JOHN AUSTEN. NSW rail projects – a lot of explaining to do

Yet more questions arise about projects set off by former NSW Transport Minister now Premier Ms Berejiklian. This time about light rail. As for the port privatisations and metro, real answers are yet to come. The sooner a Commonwealth inquiry gets to the bottom of all this the better.  

The under-construction southeast light rail line in Sydney, from Kingford/Randwick through Central to Circular Quay is raising eyebrows. Even ignoring questions about incompatibility with Westconnex, the closure to traffic of the CBD’s main road and what happens at intersections, there remain substantial reservations such as noted in a recent NSW Audit Office report.

The report concluded that a $549m budget overrun of the project is largely due to underestimation of costs rather than additional functionality, reportedly contradicting previous claims by then NSW Transport Minister, later Treasurer, now Premier the Hon. Gladys Berejiklian MP. The media suggests the government had been advised of the reasons; ‘suggest’ because while the fact of advice became known under Freedom of Information the content remains secret. The media and Opposition ask: what did she know? [1]

Some may quibble about whether the blowout reflects underestimation of item costs or inclusion of more items. Whatever the reason, a probable root cause is the government’s failure to understand transport types.

Light rail, popular among ‘urbanists’ and in smaller cities, is not for everywhere or all tasks. You shouldn’t ask the ‘iron pony’ to do the ‘iron horse’s’ work; tasks of commuter or transit railways.

It works well in inner Melbourne, less so further out. In part this is due to a grid configuration in the CBD; similar to what experts recommend for buses. Sometimes reliance on line-of-sight noticeably slows it in the suburbs. Mixing with road traffic or waiting at traffic lights adds to frustration.

In Sydney the existing light rail line between the inner west and Central has substantial ridership, probably due to its speed on a disused freight rail line up to the harbour. However, the inbound ride then becomes much slower; the crawl along crowded streets to Central is unattractive.

While Ms Berejiklian was Transport Minister Sydney caught the light rail bug.

A southeast line to Central seemed a good fix to the desperate need for effective public transport from that area. It will assist in sorting out – removing – many underused buses clogging up the CBD; a result of a former administration’s bus infatuation. Controversy about the segment to Central is focused on collateral damage; reduced parklands, killing historic trees etc.

The idea behind the other segment, Central to Circular Quay along George St, is much less clear.

Other proposed light rail projects are in the Parramatta area. There the concept of converting an in-use commuter rail line is quite different to reusing an old freight line. It raises echoes of Sydney metro degrading the commuter rail system.

The proposed west metro, Parramatta-Sydney CBD, may supersede both southeast and Parramatta light rail. It could follow a similar route and may need to continue into the eastern suburbs. Cost aside this metro is not a bad idea; certainly far better than the one now under construction.

Light rail is also under construction in Newcastle. Its length, 2.3km, says much about the government’s attitude to transport in Australia’s 7th biggest city.

Accepting the current Transport Minister’s invitation to see the big picture: the totality of rail projects looks a mess. Metros are being built where commuter rail would be better, light rail is planned where metros could make sense. Newcastle is all but forgotten. All damage the commuter rail system and jeopardise its growth.

The appearance of a mess has not been rebutted by less than fulsome information about key rail issues. Official pronouncements on these share common features with other serious transport matters such as the sell-out of Newcastle Port.

Given this it is too much to expect real answers to light rail questions. Others reportedly called some responses on southeast light rail ‘wilfully misleading’, ‘calculated’ and ‘incompetent’. If true we don’t need more of them. [2]

Whatever one’s views on these claims or about government transparency, facts are stubborn things and transport facts often become all too evident. The public will find out much, even if only from experiencing the results.

A saving grace is that some government inflicted transport problems can be sorted out; albeit at additional expense after much angst, public displeasure and economic cost. Sydney’s CBD bus fiasco is an example.

However grace is less likely for the strategic mistakes that could be underway in Sydney transport. Such failures can generate problem after problem for many years; until either the city adapts perhaps many decades on or, when the drawbacks become so pervasive, policies are reversed – like the case of the Carr Government’s 1996 split of State Rail.

Unfortunately I suspect the southeast light rail cost blowout is symptomatic of strategic errors with more and varied problems to come; inside and outside light rail.

The Audit Office’s conclusion on southeast light rail was:

‘the ….project suffered similar problems to those we reported for other infrastructure projects. Common problems include tight timeframes without justification, project scope defined too narrowly, underestimated costs and overestimated benefits’. [3]

I think this is charitable.

The NSW government has a lot of explaining to do even if it hasn’t felt a need to date. The answer to the media’s question of what the Premier knew about the half billion dollar – thirty percent – cost blow-out for southeast light rail is the least of it.

A Commonwealth Parliamentary inquiry now could save much later heartache, dislocation, lost opportunity and wallet pain.

The rub for the Commonwealth: the Government’s mooted ‘city deal’, even if limited just to the several million people in western Sydney, will fail any pub test unless the current level of transport ignorance is rectified.

[1] http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/gladys-berejiklian-accused-of-lying-about-reason-for-549m-light-rail-cost-increase-20170309-guuk48.html

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-09/premier-accused-of-misleading-public-on-cost-of-light-rail/8338396

[3] http://www.audit.nsw.gov.au/publications/latest-reports/cbd-and-south-east-light-rail-project.

John Austen is a happily retired, Sydney western suburbs dweller. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 until his retirement in 2014.

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