JOHN AUSTEN. NSW needs an inquiry into Sydney transport

Feb 7, 2018

A dreadful start to 2018 for Sydney transport made NSW Minister Constance the unwelcome centre of attention.  The spotlight will turn to the Premier who was formerly the Minister for Transport.

 Last year Pearls etc. carried several posts about transport policy in Sydney; such as the Sydney Commission and Transport Department seeking comment on fundamentally different views of the future rail system.

In October I observed: ‘At the operational level things are going reasonably.  The Government deserves credit as it is no easy thing in Sydney.

That comment needs retraction.  Since a new train timetable started in November major operational problems – delays, cancellations etc. – have regularly fronted Sydney and national news bulletins.

It seems the Government’s confused and failing transport policies are already starting to manifest in day to day problems.

Sydney’s rail system broke-down on consecutive days in early January, seriously inconveniencing millions of people.  The Government pointed the finger at sick-leave and God but not to where it belongs – its rail timetable and policies.

The Minister made a splash ordering the bosses of Sydney Trains and Transport Department to report on how to mitigate meltdowns.  The very short timeframe – two weeks – was not met.

Yet within these two weeks the stakes were raised considerably.

The media ran scares like warning a renewed junction in northern Sydney would cause chaos.  Fire risks became a ‘renewed concern’ for the ‘already strained’ network – a ‘Rail nightmare’ raised in ‘Secret reports’.

Last year’s headlines praising Bradfield-like-visionaries with their driverless Metro trains of the future became a memory.  Instead there were editorials and news stories about the need to optimise Sydney’s railways and concerns about neglect of the existing system.  An implied question: is pursuit of mega-projects jeopardising the foundation of the transport system?*

The Premier ‘wholeheartedly’ apologised to commuters for delays, admitted it could have been better and refused to rebate fares – which would have been easy with the new ticketing system – on the basis of the absence of a precedent.

Several esteemed experts went public on contributing factors to the breakdowns.  They focused on strategic matters.  Far from sticking with the timetable-is-good unions-are-bad script, they raised issues such as: the questionable wisdom of having rail timetables written outside the railways; the effects and merit of the Government’s Metro ideas.  Instead of ‘blame the staff, driverless (Metro) trains will rule’, they argued the Government’s transport strategy is putting Sydney off the rails.

As if that wasn’t enough, on 22 January a train ran into buffers at Richmond in Sydney’s north-west, injuring sixteen people.

There is nothing quite like a train accident to focus the transport mind.  Especially for those who see safety and operations as two sides of the same coin.  Several inquiries are underway and findings will be published.

In the meantime a rail strike over pay – the first in living memory – was threatened.  The Fair Work Commission’s ruling to delay the action gave the Government only temporary respite from its transport travails.

New issues were raised about train driver conditions – for example, whether excessive, possibly fatigue inducing, overtime was needed for the new timetable. One implication was that the railways are understaffed.  The Minister saying more train drivers would arrive in February – three months after the timetable started – hardly rebutted that inference let alone provided proof of competence.

Nonetheless, the tone of media reports seemed to shift; there was praise for the Premier’s efforts to stop the strike; not so for the Minister.  The Premier was asked whether the Minister would be sacked; ‘no’ was the answer.

The sacking question was soon renewed – over the name of a ferry!  The Minister, reportedly exercising a ‘captain’s pick’, opted for ‘Ferry McFerryface’ which had attracted 182 votes in a $100,000 survey of 15,000 people, far less than some other contenders.  Under intense media pressure, the Minister changed his mind, the Premier re-expressed her confidence, and a new name was found for the ferry – May Gibbs of gumnut babies fame.

With the ferry saga in abeyance , some in the media began expecting rail troubles – i.e. big, big troubles – to last a considerable time.  One line is: opportunistic unions will stir things up in the lead up to next year’s State election.

There is another, stronger, reason for pessimism; policy failures such as opting for the wrong metro in the wrong place may increasingly manifest in day to day transport problems.  These will not be dissipated just by an election.

There is evidence of awareness that operational issues may be with us for a long time –  comments/excuses such as: ‘only’ 20 peak services were cancelled; sick leave is now ok; the (late) report about the meltdowns is to be about timetable changes; or ‘What everyone forgets is a driver can give two weeks’ notice and they’re gone, but it takes 12 months to train up a driver in NSW’.

The situation will only get worse when lines currently used by Sydney trains are closed for the Metro. One major closure, Epping-Chatswood, is to be just prior to the election.  That’s when the real pressure will start – bad as it is, we are still only at the ‘phony war’ stage.

Addressing – or even just mitigating – the strategic failures requires reversing policies and some projects introduced by the Premier when she held Transport and Treasury portfolios from 2011.  If the Minister is sacked, the focus will shift to the Premier’s former roles. The story will not be pretty.

Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi has written to the NSW governor asking for a special commission of inquiry into:

‘systemic issues plaguing Transport in NSW, including bungled projects, inflated benefits, cost blowouts worth tens of billions, the targeting of public servants and the billions of dollars being poured into projects against the advice of this Government’s own experts, and deliberate attempts to hide information from the public.’

John Menadue and I have also argued for a public inquiry into NSW transport – but we preferred it to be at the Federal level.

The Commonwealth Government, in pouring billions of dollars into NSW transport yet failing to get value for money. The Western Sydney rail being but one fiasco.

Where is the Opposition ,Commonwealth or State, on focussing on the transport mess and demanding an inquiry?

If everyone – except Dr Faruqi – continues to bury their heads in the sand I have some advice for people in Sydney: catch the early train.

*Postscript: on 5 February another retired Sydney rail chief, John Brew, echoed concerns that Sydney Metro is a mistake; detracting from the real priority of adding capacity to the existing system.

John Austen is a happily retired former official. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 until his retirement in 2014.  Further background will be at: 


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