Australia’s infrastructure plans: why can’t we get it right? Thorough inquiries are needed.

Jun 15, 2021

Recent reports confirm severe problems with plans for transport infrastructure in at least Australia’s two biggest cities.  The Commonwealth, as well as State Governments, is blameworthy.

Governments and Infrastructure Australia claim to have transport plans.  Most commentators meekly and foolishly accept those claims.

With such acceptance, transport failures – poor infrastructure, inadequate services, cost and schedule blow-outs for major projects – are ascribed to other causes.

‘Reforms’ proposed to address such problems – ‘improvements in decision making processes’ – are piecemeal and predictable: e.g. funding and financing, contracting, a pipeline of construction work, benefit cost analyses, government ‘gateway’ approvals, regulatory processes.  While each has some merit, in my view they miss the critical point: most plans are rubbish and cannot be salvaged by limited process improvements.

Plans?

Take the Commonwealth’s ‘plan’.  Its Budget boasts of committing $110bn over the next decade yet ignores Commonwealth responsibilities.  It is based on twin bipartisan beliefs: the Federal government is just a back-stop for States; infrastructure is a pork barrel.  The plan is to throw money around.

The Budget also evidences absence of sensible plans in several States.

One example is the proposed $2bn Commonwealth spend on an intermodal – road/rail – freight terminal in Melbourne.

The likely ‘need’ for a new terminal was identified by Governments nearly twenty-five years ago.  Over a decade ago Infrastructure Australia asked for a proposal.

Yet the media says a location for a terminal is still not settled.

Over the last quarter century many potential sites have been jeopardised by housing development.  The failure to identify a site demonstrates an absence of real State and national freight plans – a deficiency not overcome by innumerable official meetings and brochures.

Another example is in Sydney, Westconnex which is evidence of a lack of a sensible plan.  The biggest problem with Westconnex is not discomfort for inner city residents or financial cost, exorbitant though these are. Rather it breaches a cardinal principle.don’t point motorways at central city areas.

Belated realisation (?) of consequences of that breach is the behind NSW now proposing a $14bn Western Harbour Tunnel – a motorway from Balmain to North Sydney – an inner city Westconnex bypass.  However, the tunnel may move traffic jams to even worse congestion in North Sydney. More will be needed to undo problems from Westconnex.  Another motorway – through the northern beaches – will be the start.

While NSW is mainly to blame, the Commonwealth also deserves censure.  Prime Minister Abbott (and Federal Labor) supported Westconnex, sight unseen, in a manner that attracted stern criticism from the Audit Office.

Infrastructure Australia deserves oppobrium as well.     Its recent recommendation of the Western Harbour Tunnel should be seen in the light of concerns about its earlier positive assessment of Westconnex.  Further, analyses of both appear technically deficient e.g. failing to take into account any effect of Sydney Metro on traffic.

The greatest concern is: none of NSW, the Commonwealth or Infrastructure Australia appear to understand the cardinal principle for motorways.-don’t point motorways at central business areas. No amount of process improvement can overcome resultant problems.

The lack of a sensible plan re Sydney roads presents enormous challenges, but not in the league of Sydney’s rail ‘plan’.  There is a rail plan – but it is stupendously bad.  It actively works against fundamentals.  This post raises one aspect – actual engineering of Sydney Metro.  A later post will raise financial engineering, recently reported as a ruse for State Government ‘cooking the books’.

The plan’s physical engineering conflicts with the golden rule for urban railways – promote flexibility.  Instead, it aims to prevent: interoperability; networking; scalability; matching technology to task.  It now breaches another fundamental principle by terminating trains in the CBD.

Little wonder each new rail announcement gives new insight into an unfolding, epic, disaster.  The latest episode – a West Sydney Metro.

To recap, the under-construction City Sydney Metro – across the harbour and CBD – will only ever serve a single line, to Bankstown.  Construction bill: $17bn – a blow-out around $5bn, hidden until after the last State election.

