JOHN AUSTEN. Transport for an incoming NSW Government.

NSW faces an election in March.  This note – to help an incoming government – draws on transport matters identified in Pearls etc.  It won’t be in the incoming government’s briefs.  Never mind – people who matter read Pearls! 

Transport policy should aim at the most economic way to improve access to opportunity; minimise financial and social costs of freight; and support sensible planning.  Of course, this is subject to limited public resources and other priorities like health.

The big issues relate to Sydney, which has an extensive area with a medium scale city growing away from its port.  The metropolitan centre is Parramatta; however, many routes converge on the CBD.  Badgerys Creek airport adds a new dynamic. These point to emerging challenges for Western Sydney.  Among these: access to opportunities only the inner city can provide.  The rule of thumb is that reasonable access requires a one-hour seated commute.

NSW’s other city seaports – Newcastle and Wollongong – should aim to take pressure off Sydney.

NSW’s long-established transport systems work reasonably well but are under pressure at growth locations e.g., Western Sydney; and where old routes converge e.g., central Sydney. Prudent investment would normally deal with this.  However, after decades of careful planning and building on systemic strengths – occasionally marred by poor management – a radical shift occurred in 2012.

An infrastructure cult has taken hold.  Big projects are started without adequate assessment or consideration of consequence, and in isolation and at the wrong locations i.e., to no plan. Published ‘plans’ – e.g. by the Greater Sydney Commission and Transport for NSW – conflict.   None make sense, nor does their ’30-minute city’. They look like attempts at excusing stupid projects which preceded them.

Sydney will suffer from a ‘tail-wags-dog’ syndrome where costly peripheral projects damage critical systems.  Manifestations will include worsening daily networks performance and social/economic inequity. Not only won’t ‘more projects’ cure this, more of the same will make it worse.

The last seven years produced a litany of problems including bad projects in wrong places e.g. Sydney light rail, Metro, WestConnex etc.’ ; degradation of core systems e.g. Sydney Trains; lock-ins: attempts to make change irreversible by design e.g. Metro; more projects to undo new messes e.g. motorways to mitigate WestConnex; and real needs ignored e.g.Western Sydney transport.

The problems are not unique to Sydney.  The latest NSW Audit Office Report on Newcastle ‘transformation’ – light rail  confirmed NSW practice post 2012 to be to decide first, try to justify later, pretend to consult last of all.  Unsurprisingly the resultant project – a silly little 2km or so light rail line, extraordinarily costing near $600m – is incapable of improving transport and does not contribute to ‘program objectives’ i.e. at best it is an outlandish waste of money and time.

Adding to the record is grossly excessive and misdirected road spending.  Spending greatly exceeds revenues nationally by more than $12bn in 2016-17.  Yet there is a maintenance backlog!

Even worse is a new industry of infrastructure urgers who want Government to build anything – even if this requires wrecking good assets first!

An incoming government needs to understand what is going on; to mitigate damage; and to deal with real challenges while staying within budget.

It is a fair bet nobody knows what is going on.  Government and advisers have not shown any understanding of what has been done.  The story seen by the public is disturbing – misleading and full of conflicts, dumb ideas and bogus explanations.  Among the questions: was advice to Government stupid too? What else is hidden? Experience elsewhere teaches that such nonsense causes chaos and breeds incompetence.

A detailed public examination is needed.  Failure to do so will render an incoming Government hostage to hidden agendas and eventually lead to examination of its failure to address the obvious.

Projects that lock-out options should be stopped until an incoming government considers alternatives. Metro is a grave concern.  Bizarrely it is permanently incompatible with any other railway and jeopardises Sydney Trains and severely impacts Western Sydney. Current ‘planning’ seems contaminated by Metro thinking.  The questions about this are Royal Commission grade and include: why the small tunnel diameters which preclude other trains? Does it prevent other rail crossings of the CBD and harbour? Does the combination of these lock-out other railways and choke-off opportunities for faster intercity rail, regional services, high speed rail and commuter trains from, say, Western Sydney?

Rail policy/projects should be stopped until reviewed by a special public inquiry. WestConnex, more notorious than Metro, is not in the same consequence league.  It – along with its 42 years of tolls outside any objective regulatory framework – is yet to be justified.   The recent parliamentary inquiry – summarising what was known – meekly accepted spin: ‘good project – bad publicity’.

It is but one aspect of chaotic roads ‘policy’: a jumble of unjustified projects – on an endless list distorting the network; damaging, not cooperating with, rail; overspending yet maintenance backlogs; unregulated private toll-road monopolies; building and ‘new technology’ fixations, traffic management apathy; and transition to ‘reform’ – national direct charges – becoming harder.

Before any more mega road projects proceed, the policy mess must be sorted out.  Policy should drive projects, not vice versa.   Project proposals should also be subject to public inquiries.

Freight policy is a trivialised afterthought helping some in industry.  The central issue is exclusion of containers from Newcastle port, but others like urban amenity loom.  Policy needs to be entirely rethought – not just ‘redrafted’.  The restriction on Newcastle must be removed now.

Along with winding-up the NSW infrastructure circus,  some big challenges are: lack of Western Sydney commuter capacity and accompanying pressures on rail and roads, evidenced by system breakdowns; road congestion in more and more localities; and likely funding constraints.

An incoming government should reassess or ditch policies which make such challenges more daunting: Metro trains to Western Sydney e.g. Metro West, Badgerys Creek; and ‘toll relief’ – e.g. registration rebates – for inner city driving.

