Premier Barry O’Farrell, accompanied by Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, turns a sod to mark the contract signing. Photo: Carlos FurtadoAbout 1000 Olympic swimming pools of crushed rock will be churned through by the four tunnel boring machines that will work on the north-west rail link, after the $1.15 billion contract for the machines was signed on Tuesday.

The contract marks the latest step in the eventual privatisation of large parts of Sydney’s train network, as the north-west rail link will be built as a separate privately run entity that is ultimately planned to take over other Sydney lines.

In a morning news conference at Bella Vista, Premier Barry O’Farrell and Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian said the first boring machine would be in the ground by the end of next year and tunnelling would take until the middle of 2017.

“We have now passed the point of no return,” Mr O’Farrell said.

The tunnel boring contract has been highly controversial among public transport advocates and some residents of the north-west because it specifies the tunnels will have an internal diameter of six metres, too small to accommodate Sydney’s existing double-deck train fleet.

This means that the line, to be run as a public-private partnership, will always remain incompatible with the rest of Sydney’s train network.

It also means that if the line is eventually extended south from Chatswood across Sydney Harbour and connected to the Bankstown line and Illawarra lines, as the O’Farrell government says it will do, these lines too will be only able to take single-deck trains run by the north-west rail link’s private operator.

The tunnel contract was won by a consortium including Thiess, John Holland and Spanish firm Dragados.

The four machines – required to dig 14 kilometres of tunnel for the 23-kilometre new line between Epping and Rouse Hill – will operate around the clock.

They are each 140 metres long, weigh 1000 tonnes, and are capable of carving through 120 metres of rock a week. They require 15 people to operate at any one time.

Two machines will run from a planned station at Bella Vista to Cherrybrook. Another two will dig from Cherrybrook to Epping.

Shadow transport spokeswoman Penny Sharpe said the decision to bore tunnels too narrow to accommodate double-deck trains would limit the development of Sydney’s train network.

“This means commuters on the Richmond line never being able to be joined up to the north-west rail link, and the Parramatta to Epping rail link will not be able to be built,” Ms Sharpe said.

Action for Public Transport representative Jim Donovan said the government had not explained how much work would need to be done to make the existing Epping to Chatswood line compatible with the new privately run railway.

Mr O’Farrell said: “The people of the north-west have waited far too long for this historic day – now it’s all hands on deck as we deliver Australia’s biggest public transport infrastructure project.”

Peter Hewitt from the Beecroft Cheltenham Civic Trust said he disagreed with the decision to have the north-west rail link take over the Epping to Chatswood line before another harbour crossing was built.

“All the people from the north and north-west will now be getting on board the north-west rail link at Epping and queuing up at Chatswood station trying to get onto north shore trains, which are already very crowded,” Mr Hewitt said.

“I think it is short-sighted,” he said of the decision to dig smaller tunnels, “but governments are elected to make decisions”.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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