Nerve Center for Sydney Metro railways: The Rail Management Centre at Sydney Central station.
Wednesday, April 22: Parking was non-existent around Sydney Central, so Lance dropped me off to find a place to park while I went inside to meet Bob Stack. Bob is the guy who assembles the TOC Manual data for CityRail and is an expert draftsman and fine model railroader and has an exceptionally sharp sense of humour as well.
Bob met me at the ARHS bookstore, where I promptly dropped $90 on old modeling magazines, and was threatening to spend even more until Lance showed up. We went outside to wait at a non-descript, unmarked door where we were soon met by the fellow who is the top-dog manager for RailCorp's Rail Management Centre We rode an elevator to the third floor and entered a large conference room where CityRail and RailCorp managers meet to plan "incident recovery" (at BNSF, we'd call it a "war room," but our host reminded us that in Australia, such terminology is not welcomed--yet another fundamental difference between War-loving Americans and Peace-loving Aussies).
The room featured a large display of RailCorp's network and a group of PC monitors that could view any closed circuit camera (there are over 8300 of them) at CityRail stations. We then entered the control centre itself through a large rotating cylindrical security door--just like the ones installed at our BNSF dispatching center following 9/11. Once inside, it was impossible to miss the overview display of the CityRail network that took up an entire wall. Our host informed us that CityRail operates a couple thousand trains a day and handles more than a million passengers. All this is dispatched by only a half-dozen controllers, who each manage several switch towers and signalmen among the many routes in and out of the Metro area--dispatchers who don't control or direct, but don't give any actualy authority to train or maintenance crews!
Right next to the controllers, CityRail security managers dispatched and managed several hundred railway police officers as well as monitored station cameras. The cameras were monitored by the rail control managers as well--one thing Lance and I hadn't considered before is what a different beast a large commuter operation is than a freight railway: it was important for controllers to be able to meter the flow of trains through stations depending upon passenger loads and crowds that could present hazardous situations. It isn't unheard of for passengers on crowded platforms to accidentally fall into the paths of trains; unfortunately, it is not an uncommon event for the folks at CityRail to deal with suicides.
Sandstone clock tower of the 1906 Sydney Central station. At least a couple hundred feet tall, and we were about to climb all the way up. . .
From the RMC, Bob had arranged a very special treat for us: a chance to climb up, up, up inside the clock tower of Central Station. It was our version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge walk, and we didn't have to suit up in special grey and black outfits, wear communications headsets, or pay $180 bucks, either! Through a door, up a small flight of stairs, and then look straight up: there ya go, a narrow stairway around the walls of the tower, 174 steps to where the stairs end. But that wasn't all: through another narrow doorway, and up another small set of stairs. This opened out onto a floor with a view down onto the railway and city below. To the east, the skyscrapers of downtown formed a narrow canyon; to the west, a maze of trackage converged on the station, with a half-dozen trains moving in and out at any one time. Now, up a spiral staircase and through another door; and through one more door and we were at clock level, not much of a view of the city, but a great look at the innerworkings of the four-faced clock millions of commuters glance at as they dash to their trains. Up another set of spiral stairs, and one more open floor with an even better view of the city and trains below. Above that, yet one more set of stairs that open into the top dome (no view here). It was an exhilirating view, and an even moreso exhilirating walk back down. . .around 300 steps back to where we started.
Hot and sweaty in the humid, sometimes rainy air, we returned to the concourse of the station to grab a train one stop west, to Redfern, where we'd detrain and walk a couple of blocks to visit Sydney signal box, which controls movements through Central station. First, a bottle of water, and while I waiting in line at Hungry Jack's near the concourse, I noticed a beautiful, stylish series of murals depicting the New South Wales railways in the 1950s--heroic in scope, with massive Garratts bringing in trainloads of wheat from the countryside to the city silos. I wonder how many passengers through Central pay these any notice?
Inside the Sydney signal box: controlled mayhem. . .
We spent around 45" watching a quartet of signalmen line signals, communicate to trains, other towers, and the controller slipping dozens of trains in and out of several converging lines amazingly complex in their layout. But they made it look easy, and had time to chat with us about our own rail jobs in the states (of highest interest: days off, holidays, and of course, pay). The signal board was a huge slate-grey fronted board much like I'd seen a dozen years ago at the Kansas City Terminal--and it was obsolete then. With a strictly analog display, the signalmen kept track of trains by a day-specific timetable in a three-ring binder before them. As trains departed from adjacent tower districts, the train number would appear on a digital display adjacent to the route it was traveling. For these guys, it was all old-hat; I was confused, though, with the big display of moving lights and "enter-exit" buttons--all manually controlled. Well, some of it manually controlled. Seems a computer is programmed to run some of the routes, but it isn't too reliable, so the signalmen usually put the board in manual.
Change is coming to this box and others in the CityRail system, as a CRT-displayed, mouse-operated replacement is being phased in. By the next time we visit Sydney, the big grey monster in the middle of the room will probably be replaced by a couple of desks with several computer monitors.
The platform flagman prepares to signal a departure from Central. . .
We caught a train back into Central and waited for an express out to Hornsby, on the far northern end of the Suburban Service (CityRail also operates Interurban services as far north as Newcastle). Bob lives a bit beyond Hornsby, at Mount Kuring-Gai, but his wife Deanne was going to meet us at Hornsby for dinner at the RSL club. Bob's position at RailCorp got us into the driver's compartment of our V-set electric train for the one-stop trip to Hornsby.
Freaky: streaking through the night with no headlight, only the station platforms at Rhodes Station light our way as we fly northward towards Hornsby. . .
Bob drove us back to Sydney and Lance retrieved his car from the parking garage. $56 for parking! Fuckin' A! We squeezed back into our tiny Formulae One motel room and took turns using the minimal floor space to pack for the trip home. It was after 1am when we turned in. But we still had another morning of railfanning ahead of us. . .