It should also reassess policies for areas which can mitigate pressure on Sydney e.g. Hunter and Illawarra: Newcastle transport fiascos e.g. light rail; and public inquiries into potential for commuter rail trips between Sydney, Wollongong and Gosford/Newcastle.

The above means big new project ideas are exciting – but for all the wrong reasons.  They carry extreme risk because proposals on the drawing boards may worsen the situation and funding will be increasingly limited.

 If an incoming government wants announcements – despite the stark warning of the last seven years – Bus Rapid Transit should be considered. Properly configured, such a system is less costly and far lower risk than the mega road, Metro and light rail projects doing the rounds. And there is a centre of excellence on it – at Sydney University.!

Recommendations for an incoming government are few but simple:

  1. Tell the truth;
  2. Stop current ‘initiatives’ until they are reconsidered in detail and in public;
  3. Never consider a project proposal until it has been subject to a proper public inquiry;
  4. Keep a very close eye on the Budget; and
  5. Remove the restriction on Newcastle port.

While relevant for Labor if elected, these are even more important for the Coalition if returned to office.

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


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

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3 Responses to JOHN AUSTEN. Transport for an incoming NSW Government.

  1. Avatar Peter Egan says:

    Articles, like the above, are a good representation of the limited knowledge state and federal bureaucrats have regarding the structure, scale and purpose of our transport networks. Mostly, what needs to be known is quite simple – even for high school kids.

    The successful strategy for the cities of the world ‘public transport oriented development’ – higher density development within 200, 400, 600 or 800 metre radius of a railway station taking into account the attributes of the station precincts. Sydney has over 300 rail stations – there is plenty of scope for development at selected stations that will give the most beneficial outcomes.

    The primary public transport network should be a heavy rail grid covering the metropolitan area. Heavy rail includes metro rail in the Australian context. The primary difference between single- and double-deck trains is capacity, particularly seated capacity. Double-deckers have 77% more seats for same train length.

    The heavy/metro incompatibility in Sydney amounts to signalling and control boxes in the trains and wayside. Sydney Trains network is getting wayside equipment that will support automatic operation, but will be operated with drivers due to corridor access issues. The max grade on the metro line is 4.4% compared to 3.3% for Sydney Trains network – this and train weights may require electrical upgrades.

    Filling the major gaps in our road (including motorway) and rail grids would take at least a decade. Gap filling in the grids has far higher BCRs than other projects due to network benefits. The grids, as a whole, have far higher value then the sum of the parts. The parts have little value. Motorway networks (limited access roads) have little value without the support the standard road network – thus motorways tolls well overstate motorway value.

    The standard road network has a 4 level hierarchy – see AUSTROADS definitions and maps, rather than legislated state road classifications – which are administrative rather than functional. Each hierarchy level should form a grid. Grid gaps indicate where upgrades should occur.

    In Sydney, the WHT, BL and F6, as proposed by the state government, distort the grid and thus are low value. West Metro is a property development play, it is not addressing capacity and poor grid structure of the Sydney Trains network.

    We will shortly have 3 east-west commuter rail lines spanning most of the way across the metropolitan area. We have two north-south rail lines that span only the southern half of the metropolitan area:
    — The Western Sydney Airport Line should connect to both the Richmond Line in the north and the South Line below Campbelltown.
    —The South Line (from Campbelltown) should enter a tunnel at Merrylands and interchange with the Western Line at Parramatta, Sydney Metro at Epping and Northern/Central Coast/North Shore Lines at Hornsby.
    — The B-Line bus route presently substitutes for a N-S extension of the Illawarra Line across the harbour for the present.
    This is how you improve job access in the metropolitan area, reduce peak passenger demand on approach to the Sydney CBD, and reduce road traffic.

    The North Shore line is seeing a service downgrade (stations skipped, etc) due to its short length. Bankstown Line was selected for the Metro connection due to its short length and lower demand. The Eastern Suburbs Line can be seen in a similar fashion. These ‘off-grid’ lines have sufficient demand to sustain them. The Northern Line is part of the Central Coast-Newcastle line.

    New signalling systems will improve the robustness and efficiency of the network. 20 trains per hour is sufficient. We should look to lengthen platforms by half (12 car trains) for a capacity increase. I note, a portion of the new intercity trains will operate as 10 car trains. Extending the Sydney CBD platforms is easier than people think.

    We also need a second City Circle line in Sydney to serve the rail lines in the arc from Parramatta to Cronulla (IW, Bankstown, East Hills, Illawarra). Sydney Metro should be diverted to the Airport Line as single-deck trains with wide metropolitan coverage are best for airports.

    Motorways should be built to allow businesses to deliver goods and services 24 hours per day, and to allow people to access a place of work away from prime public transport routes. Motorways need to work together with arterial roads. Together they should reduce both journey time and length. Further directing traffic towards the Sydney CBD is not useful as the CBD roads have been saturated for 30 years.

    There are many more issues that need to be addressed – freight, electrification of public transport, modes, vehicles (including bikes, scooters) and infrastructure for local travel, etc. The answers are actually fairly simple.

    • Avatar Glenda Gaat says:

      I do hope this is widely read especially to know where improvements should occur before we undertake any more major projects

  2. Avatar Philip Laird says:

    Thanks, John, for your article. Sydney now has to cope with a significant increase in population, the road solutions like Westconnex, with the active support of the federal government may not help. For my comment on freight see the current issue of Track and Signal.

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