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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4 thoughts on “JOHN AUSTEN. NSW needs an inquiry into Sydney transport

  1. Mr Lee; thank you.
    The point you make about the harbour is important, and if I could offer a little explanation you might see why I have asked for an inquiry; starting in Pearls etc in November 2016.
    In 2010 Mr Christie, backed by a team of experts and the SMH looked at public transport plans for Sydney – including single v. double decks and commuter/double decks v. metros (noting you do not need to have a metro to run single decks – as in Sydney for many years – structure dimensions such as tunnel size could and did handle both).
    One of the comments in his report was to the effect that the Metro proposed by the then Labor Government would effectively preclude another CBD/harbour crossing for the commuter rail system – a not too well known feature of the proposal. The report did not comment (at least clearly enough for me!) on whether it was necessary for the proposal to have this effect, or whether it was an ‘optional extra’.
    Nonetheless, the implication of the proposal was the commuter rail system may be unable to further expand in terms of reach or core capacity. A further implication is systems that connect with – are interoperable with the commuter system – may be extremely limited. The constraints would be permanent are reach throughout the metropolitan area; to Badgery’s Creek airport and in particular south west Sydney may suffer from such a problem.
    This is a gravely serious matter permanently affecting the structure of the metropolitan area – as noted in the ‘European/Asian’ city scenarios outlined by the report. It profoundly affects opportunities for many people in Sydneys less advantaged areas. Not to mention car traffic.
    The sentiment seemed to be: If it is a necessary evil, let the public see a very rigorous and expert tested proof.
    It seems to me this was a major reason he recommended a transparent inquiry etc. be conducted prior to introduction of any metro. This was not done, and his report has been publicly ignored by Governments – except apparently by Premier Keneally.
    So one question is whether the current Government’s Sydney Metro (which in fact is not a classic metro but more like an automated suburban train system) is a re-run of this?
    There is no answer I am aware of but the sketch route in the CBD appears similar or the same.
    Moreover, the tunnel sizes – a matter which can only be inferred indirectly from a diagram contained in a welter of tunneling information (depth, machines, ground etc) – are not compatible with commuter fleets, meaning the tunnels are exclusive to Metro and unusable – ever – by Sydney’s larger trains; a sort of reverse Bradfield plan.
    Together the suspicion is of a re-run of what Mr Christie was concerned about.
    Given the gravity of the matter, there is no adequate explanation about the ‘whether’ or the ‘why’. Some promotional material about Metro is at best ambiguous and could be misleading.
    Almost by definition, capacity added to Sydney’s transport system by this Metro design will be less than a design interoperable with the existing system.
    There are a range of other issues, also unexplained – for example why:
    . the Bankstown line is being rebuilt to Metro instead of addressing the far higher transport priority of the Bays Precinct-Parramatta, or the apparently easier, cheaper and more traveller friendly option of the airport line (eg. single deck trains to the airport)
    . the State Government’s Greater Sydney Commission and the Transport Departments put to public consultation – at the same time – fundamentally different versions of Sydneys
    . where is the western Sydney (Badgerys Creek etc) rail study promised to be completed by early last year?
    So this despite the feeling that some new rail harbour crossing is better than none, that remains to be demonstrated in this case; it is possible this particular Metro is worse than doing nothing.
    Hence I ask for an inquiry.
    It is not an anti-metro or anti-Government thing. It is about good transport, proper planning, community confidence and public accountability. And $40bn or so, so far.

  2. I’m afraid John Brew’s analysis of the problem of lack of capacity was flawed. He claimed there had been no increase since the introduction of double-deck rolling stock from 1964. In fact, the opening of the Eastern Suburbs Railway and the subsequent diversion of all Illawarra line traffic from the City Circle and onto the ESR was easily the biggest increase in capacity since 1932. The harbour metro tunnel (Chatswood to Sydenham) now under construction will produce a similar increase in capacity to the ESR back in 1979. Questions can be asked, and always will, as to whether metro or double-deck is the better way to build and operate it. My personal view is that there are obvious pros and cons for both and ultimately these balance each other out. A metro tunnel is certainly far better than no new rail harbour tunnel,

    1. Mr Lee; thank you.

      It is true there are debates about a variety of things in railways.

      It is a concern when people like Mr Brew, Christie, Day and O’Loghlin raise doubts. Irrespective of merits of particular projects and technologies, it implies they were not consulted or asked. Perhaps their views were dismissed without sufficient reason. If true, that there was some expert panel without the assistance of such people – this is beyond astonishing – and in itself may warrant an inquiry.

      Christie conducted a review of public transport plans in 2010, independent of politics, assisted by experts, taking submissions and published in its totality.
      Among his concerns was that a then recent city metro plan had a CBD alignment which appeared to forever preclude expansion and core capacity increases for the commuter train system. A result of which would change the shape and geography of opportunity in Sydney in ways that were not publicly explained and without adequate public reasons or consideration of options. He recommended a public inquiry prior to any metro in Sydney, and later Premier Keneally cancelled the project.

      The sketch diagram readily available to the public for the current metro appears to follow a similar CBD routeto the one that concerned Christie. The effect of this on the future of the commuter system has not been addressed –
      and until this is done the explanation for choosing this route is not adequate. Further, Metro tunnel dimensions are too small to cater for current fleet. I am unaware of an explanation for this – that is for not making tunnels larger for perhaps fleets of the future as Bradfield did. I doubt there would be an engineering or cost exlpanation – simply by observing Metro uses larger dimensions tunnels Epping-Chatswood, and could have been routed to Kingsford Smith.
      In my view it is premature to conclude the Metro harbour crossing is better than no crossing at all – ie. it may not be worth doing even if it cost nothing. There are insufficient public facts to support a view that the harbour crossing of this type and effect has any merit, and those facts in the public domain are a prima facie case to the contrary; the onus is on the Government to prove its case.

      There are other questions eg. why convert the Bankstown line rather than the transport priority of a line to Parramatta or the simple, less costly conversino of the Airport line.
      Given the gravity of the matters, affecting all of metropolitan Sydney transport including out to Badgerys Creek, and embedding disadvantage in Sydney’s real west (ie west of Parramatta), a public inquiry should have been held before any metro project started.
      An inquiry is now necessary for further reasons – not just to get the best transport and economic/social outcomes; but to ensure there is proper planning in the future, to restore community confidence and to enable democratic accountability.
      And it is possible to run single decks on the existing lines – as was done for many many years.


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