As for Westconnex, even those sums aren’t the worst problem.  Rather, the big problem is the intent to proscribe future options – including any connecting Metro line – and probably prevent any other harbour and CBD rail crossing.  In that, it conflicts with expert public advice, indeed explicit warnings. That madness is being replicated in another under-construction Metro line, between St Marys and Badgerys Creek airport – stranded 50km-70km from the city!

When the NSW Government started its Metro mania in 2012 – the current Premier was Transport Minister – experts said a route Parramatta-CBD would be more useful than her start in outer suburbia.  They were ignored. The Government has now announced it is going ahead with some such idea – but as another, disconnected line – construction cost $27bn.

The West Sydney Metro will be limited to just one station in Western Sydney because it seeks an undeliverable political objective – a twenty-minute transit time. It will have only one station in the CBD – where its trains terminate!  No other trains or lines will run to that station.  The station will be a block or so from three or four other railway stations.  Many passengers will need to change stations not just trains or even platforms.

The question likely to puzzle visitors and generations to come is: why so many separate stations?  The answer appears to be a devotion to disconnect railway lines, deterring suburban residents from accessing opportunities available in more privileged areas.  The reason for such a fixation deserves, and inevitably will be examined by, a formal public inquiry.

As for Westconnex, while NSW is the main culprit, Infrastructure Australia and the Commonwealth cannot avoid blame.  Infrastructure Australia’s recommendation of the City Sydney Metro remains unique and inexplicable.  The Commonwealth is providing $5bn to the isolated St Marys Metro on the basis of an almost fraudulent study, against Infrastructure Australia’s advice.

That none of the parties show any cognisance of transport basics renders their business cases and assessments useless at best.  The result goes beyond squandering tens of billions of dollars into damage money cannot fix.

Worse, aspects of this disgrace are recurring in Victoria .  That State’s scrapping of the proposed rail tunnel for a line to Tullamarine appears to preclude future regional fast trains to Melbourne.  Instead, there is to be only a suburban line, perhaps an attempt to bolster the look of the under-construction central Melbourne tunnel, a project troubled by more than severe – $2.7bn near 25% – cost overruns.

Whether such a potential preclusion of modern regional rail services is intentional or incompetent is unclear.  Nonetheless, the Commonwealth is encouraging Victoria via $30m for a ‘business case’ – about which it is confident enough to commit $5bn for some project and predict when construction will start.

Given Victorian Governments have been unable – after a quarter of a century – to bed down a site for Australia’s most important rail terminal, and their best rail idea is a $50bn-$100bn or more fantasy called: ‘a classic example of everything that is wrong with infrastructure provision in this country’, such confidence is foolhardy.

The central issue in each of the above cases is not assessment of proposals – even though most assessments are woeful.  Nor is it costs or almost inevitable overruns.  It is not even the practice of shrouding infrastructure deals in secrecy.

The issue is: how could such stupid ideas be concocted in the first place? Such projects point to a grand and – with Commonwealth impetus – accelerating national strategic failure.

Commonwealth action

However grievous the infrastructure sins of the NSW Coalition and Victorian Labor Governments, arguably the failures of the Commonwealth are worse.

Its donations of tens of billions of dollars to States is encouraging infrastructure that is not merely irrelevant but damaging to Commonwealth, indeed proper, purposes.  The Opposition is cheering on the idiocy with rhetoric like ‘(insert name of State being visited) is not getting enough Federal infrastructure money’ and pursuit of infrastructure club mirages – like the Infrastructure Department’s high-speed rail ‘study’.

The responsible thing is for Federal politicians to cease such encouragement.

Commonwealth transport infrastructure payments should be stopped, at least until the conclusion of independent, open, public inquiries into transport plans in each State and major city. Those inquiries need to take a long term perspective and present options that reflect transport and public policy principles.

Options involving major projects should not be adopted by Governments until their merit is demonstrated in further, specific, public inquiries – rather than via the slim, under-informed, behind closed-doors ‘assessments’ we have often seen.

If instead the Commonwealth persists with its current farcical approach, it may find its behaviour of interest to the inevitable – if less than friendly – investigations of State infrastructure follies.

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