JOHN AUSTEN. NSW infrastructure: who is fit to govern?

Mar 22, 2019

Readers of Pearls and Irritations may have followed the transport infrastructure fiasco in NSW under conservative governments led first by Mr O’Farrell, then Mr Baird and now by one-time Transport Minister and Treasurer, Ms Berejiklian. Several reports last week put an exclamation mark to the debacle and raised questions about the fitness of either side to govern. 

Somebody will need to start cleaning-up the mess created in the last seven years.

No great faith can be put in an Opposition that continually misses the point by parroting formulaic ‘where is the money’ criticisms of government plans and promoting dumb policy proposals one of which – a toll refund scheme which would increase returns to road owners and encourage traffic – was rightly called the worst of the election campaign, up to then.

The Government’s performance, comprising ‘doubling down’ by increasingly stupid ideas to cover up grave misjudgements, hardly suggests they are up to it. For example, its Pilate like pretence that it can’t stop anything during the ‘caretaker’ period is used as an excuse to allow contractors to knock down a stadium, which the Opposition wants retained, several days before the election. Another example is the crowning of the blight of the Premier’s ‘signature’ light rail project with a negotiation reputedly involving $600m plus of your money to settle a lawsuit against the government, of which we have heard nothing since the end of January.

Both Government and Opposition are blameworthy re promises of futile-at-best motorways and cashbacks for motorists, make-believe Metros in the boondocks and incomprehension of problems enveloping the major rail system – Sydney Trains – that are so severe that its taciturn CEO has hit the press.  The inertia on the anti-competitive Newcastle port restriction is incomprehensible, given it is so easy to fix.

But these are mere background noise against two signal matters which summarise where NSW is at.

The first, mentioned in The Conversation re extension of Sydney Metro to Bankstown: “In 2012, the city’s first transport priority was another north-south harbour crossing. However, it was decided instead to build the Sydney Metro under the harbour and then take both of the CBD’s north-south heavy-rail corridors….”. This seemingly provides an answer, not yet available to the public, about a key question for which John Menadue and I have called for a public inquiry: does Sydney Metro eliminate forever the potential of another commuter rail line through the centre of Sydney?

The reluctance to answer this question is no surprise.  To my mind, an affirmative response would be tantamount to an admission of unfitness for public office – with the only defence being if advice from all authoritative sources said it was absolutely necessary.

Recent media reports offer hints of enormous adverse consequences if there has been such a catastrophic blunder.  In one, Sydney Morning Herald writers finally twigged to something Pearls and Irritations readers have long known, that  Sydney Metro is not a metro but a masqueradeSydney will be the laughing stock of the transport world with commuter trains – Sydney Trains – operating through inner areas like a substandard metro, while Metro operates a low capacity, few seats, poor quality commuter railway to outer suburbia.  The worst of all worlds, a rail system literally turned upside down.

Another report had the Prime Minister and Premier announcing a $7billion Metro line from St Marys to Badgerys Creek airport.  While the idea of single-deck trains, like Metro, going to the airport makes sense (cost aside), the plan to isolate the line and have airport trains shuttle from St Marys is idiotic. The ‘reason’ – also given for dropping the far cheaper and better options of joining an airport line to Sydney Trains lines at St Marys or even closer at Leppington – is that single and double-deck trains can’t share tracks.  As if Metro was the only single-deck train in the world.  Worse than just being barefaced lies, this suggests rail advisory processes for State and Federal Governments are irredeemably incompetent.

The likely real reason for a shuttle is fear of a question which would arise if the new line linked with the Sydney Trains network: why can’t single-deck airport trains go to the city?  ‘Fear’ because the answer may be that the railway in the city lacks capacity which cannot ever be sensibly rectified because of the unprecedented stupidity of Metro “taking both of the CBD’s north-south heavy-rail corridors” as was apparently attempted in 2010, stopped by then Premier Keneally, and publicly warned against by Sydney’s pre-eminent rail expert Mr Ron Christie.

The other signal matter at the Premier’s campaign launch was the diabolically inappropriate claim reported variously as NSW can/could/should/will ‘have it all’As Premier, I will never ask you to choose between having world-class schools, hospitals, transport, roads, stadiums or cultural facilities because ……. NSW can have it all.” Given that unrealistic community expectations are the biggest infrastructure problem in democracies, this public denunciation of reality is as damaging as a statement from a politician can get.  The only possible mitigation is if the Premier is signalling she doesn’t intend staying on long enough to do such harm.

The Opposition’s ineffectual response – we can’t afford to have it all – achieved as much prominence as pointing to a trivial fault in the Government’s campaign, that the printing on the Government’s campaign bus was done by a Queensland company.

Exacerbating this is the absence of proper commentary on the farce, apart from a mild rebuke in the Sydney Morning Herald. While commentators wax about the relevance of economists and the importance of talking about opportunity cost, and dollar-totals of election promises, the above outrageous issues have not been ‘called out’ nor the culprits excoriated.  It is almost as if commentators and politicians want us to believe it normal. It is unacceptable, and we should be concerned if anybody considers it normal.

Post-election NSW needs all the clandestine bilge offered/underway to be swept aside and replaced by a blueprint for transport developed openly and honestly, with proper public consultation and guided by real experts, like Ron Christie did in 2010.  Nothing since has remotely matched his report – and most disturbingly, in the absence of such guidance, transport ideas in NSW are becoming ever more bizarre and destructive.  Such a blueprint should be an essential outcome of the public inquiry called for by John Menadue.

 John Austen is a happily retired former NSW and Commonwealth official living in Western Sydney. 



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