JOHN AUSTEN. Transport for an incoming NSW Government.

Feb 19, 2019

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

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