JOHN MENADUE. The Best of 2018: Sydney Metro: A Forty Billion Dollar Deception?

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.

[i] https://johnmenadue.com/john-austen-infrastructure-advice-worse-than-expected/

[ii] https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-vision-for-a-system-to-meet-the-needs-20100215-o0b0.html [ii]

[iii] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-10/nsw-trains-to-get-new-technology-on-the-tracks/9854992

[iv] http://www.railwaygazette.com/news/single-view/view/australia-looks-to-europe-for-train-control-technology.html

[v] https://www.onrsr.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/19864/Waterfall-Report-35-2015.pdf

[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

[vii] http://mysydneycbd.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/user-files/uploads/rail-future-web.pdf

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7 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. The Best of 2018: Sydney Metro: A Forty Billion Dollar Deception?

  1. Ray Laverack says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that a pause on Sydney’s metro expansion is warranted until an independent inquiry is established to review the past decision making and future proposals. However, it is too late to stop the Metro Northwest, which is nearing completion (to Chatswood) and its extension through the CBD to Sydenham, for which construction is underway.

    Whether the further extension to Bankstown by converting the existing Sydney Trains’ line to metro can be terminated, as promised by NSW Labor, remains to be seen. Contracts may or not be in place by the time of the State Election in March, but in my opinion, whatever the cost is in compensation will be worth it in the longer term, to save Sydney’s rail network from a disastrous mistake. That’s assuming of course that Labor wins, which is a distinct possibility. In any event, the cost of conversion has been minimised by reducing the scope of works, which no longer includes track and platform straightening to accommodate platform screen doors. The Bankstown Line metro conversion is getting an inferior station upgrade compared with the new stations on the Metro Northwest and through the CBD. That in itself smacks of gross political bias, because it’s not a Liberal voting area.

    It still remains to be seen how the travelling public accepts the new cattle class metro trains with limited longitudinal seating and mostly standing room only on long commutes, for which they’re not well suited. The old maxim that you should give the customer what they want has never been more pertinent. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere, such as drive instead.

    It’s telling that the opening of the Metro Northwest has been delayed until after the State Election, when all previous indications had been that it would open before the election. If the government was so confident about its metro strategy, then you would think that it would pull out all stops to have it operating before the election. Perhaps there are some misgivings about the public’s acceptance, particularly with regard to the possible interchange congestion at Chatswood, which is the last thing they’d need in the lead-up to the election. Delays on the North Shore Line are inevitable and if the metro continues to disgorge whole train loads of passengers onto the platforms at Chatswood, it will be an unmitigated disaster with possible fatal consequences. I am waiting with baited breath for the first day of operation. It will be a long 5 years until the metro extension to the CBD is completed.

    Regrettably, both the Coalition’s and NSW Labor’s commitment to construct Metro West is misplaced. Although it would certainly be a worthwhile addition to Sydney’s rail network as a stand alone metro line servicing a new rail corridor from Parramatta to the CBD through the Inner West, it will have a negligible effect on relieving congestion on the T1 Western Line for commuters west of Parramatta, where more commuters actually get off than get on. It doesn’t deserve the priority it has been given.

    The most pressing need is to provide additional track amplification for the Sydney Trains’ network from Parramatta into the CBD to allow more services from the outer Western Suburbs, including the Richmond Line, without the need to change to a metro. It would also allow for enhanced services for the Northern and South Lines on existing tracks. This would be possible by construction of an express tunnel from Parramatta to the CBD, linking with the previously proposed City Relief Line along the Western CBD corridor to Wynyard/Barangaroo. It would have far less stations than what is proposed for Metro West and would be considerably less expensive, even allowing for a wider tunnel profile to accommodate Double Deck trains. The government hasn’t even made up its mind whether it wants Metro West to be a fast express line, supposedly providing additional capacity for the outer Western Line, or a slower all stations service. It can’t be both, although the latter would be the most logical choice. However, that marginalises the proposition of providing faster additional capacity to the CBD for T1. The tragedy is that the current State Government is unwilling to consider logical enhancements to the existing Sydney Trains’ network, which is anathema to them, in their ideological preference for a separate privately operated metro system, which doesn’t benefit the rail system as a whole.

    The only chance of an independent enquiry being instituted is if the Labor Party wins the State Election. The Coalition certainly won’t entertain that idea. But is the Labor Party and in particular Michael Daley and the Shadow Transport Minister, Jodie McKay, even aware of this critical transport policy strategy?

