JOHN AUSTEN. Infrastructure advice – worse than expected.

Aug 29, 2017

Previous articles in this blog suggested serious problems in Australia’s infrastructure assessment and approvals arrangements – upon which tens of billions pivot.  The recent Sydney and South-West Metro Rail review by Infrastructure Australia provides troubling evidence of this problem. 

In late July, Infrastructure Australia added to its list of High Priority National Projects the Sydney City and South-West Metro public transport railway .Together the north west and city/south west are estimated to cost $ 20 b..

As this post will examine, neither Infrastructure Australia nor this author can tell you what this new Metro project costs, or what cost-benefit this might represent, because the State government capital figures for the project are listed as ‘pending’. Yet Infrastructure Australia waved the project forward anyway.

There is supposedly a business case for city/south west metro but the published one  is nonsense.

Infrastructure Australia’s curious review of and support for this project is the subject of this article.  ( Metro City Southwest Summary.pdf)

I previously commented that the $20 billion-plus Metro scheme could jeopardise Sydney’s existing railway, inconvenience its 325 million (annual) passengers and cause problems as far away as Badgerys Creek airport

Chief among concerns is that the Metro system, which has been designed to be incapable of operating in an integrated manner with Sydney’s existing CityRail network, will threaten the capacity and amenity of CityRail itself and drag Sydney public transport backwards. This is a very serious matter, not an anorak discussion about different train designs.  Sydney’s transport – and in particular its western suburbs – could be in jeopardy here, and if this is the case we should know why.

The tunnel size of the Metro is reportedly too small for City Rail. This is extraordinary.

The conscious decision to bore Metro tunnels at a different diameter to CityRail tunnels has split Sydney’s transport system.  For those outside NSW some rough analogies might help illustrate the gravity of this situation.  Queenslanders: imagine Brisbane’s Cross River Rail having fast trams, but not trains.  Victorians: think of new Melbourne metro rail tunnels too small to be used by Melbourne’s current fleet.  For everybody; imagine fewer seats (metro trains encourage standing up), no more rail routes through the CBD and a project cost north of $20 billion just for the scheme so far.

Given all this, one would expect the most thorough independent analysis to be brought to bear by those who act on our behalf to examine the merits of major projects. Especially so, given Sydney’s future rail strategy was the subject of a detailed review by eminent experts in 2010 which warned against some of the very outcomes we now see emerging in Metro.

It is one thing for the New South Wales government to publish meaningless confetti about its Metro project.  It is much more concerning that Infrastructure Australia could only muster a six-page review and endorse what is presumably a 10, 20 or perhaps 30 billion dollar City and South-West Metro project as a new National Infrastructure Priority without even publishing the costs or business case analysis, or analysis of alternatives.

The six page review did at least identify the big challenge of Sydney’s existing railway lacking capacity.  However, it didn’t mention the cheapest, most obvious means of fixing this: increase capacity of the current railway.  This would include a new second harbour crossing for today’s and tomorrow’s CityRail trains.  Compared to this straightforward option, a decision to build a completely new, expensive and distinct rail transit system in Sydney seems very odd.

Here is what the latest six-page Infrastructure Australia review of Metro said: “The qualitative analysis presented by the proponent states that a mass transit (metro) is the best option to address project objectives. While a qualitative assessment is sometimes sufficient to eliminate a number of options, Infrastructure Australia would have expected a more quantitative comparison of the plausible alternatives given the scale of the project.”

This is mind boggling.  A multi-billion dollar project offers no business case and Infrastructure Australia endorses it, saying what appears to amount to ‘yes, go to the head of the project queue.  By the way, we normally like to know, analyse and publish what a project will cost, but you are excused’.

There are questions about whether Metro is made to look good by assuming other train services will be made worse, as well as how Infrastructure Australia checked ‘facts’ – as more than a few are wrong.   Also about the determinant of the assessment – the benefit cost ratio – when the capital cost estimate is ‘pending’ as is the case here.  Public documentation does not show any consideration – quantitative or qualitative – of options to strengthen Sydney’s existing railway.

In the absence of other explanation, reasons for the City South-West Metro probably relate less to what Infrastructure Australia claims and more to the new Metro’s ability to mitigate the negative effects of the North-West Metro on Sydney’s public transport system: North-West Metro, by stopping 10 km short of the city, threatens chaos when it opens – around the time of the next State election.

A business case – if any – for Sydney’s North-West Metro has not been assessed.

The full scheme – North-West and City segments – would likely get a ‘fail’ grade. Infrastructure Australia has reviewed only half the Metro scheme – the half that seems good probably because the other half is so bad.  This practice is worse than assessing only the left-hand rail of a railway track.

Finally, there is a very troubling question about the apparent rush to have Infrastructure Australia recommend the project.  A recently-reported NSW memo noted: “There is considerable political and reputational risks associated with not considering options.”

Quite.   Add to these considerable risks of wasting tens of billions, etc.

 Previous articles said it is a problem when Infrastructure Australia appears to promote projects it doesn’t recommend;   Is there also a problem about even the projects it does recommend?

As both segments of Metro are under construction, it is reasonable to ask about the point of this article.  There are plenty of answers, but I will leave it at three.

First, some $1.7 billion of your money – so far – is sought from the Commonwealth for the City Metro.  What is the total bill? What proportion is Canberra funding? Did they ask?

Second, the practice of asking for independent reviews of projects already underway is dubious.  Such projects don’t need your money.  Moreover, any independent organisation doing the review will be in an invidious position: a negative review challenges the State’s political process; a positive review rewards bad behaviour. 

Third, doesn’t the chasm between the expectations on a review of (what is surely) a $20 billion scheme and the six pages that were published threaten reputations, including those of individuals who rely on this review’s recommendation?

After suggesting a public inquiry into the Sydney Metro scheme, I now suspect a thorough open inquiry is inevitable.  In any event, the current low profile of Metro and Infrastructure Australia’s review of it will not last.  Australia needs and will eventually see a more complete explanation.

John Austen was head of economic policy at Infrastructure Australia until 2014.  He is now a happily-retired Sydney western suburbs dweller.  More details will be forthcoming at his website The Jade Beagle.

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