dance in front of Kinect sensors which causes a retro-avatar to move in time. Exhibits like this seem to draw in the kids.

Nostalgia Above (6) in a laneway in The Rocks is quite reminiscent of exhibits in previous years. Still cool though.

The Argyle Street tunnel is lit-up again this year, and what a highlight – 30 Years of Art and Animation (P1) sponsored by Pixar Animation Studios really makes the most of the large “screen” formed by the bridge, with familiar characters and storyboard sketches on show. Lots of people lying on the ground to soak in their childhood memories, this exhibit also serves as a bit of promotion for Toy Story 4. A good way to end my night in the Circular Quay precinct.


The Circular Quay precinct is where the bulk of the exhibits are, and this year, the Royal Botanic Gardens continues to impress. The Samsung Electric Playground was also rather interesting, as was Customs House. It seems many people engaged with exhibits – interactive or not, as it seems to be truly a “selfie” generation. Unfortunately, this does mean the occasional inconsiderate person jumping in front of lenses, kicking tripod legs, and bumping chains/handrails. But those who have been before with their camera gear know all about this.

I look forward to visiting the remaining precincts at Darling Harbour and Chatswood when I get the opportunity to.

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RoadTest: IDT SDAWIR03 Wireless Flow Rate, Humidity & Temperature Sensing Evaluation Kit

It’s been relatively quiet recently on the blog as I’ve been absolutely inundated with things to do, both from work and my own hobby interests. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a rare opportunity to run three parallel RoadTest reviews, which has kept be quite busy, along with the usual family “crisis” interruptions.

The first of these three reviews concerns the IDT SDAWIR03 Wireless Flow Rate, Humidity & Temperature Sensing Evaluation Kit. This kit features the IDT ZWIR4512 6LoWPAN “sub-GHz” radio modules, HS3001 Humidity and Temperature sensor and FS2012 Gas Flow Sensor.

The system consists of a hub based upon a Raspberry Pi Zero-W and bespoke sensor cube that can even run off two CR2032 cells (using the humidity and temperature sensor alone). The device can locally show the measured values and upload them to an Amazon Web Services cloud instance (although I did not try this).

In my RoadTest review delivered just this morning, I delve into the state of IoT connectivity, examine the IDT SDAWIR03 kit including its internals and show the full set-up user experience. I test it in real-life conditions and put it under the spectrum analyser and oscilloscope to learn more about its radio emissions, power consumption, I2C bus transactions.

You can read the summary review at element14.

No spoilers to be found here, perhaps except for this one – if you live in Australia, this kit is probably not for you as it operates outside the 900MHz ISM band allocation of 915-928MHz by default and cannot be easily changed.

For more details, as usual, see the individual detailed review blogs:

[or download the zipped PDF backup of the reviews – 14.3MiB]
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