  2. Colin Clague says:

    Misfitting transport infrastructure may not be the only albatross to hang around the neck of an incoming NSW government. Consider the Clarence Correction Centre being built 15 km southeast of Grafton. To house 1700 inmates it will be the largest prison in Australia. The local Member in an ABC North Coast local radio interview in November boasted that when fully operational it will be the fourth largest population centre in the Clarence Valley after Grafton, Maclean and Yamba. It will be a private prison operated by Serco and as such there will be no compatibility or portability of employment with NSW Corrective Services staff. Questioned about such things as transport access for family visits to inmates and the sufficiency of hospital services the local member glibly announced that they will attend to these issues once the facility opens in 2020. I mean really!! I could continue on this theme but invite your readers to explore for themselves the implications for the construction of a facility of this scale, at this location, its private operator and the absence of integration with critical services.

  3. Hans Rijsdijk says:

    While the sort of problems Sydney’s public transport are not at all unique to Australia, there are a number of factors that make the problems worse here.

    Firstly our adversarial political system. If one party has a good idea it cannot possibly be adopted by the opposition. There are very few large projects that have bi-partisan support, particularly in the transport area. The result is that every new government believes it has to come up with an alternative system, resulting in millions of dollars wasted on studies and commissions. They rarely end up in something agreed by all parties. Hence the continuous dog’s breakfast of ideas.

    Secondly, since most department heads and sub-heads are now political appointments (doing away with independent and objective advice), departments dance to the continuously changing tunes of their political masters who are often subject to outside influences (whether developers or unions).

    Thirdly, the opposite ideological views of the major parties. One is supposed to be much in favour of expanded public transport, while the other only sees merit in more motorways.

    Fourthly, the breathtaking absence of management experience. How on earth is it possible that major projects can even be approved without a proper business case. It is one thing to approve a project even if it goes against an established business case. One could plausibly imagine that such cases can exist. It is an entirely different situation to approve a project without even knowing what the possible merits for and against it are.

    Fifthly, the utterly irresponsible way some projects appear to be managed. The current light rail is an example. How can a construction contract of this size be awarded without having provided all the necessary information (in this case the TransGrid data) to the contractor? The contractor is in the business to make a profit and will make a claim where ever he believes he can under the contract. The project manager (whether by his own incompetence or under political pressure of the government) has given the contractor a golden opportunity to claim massive extras from the start of the project.

    Projects of this size and nature are notoriously difficult to design and construct and to manage. If they are to be successful much money has to be spent up front to award the best possible contract containing the best available information that protects not only the client but also the contractor against disastrous miscalculations. To omit a huge chunk of information from the contract (by mistake or design) is the height of incompetence.

    If politicians would be more aware of their public responsibilities and less of photographic opportunities, we would all be better off.

    Hence a Royal Commission into how projects are set up and managed by the government would indeed be a great idea, but I’m not holding my breath that this would ever happen.

  4. The metro is just a tool to

    (a) privatize rail and abrogate the State government’s duty of care to provide urban rail services (just like selling power plants and poles and wires
    (b) attract foreign investors to build highrises around stations to accommodate immigrants yet to arrive in order to grow the GDP for an 8 million Sydney
    (c) hide the government’s inability to deal with rail unions

  5. Philip Bond says:

    To me, its criminally irresponsible placing orders overseas for rolling stock (heavy and light rail) when there is design and manufacturing here in Australia using, Australian jobs.

  6. Ed Cory says:

    Great article John, and a very persuasive argument. As an ex-Transport bureaucrat I heartily endorse the call for both an inquiry, and better independent analysis of projects. While never great, my observation is that genuine scrutiny of proposals has declined, and it is clear that decisionmaking has been poor. My hope is that a new broom (maybe two of them) will sweep clean, but we are talking about politicians so I keep my optimism in check.

    • Richard Ure says:

      Just as with the Banking Royal Commission should have been if all was well as we were told, the NSW government should have nothing to fear if everything is as they have been telling us. We know, of course, that the metro is not “world class” and that it is the cramped design of Town Hall and Wynyard platforms that are the constraints on train frequency, not the number of doors on the carriages. We also know from the Paris RER A experience that double deck trains can handle large volumes of passengers.

      Above all, some of us realise the CBD is not an infinite space to cram in more people without causing other problems, many of which are already manifest. The original Sydney height limit for buildings was 46 metres, it is now 310 m but with the exception of Barangaroo, the harbour foreshores are in the same places and repurposing the Botanic Gardens is not an option.

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