JOHN AUSTEN. Sydney and the mock Metro

The Sydney Metro saga continues, with renewed – and still unrealistic – promises of a $20bn west Metro giving travellers a 20-minute trip from Parramatta to the CBD. Talk of this, and progress with tunnelling under the CBD, must be a welcome distraction from a Parliamentary Inquiry into part of the plan.

Pearls and Irritations readers would recall John Menadue asking whether Sydney Metro is a $40bn deception and a series of other articles on the topic.

The problem is not so much the idea of metro as the inner areas of some big cities like Paris, New York or London are serviced by rapid transit rail with many railway stations within walking distance of each other. At an average of 20km in radial length, such metros complement the commuter rail systems.

The problem starts with the peculiarities of the Sydney variant. It extends 40km to far flung suburbia, has inner city stations kilometres apart and is taking over lines vital to the existing network. As it replicates/cannibalises the commuter rail system, and with technology wholly inappropriate for the task involving such long journeys (e.g. very few seats), it will disadvantage western Sydney.

Another problem is the Government’s explanations are rubbish. There have been blatant lies such as single and double-deck trains cannot operate on the same tracks.

But towering over these is the problem that Sydney Metro likely – and perhaps intends to – permanently preclude other railways in the metropolitan area. This is by two seemingly unnecessary characteristics first seen in Metro proposals of the former Labor Government. The characteristics, trenchantly criticised by experts, were resurrected by the Coalition Government. Yet they remain seldom acknowledged and stubbornly unexplained. They are: small tunnels and a twisting CBD route.

Little wonder there is an Inquiry.

The present one, by the NSW Upper House, is into the extension of Sydney Metro from the inner city to the suburb of Bankstown. While a variety of local issues have been raised – notably about the interaction of Sydney Metro and high-rise development – the Inquiry’s terms of reference are much wider and cover matters like the ‘business case’.

The Inquiry has taken written submissions and held some public hearings.

The NSW Government’s submission was an embarrassment. It flatly contradicted earlier official statements, didn’t mention the matter previously claimed as central to its decisions – train carrying capacity – and was completely incoherent. For those not inclined to read its entirety, a fair summary is: Sydney Metro is to be a ‘separate, independent “differentiated” system’ which is ‘integrated with the existing network’.

Some NSW Government rail executives presented to the hearings. While they seemed uninformed on key issues – about the strange characteristics of Sydney Metro – they shed new light on what has been going on.

In their view, Sydney Trains – the existing system – should do the ‘heavy lifting’ and operate on corridors between the main centres. Sydney Metro should take-over branch lines – such as in outer suburbs – and have ‘bespoke’ corridors which preclude other trains.

This is as close to Alice’s Wonderland as is possible in transport – complete with a mock metro.

The public was continually told – until the Inquiry – the reason for adopting Sydney Metro is its greater passenger carrying capacity. If true, it is better fitted to heavy lifting and corridors between the main centres than to branch lines. Adding to the confusion is the proposed west Metro project is not a branch line.

There is no merit – and great harm – in bespoke rail corridors. This novelty is a far greater sin than Australia’s notorious 19th century break of gauge.

Yet, the Inquiry also heard two lines of remarks which were uncontested and not as easy to dispel as bizarre tales from the Government.

One arose from Government representatives saying:

‘The difficulty, I think, is that we have so many options… if you have too many options of where the service goes, every five minutes the timetable may change.’

Among the implications: the purpose of the grand plan centred on Sydney Metro – estimated financial cost so far around $40bn – is to severely limit options available to future policy makers – and to Sydney.

The other came from an exchange between the Committee and noted Sydney rail expert Alex Wardrop:

‘The Hon. ANTHONY D’ADAM: It strikes me that there is a metro faction that has become ascendant in the bureaucracy and its view is now hegemonic in terms of transport planning.

Mr WARDROP: From the outside that is what it looked like to me.’

The implication being the grand plan is the result of a bureaucratic spat. It is not the first time it has been raised.

These implications are much more consistent with known facts than is Government propaganda. They also better fit the pivotal yet stubbornly unspoken/unexplained small tunnels and CBD route than more popular speculations like privatisation, property developer influence, union bashing, arithmetic errors etc.

While having left the railway bureaucracy before Metro was raised, I can say in my time ‘too much interference by politicians’ was a sentiment held by some. Further, like other bureaucracies, there were railway factions.

Which points to a new problem: factional fights and denying options to future Governments and the community are the most unworthy motives imaginable for creating the mess Sydney faces. Yet rebuttal of speculations about these motives needs detailed, compelling explanations of Sydney Metro and its odd characteristics like tunnel size and CBD route – explanations which are yet to be seen.

And the business case? Of course, neither it nor any assessment mentioned tunnel size or CBD route. Yet the opportunity cost of these could swamp actual spending. Without such mention, those documents are worthless . Those involved would flunk high school economics. They should be ashamed.

To top this off the Chief Executive of Sydney Trains told the Inquiry people using stations west of Bankstown might need to wait another year before they know how their trains will run. This means a simple but essential element of his business will not have been sorted out for at least four years after the business case was ‘approved’ – and a summary published. They may as well have stamped ‘business case’ on the cover of Alice in Wonderland and approved that.

The problems are in front of the Inquiry. It recently decided to hold another round of public hearings on 12 December. We can only wish them luck, not least because unless they get to the bottom of the Sydney Metro fiasco another – less happy – inquiry is inevitable.

John Austen is a happily retired former NSW and Commonwealth official living in Western Sydney. His comments on the inquiry are here and here.

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John Austen is a happily retired former senior official of Infrastructure Australia living in Western Sydney. Details are at thejadebeagle.com.

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