Sydney’s rail network moves over a million people a day. Discover how it all happens in new documentary ‘Inside Central Station: Australia’s Busiest Railway’.
Anthony Morris

10 Sep 2021 - 11:32 AM  UPDATED 10 Sep 2021 - 11:32 AM

How do you keep a city moving, all day every day?

Serving Australia’s largest city, Sydney’s rail system is Australia’s largest urban rail network. It’s a massive collection of parts – human and mechanical – that have to work together all day every day. When it’s working well, you should barely notice it: you step on the platform, the train arrives and takes you where you want to go. When it’s not working well? Those are the bumps that make Inside Central Station: Australia’s Busiest Railway so compelling.

Across 10 one-hour episodes, we’re taken behind the scenes at all levels of the network. And there are a lot of levels here, from massive once-in-a-lifetime maintenance works to late-night fights at unmanned stations. Simply getting through an average day is an achievement in itself, and there aren’t that many average days. Just seeing CCTV footage of a truckie manually lifting a set of lowered boom gates during a disruption to let cars drive through a crossing, then getting his own truck stuck on the gates as he drives through himself – all while he has no idea if a train is coming or not – creates the kind of tension a Hollywood thriller would kill for.

The numbers involved can be staggering. Sydney Trains has a 11,000 strong workforce running the network, with 115 people staffing the Rail Operations Centre (also known as The ROC) at full strength per shift. The network covers over 813 km of track, with 170 stations scattered across Sydney. 20,000 people pass through Central Station each peak, there are 1.3 million journeys across the network every day, and the security team deals with a new case every six minutes from over 12,000 CCTV cameras. With that many moving parts, it doesn’t take much to put the whole system at risk.

In the first episode alone, disruptions come from something as basic as a drunk person on a platform spilling garbage onto the tracks, and as major as a lightning strike that takes out a signal box controlling a large chunk of the network. These are the kinds of thing that can be easily predicted but hard to prevent; Sydney’s wild weather causes more than its fair share of disruptions, while at the other end of the scale, a fainting passenger is a serious issue all by itself. And on a train network, one stopped train rapidly causes the trains behind to bank up (there’s rarely room to overtake on the tracks). Soon the whole network can be facing shutdown.

The trains might get all the attention – especially when they derail as one does in episode 2 – but first and foremost Sydney Rail is a system made up of people. Some are the human face of the organisation, such as the station staff (one likes his job because he “gets to use his personality”). More often we’re meeting those who work behind the scenes, whether it’s at The ROC looking at the big picture, the workers out maintaining the system, or the teams handling the massive job of overhauling the rail lines that run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Again, the numbers involved with the Harbour Bridge job are overwhelming. Ten years of planning comes down to 10 days of non-stop work where 400 workers put in 12,000 hours of labour. Putting in concrete slabs to form the new base of the rail line involves around 260 separate slabs, each one of which has to fit together to within millimetres on a bridge that’s nearing a hundred years old. And that’s before the weather steps in: “They’re standing on a giant, wet, electrical conductor” is not something you want to hear from a site manager during a thunderstorm.

While they’re rarely in the spotlight, the passengers themselves are a constant presence – and pressure – throughout the series. They have their own dramas too, like when one platform drunk person messes with the wrong passer-by and gets pummelled for his trouble (the security team member watching on CCTV dryly reports to police “the offender will be requiring an ambulance”). They’re not always a hinderance either: social media photos of queues outside stations during disruptions are used to gauge how many extra staff to send to help.

What comes through time and again in this series is the pride Sydney Trains workers take in keeping the system running smoothly. There’s no denying it’s a massive job. Narrator Shane Jacobson says at the start of every episode, “Every great city lives and breathes through its railway”; Inside Central Station: Australia’s Busiest Railway gives us a glimpse inside an organisation that’s practically a city in itself.

Inside Central Station: Australia’s Busiest Railway premieres at 7.30 pm on SBS and at SBS On Demand on Sunday 12 September, airing weekly. Watch the trailer now:

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