Like all our big cities, Sydney needs better public transport. The Government’s responsibility is to secure this with the best system, for the best price. But as a minimum, new investments cannot be allowed to threaten the productivity and growth potential of our existing public transport system and its commuters.
Sydney Metro Rail is starting to show clear signs of failing us on all these counts.
The Royal Commission into Banking shows us how ‘official’ stories can change dramatically once confronted with a process where evidence can be compelled and witnesses protected.
On its first day in government after the next NSW election the new government should establish an enquiry into the developing rail mess.
We are in great need of this process to publicly review Sydney’s mega transport projects – especially Metro Rail, a project which has cost perhaps more than $40 billion already, with no guarantees it won’t mutate into new phases costing further tens of billions.
The NSW government’s Metro asked us to believe it would do more, do it better, do it faster and safer than Sydney’s existing CityRail train system. Breezy statements like “just turn up and go, a train every two minutes” were thrown about.
On this basis, Metro tunnels were bored with diameters too small for current CityRail trains to use. Parliamentary debates pointing out the stupidity of this decision are on the Hansard record. Yet it went ahead anyway.
Metro’s network then expanded still further, at a cost of further unspecified billions, without any credible published scrutiny[i]. This second phase is now tunnelling under Sydney Harbour, possibly taking up the last viable under-harbour tunnel path for CityRail. In so doing, it may have ‘forever stymie(d) major development of Sydney’s CityRail system’ – as warned explicitly by the eminent and independent Christie report on Sydney transport of 2010[ii].
Is this the price of success?
Some of Metro’s shine is starting to wear off: promised service levels now appear less wonderful than first thought; costs have risen; delays and line closures will be more consequential than first anticipated; some all-important ribbon-cuttings won’t occur until after the next election. Metro users will still have to transfer to access the wider CityRail network.
Perhaps this is why the State Government has now changed tack to pushing out good news about the very CityRail system it is walling off with Metro.
Latest reporting talks up an $880 million CityRail train control system which can deliver ‘a train every two minutes or less’. The new system, the government enthuses, brings ‘Paris and London technology to CityRail’[iii].
This shift to talking up CityRail may just have given Metro’s game away.
Sydney’s CityRail has had a modern, automated train control system under trial for over a decade now[iv] – this development flowed from the special inquiry into the 2003 Waterfall train crash which killed 7 people. In 2014, the State authorised CityRail to pursue development of an even more advanced system[v] – the same sort of system Metro is to employ to achieve its much-vaunted ‘turn up and go’ service levels.
CityRail appears to have had a solution on trial all along to achieve Metro’s objectives for a lot less money and in a manner that would expand Sydney’s rail network – not hobble it. Published research suggests just as many if not more commuters might be moved by CityRail on this basis[vi].
Despite this, the State government appears to have agreed to Metro without any assessment of a competing CityRail business case, or even a quick scan of options.
It’s time for facts.
Perhaps the NSW government just made a decision to ignore CityRail’s cheaper and possibly better solution for grubby ideological reasons: setting up a walled-off, standalone rail system to lock out organised labour and sell off to the banks later.
Perhaps CityRail’s potential was just never made plain to elected officials because of factional fights in the transport bureaucracy.
Perhaps our independent infrastructure advisories should have spoken up.
Perhaps there is some unreported technological flaw preventing CityRail from matching or bettering Metro claims.
As with the banks, only a properly-constituted inquiry will compel the truth.
The need for this inquiry goes beyond politics or academic curiosity: if we leave Metro unexamined, Sydney’s liveability and economic performance is at risk.
If heavy rail’s future functionality is imperilled by Metro, we must know that before we spend more billions pouring concrete and digging more little Metro tunnels. If not, we risk condemning our entire public transport network to deeper dysfunction which may prove vastly more expensive or even impossible to retrofit later.
A new government should authorise an inquiry into Metro and other secret mega-projects on its first day in power.
The same goes for the Commonwealth, which has already thrown billions of taxpayer money at this project, with no questions asked.
All major infrastructure projects should be examined against credible alternative solutions for delivering on agreed objectives well before the infrastructure club is allowed anywhere near the public chequebook.
Here are the written words of Gladys Berejiklian, the responsible Minister in her report in 2012 regarding the merits of Metro compared to upgrading and expanding CityRail:
(Metro) does not deliver significant benefits to the wider rail network’.
‘(Metro) would create a separate system that would divert funding away from service improvements on the existing rail network and only provide benefits to customers who use the new line’.
‘In the Sydney context an independent metro system would deliver few benefits in terms of service enhancement, capacity improvements or better operating efficiency on the existing rail network’.
‘A dedicated metro-style system would not maximise the use of the existing rail assets.’
Extract from page 24 of Sydney Rail Futures 2012 – foreword by then-Minister for Transport, the Hon Gladys Berejiklian P[vii]
Members of the infrastructure club should keep their diaries free for this inquiry.
Infrastructure, both rail and road, is becoming an albatross around the neck of the NSW Premier and former Minister for Transport.
[vi] Four whole years ago, ABC fact checker established that given the same service frequency and train control, the existing CityRail trains would move thousands more people an hour on the proposed Metro line than the new Metro trains. Yet it appears no comparative business case was even assessed, much less published: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-11/barry-ofarrell-sydney-trains-claim-doubtful/5371446