JOHN AUSTEN. Trouble in NSW infrastructure paradise, Part 2.

Nov 3, 2017

This is a second instalment about the onslaught of NSW infrastructure puff pieces.

Part 1 considered the experience to date, concluding Ms Berejiklian’s secretive Government does not understand infrastructure. 

This part looks at draft plans for three ‘cities’ in the Sydney region (by the Greater Sydney Commission) and for Sydney transport.

The Commission’s aim for 30-minute cities may be well motivated but could divide Sydney into haves and have-nots because of flawed transport ideas. 

A formal inquiry into transport, focusing on Metro, is needed.

Paradise prolonged

Media applause followed the recent release of regional and transport plans for Sydney.  The plans look ahead for 40 years when Sydney’s population is to hit 8 million.

There are plenty of big projects to keep everyone occupied.  The Premier has vowed to press ahead.  Affordability and merit are yet to raise their ugly heads.  Infrastructure paradise, discovered circa 2012, is set to continue.  Or is it?

The regional plan

This plan, dealing with land use, environment etc, promotes a focus on middle and western areas of Sydney.  It uses three ‘cities’ – Eastern Harbour centring on Sydney’s CBD, Central River around Parramatta and Western Parkland around Badgery’s Creek – as an analytical framework to develop initiatives making each area more attractive for living and work.

One idea is that people will not need to travel for long to access services and opportunities like education and employment.  Another is they will drive less.  This idea is encapsulated in a ‘30-minute city’ catchphrase; where the intention is that services etc. will be within a half-hour public transport ride from home.

However, this aim, to have everyone live within 30 minutes of one of the three cities, is impractical.  Hence the real target is that no one will need to live more than 30 minutes from ‘centres’ (not just ‘cities’) such as Macarthur, Chatswood, Kogarah and Liverpool.

The centres will never be able to offer the opportunities available in the cities, in Sydney’s CBD in particular.  Hence Sydney’s transport issues will continue to extend beyond local travel and into commuting – travel for longer than a half hour.

The transport plan

The transport plan deals with roads and public transport.  It is not just a project list and makes a step towards mitigating expectations of shovels immediately breaking ground.  Better use of roads is discussed, as is adapting technologies like autonomous vehicles.  Freight is mentioned. A conversation of users and beneficiaries paying for infrastructure and getting real services – not just concrete – is started.

Bus and light rail are prominent for up to 30-minute travel, to focus and support the cities and centres and as feeders / transfers for longer journeys.

New motorways are pencilled in at familiar places such as the harbour, through the Sutherland Shire and around the new airport at Badgery’s Creek – which is to be part of a much larger orbital.  These will not solve congestion; pricing is needed too.

The most contentious issues arise from rail.


Previous posts in Pearls etc. cast doubts over the Government’s rail plans, in particular its mass transit variant – Metro.  These identified Metro as being incompatible with and probably impairing Australia’s largest passenger network – Sydney trains – for unclear reasons and at a cost of at least $30bn, so far.

Neither of the two new plans allay such concerns.  Instead they create new concerns.

As background there are two types of urban passenger railways: commuter and mass transit.  The basic differences are seating and service frequency.  Commuter trains – like those in Sydney – have more seats but run less frequently than mass transit.

Commuter trains are better for people traveling intermediate distances e.g. over 25km.  If commuter trains – and their seats – are not available, travel of more than say 30 minutes will increasingly be by car.  Some travel will not be undertaken.

Mass transit trains can operate more frequently, provided they run more slowly for shorter distances between stops.  At short distances seating is not so important.

With this in mind the plans have at least three flaws.  The first is vagueness – critical matters are only mentioned in passing or in fine print.

The second is an assumption that Sydney’s mass transit, Metro, can really only run as many trains as its commuter system; every 3 minutes or 20 per hour.  This is below the 30 per hour previously claimed.   There are reasons to believe it is not a simple mistake.  It undermines transport justifications for Metro.

The third flaw concerns different long-term ‘visions’ in the regional and transport plans.

Unlike the transport plan, the Sydney Commission’s regional plan appears to propose conversion of all Sydney railways to Metro.  It seems the Commission does not fully understand the differences between mass transit and commuter railways nor how they affect the three cities idea.

Conversion – or putting more Metros in wrong places – could effectively lead to a new transport divide between the three cities; Sydney would be split because rail seating – the ability to commute by rail – is reduced.  People from the west would no longer be as able to access opportunities in the east.

It is one thing to provide opportunities close to home.  It is another to reduce access to opportunities elsewhere.  It is yet another to do so without clearly informing the public.

The conflicting maps also refute Government claim about regional and transport planning coordination – a claim already made moot by pouring concrete on $40billion of transport projects five years in advance of a draft plan.


I confine my comments to rail and related matters.

The standard for Sydney public transport/rail plans was set by the 2010 public inquiry sponsored by the Sydney Morning Herald headed by Mr Ron Christie AO.  Its reports provided comprehensive principles, considered all reasonable – and some other! – approaches, set out pros and cons of options and put its view on what was operationally sound and financially feasible.  All in detail and with clarity.  It also recommended a further independent process to secure bipartisan Parliamentary support.

Neither the regional nor transport plan meet this standard.  For example, options are not provided and the reports’ many ambiguities effectively mean consultation seeks carte blanche for whatever is in mind.

With this background, the three cities talk is more offensive than enlightening; it risks further dividing Sydney into haves and have-nots.  While there will be sincere protestations this is not intended some maps indicate otherwise.

The three cities and the 30-minute ‘city’ need discussion not monologues.  The conversation needs a long, long time.  It should not close with submissions – due next month.

For many the question is: where is the money?

There are bigger questions.  Too ready availability of money for infrastructure is one reason for the present situation.

I am not convinced these plans reflect much more than a Government struggling with decisions – such as about Metro – they were perhaps hoodwinked into.

In 2010 the last Labor Premier, the Hon. Kristina Keneally, scotched a Metro-mania plan her predecessors fell for and whose problems were reportedly suppressed.  The decision cost $500m and a lot of political capital.  The infrastructure club was outraged.

While Christie’s report (above) – which sorted metro fact from fiction – was catalytic, Ms Keneally deserves enormous credit for making the right decision in the face of strident opposition and vested interest.

The current Premier is in a trickier position.

The documents may be labelled ‘drafts’ but their rail aspects tell of big trouble in infrastructure paradise NSW.

John Austen was head of economic policy at Infrastructure Australia until 2014.  He is now a happily-retired Sydney western suburbs dweller.  More details will be at his website The Jade Beagle.  He will be attending community forums on the plans.


Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!