New South Wales has inked its biggest ever public private partnership deal as the state government awarded a $3.7 billion agreement to run what it says will be Australia’s first fully automated rapid transit rail network.

In a joint announcement, New South Wales Premier Mike Baird and Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian said the state had awarded the contract to operate the trains and systems for the North West Rail Link from the Sydney suburbs of Chatswood to Rouse Hill to Northwest Rapid Transit consortium consisting of John Holland, Leighton Contractors, MTR Corporation, UGL Rail Services and Plenary Group.

The project, which will involve the design, construction and commission of rail infrastructure as well as the procurement of rolling stock and operation, maintenance and financing of 23km of new track between Cudgegong Road to Epping and the upgrade of 13 km of existing track from Epping to Chatswood, is set to deliver a train every four minutes during peak hour and represents the largest ever public private contract by dollar value ever to be signed within New South Wales and the fifth largest such deal in the country, according to a listing on the Infrastructure Australia web site.

Having become popular throughout much of Australia in the 1990s, public private partnerships went out of fashion in New South Wales amid a string of project disappointments.

In 2006, for example, lower than expected traffic volumes caused the Sydney Motorway to go into insolvency only one year after opening, whilst the then Labour government was heavily criticised in 2007 for agreeing to pay Lane Cove tunnel operator Connector Motorways an extra $25 million to compensate for delays in surface road changes announced in December 2006 – payments the Sydney Morning Herald described as a ‘bribe’ and a ‘rort’.

Soon after coming into office in 2011, however, the new Liberal government re-embraced the model as part of efforts to  fund an ambitious infrastructure program without blowing out the state’s financial position.

Since then, one other deal – the $1 billion makeover of the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre Precinct – has been agreed upon, whilst contractual close for two more – Sydney Light Rail and the Northern Beaches Hospital – is expected later this year.

In a statement, Berejiklian welcomed the agreement and said the new project would transform and modernise the city’s transport system.

“The country’s first new fully-automated rapid transit trains are being designed to meet the needs of Sydney,” Berejiklian said.

“Our customers tell us that frequency of services is one of the most important factors when travelling on public transport – on the North West Rail Link, you won’t need a timetable, you’ll just turn up and go.”

The new trains are expected to come into service in the first half of 2019.