LUKE FRASER. The ‘Big Picture’ in infrastructure: even more depressing than the little picture?

As news broke recently that the Sydney Metro project would necessitate the closure of Sydney’s Bankstown rail line for a few months each year until well into next decade, the latest State Transport minister urged everyone to ‘look at the bigger picture’. 

But as Infrastructure Australia’s retired head of economic policy posted here last week[i], looking at the big picture in Sydney is the last thing the Minister should want: when we do so, we see a Metro built on a different dimensional gauge to Sydney’s Cityrail system: Sydney’s existing Cityrail train fleet doesn’t fit through the new tunnels bored, or line up with the new metro platforms. This breaks fundamental policies of rail interoperability, condemns Sydneysiders to frustrating transfers between two networks forever and, in all likelihood, reduces the capacity of Cityrail to move more people around the city in future[ii].

Austen reports that Sydney Metro has racked up around $30 billion in costs thus far, while a mooted extension out to Badgery’s Creek is purported to cost another $25 billion. Taking it to other parts of the city adds more billions, placing Cityrail at further operational risk.

Is this the ‘bigger picture’?

Metro illustrates a little-understood point about urban major transport infrastructure – hasty spending presents serious risks. Especially with big rail networks, if you make mistakes, it is not a matter of reasoning to oneself that ‘at least we built something’: the wrong decisions can send a public transport network and its city backwards, very quickly.

What is driving this mess?

Two macro factors are not coexisting at all happily in Australia:

  1. Post-mining boom, economists and finance markets have been determined to place as much money as possible into transport infrastructure projects, to offset plummeting mining sector spending. Statistics bear this shift out, beginning with the Rudd administration.
  1. Faced with being a vogue policy destination for billions in cash, the advisory deficit in the nation’s transport bureaucracies has been well and truly exposed: there are demonstrably few in key roles with an understanding of proper settlement planning, or transport pricing reform, or interoperability, or how care needs to be taken to avoid decisions that might actually set the cause of a city back, not forwards. Either that, or they know better but aren’t speaking up[iii] (in their partial defence, it can’t be easy having media-obsessed pollies and their handlers demanding ‘announceables’ every other day, but the only way out of this tumble dryer is to slow down and present solid policy options to elected leaders).

More optimistically, there appears nothing wrong with the ability of Senate committees, properly constituted and resourced, to get to the bottom of whether transport projects work, or not – stripping away all of the redactions and secrecy to ask some basic horse-sense questions. The Australian Senate doesn’t do much of this anymore. It should do more.

The recent Senate inquiry into the $2 billion dollar Perth Freight Link project told Canberra the project was not justified and it should pull Federal funding support. This comprehensive report[iv] stood in contrast to a wafer-thin 5-page Infrastructure Australia report from the previous year which expressed a ‘high level of confidence in the project’[v].

The challenging task for bodies like Infrastructure Australia is to straddle points one and two above – and try to stay ahead on the aggregate. Whatever the right balance is, we don’t have it yet. Sydney’s Metro is a symptom of that.

Yes, the pressure to spend big – and productively – is legitimate. But unless more is done to reinstate some measured thought, some competence and some settled planning into the infrastructure agendas of our major cities, Australia will find itself spending through the nose and going backwards.

Given all that is going on in the world, this is not a prudent position for governments to be in.

Luke Fraser is the founder and principal of a transport policy and investment advisory. In 2012 he was appointed to the board of the Prime Minister and Premiers Road Reform Project. Prior to this he was a national freight industry chief executive.

[i] http://johnmenadue.com/?tag=badgerys-creek

[ii] See the relevant Hansard excerpt where the now-Premier of NSW addresses these matters at http://www.aptnsw.org.au/cgi-bin/item.cgi?20130622Sat065402.txt speculation on the drivers of this decision at https://transportsydney.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/rail-expert-claims-infighting-led-to-decision-to-build-metros/ and one Sydney transport analyst’s assessment of the enormous productivity impact of break of rail loading gauge on the Metro and the city at http://www.smh.com.au/comment/dont-fall-for-bairds-train-bribe-20140611-zs46p.html

[iii] http://johnmenadue.com/?p=6441

[iv]http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/Perth_Freight_Link/Report

[v] http://infrastructureaustralia.gov.au/projects/files/WA-Perth-Freight-Link.pdf

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One Response to LUKE FRASER. The ‘Big Picture’ in infrastructure: even more depressing than the little picture?

  1. Mark Skinner says:

    When it gets to the point that a Senate Inquiry is the only way to get a reasonable policy outcome, you know we have just about reached the bottom of the barrel.

    This is the equivalent of company directors having to manage a company because company staff could not.

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