Sydney transport: formidable task ahead for NSW Labor?

Mar 24, 2023
M32 Train at Sydney Central.

In NSW, Labor is favoured to end the Coalition’s 12 years in office at the forthcoming election. If it wins it faces a formidable task.

The task is not merely what Labor says: review toll roads and buses; rebates for motorists; reconsider a few mega projects; deal out electoral bric a brac. It will need to address systemic rot, bad governance, Commonwealth gullibility and avoid becoming prey to spivs. A formal public inquiry is needed.

Rot is evident

Evidence of systemic rot is at the surface. Among the latest: the stopping of every Sydney Trains service on 8 March due to a communications equipment problem.

The Government said the problem was unprecedented. Perhaps. However, undoubtedly unprecedented was failure to use stand-by procedures to keep trains running. Almost as unprecedented – until recently – was a dangerous failure to manage resultant crowds.

Precursors were apparently ignored. Among these: suspension of services on the Airport Line on 7 February 2022 because of the absence of a single employee. Followed by a shut-down of the entire network on 21 February because management was unable to deal with a typical, quite limited, industrial action.

Later, on 10 March 2023, an overhead wiring problem at suburban Panania saw passengers sealed-up in an unairconditioned train for hours on a 30 degree day. It led to widespread disruptions for several days. Those results are utterly unacceptable.

Bad governance

Such events suggest chronic, sustained mismanagement and undue intrusion of political factors into transport operations. As do: new trains that don’t fit tunnels; new ferries that don’t fit under bridges; new trams with basic defects and failing overhead wiring at George St in downtown Sydney.

Not to mention irrational, secretive, socially damaging and grossly fiscally irresponsible Metro mania – associated with ’deskilling’ the transport sector.

Leading the mismanagement is imposition of bad governance – responsibilities held by the wrong organisations.

Of which the Transport Asset Holding Entity is but one example. Unbeknown to the Government, its ‘experts’, and indeed Labor who misread the very clear first recommendation of an accident inquiry warning against such an organisation.

Federal gullibility

The Commonwealth is contributing to the mess. Not merely by giving billions of dollars to weird motorways.

It is backing, with $5bn of your money, Western Sydney Airport Metro – a supremely moronic idea rejected by even Infrastructure Australia and lambasted by a respected local Federal Labor MP as ‘pork-barrel politics’.

Origins are a flawed Commonwealth-State Departmental ‘study’ which led to the idiotic view single-deck trains needed for airport passengers can’t operate on normal train lines. The plan has airport passengers changing trains numerous times – travelling on vilified double-deck trains for most of their journey!

Commonwealth Minister Ms King said it would benefit western Sydney communities for years to come’. Really? Major benefits are land revaluations near the new airport. Weren’t anti-corruption authorities interested in land values near the airport?

Intercity rail is another example of State Labor being burdened by its Federal counterpart. Recent reports had NSW abandoning oft-promised fast Newcastle-Sydney trains. The predictable – predicted! – excuse: Minister King’s announcement of a high-speed rail authority makes all such matters Federal responsibilities.

By promoting an asinine Melbourne-Brisbane high-speed mirage she is setting back realistic ideas by many years. Like her boss has done for the last ten years by consistently touting another flawed Departmental study that, contrary to what he and the Minister said, dudded Newcastle by proposing ‘its’ station be more than 20km from the city and claiming it would generate 35 percent fewer passengers to Sydney than from the Southern Highlands – despite having ten times that area’s population. Don’t they read the reports they propound?

The full story, even worse, might be for another day. Suffice here to say in 2018 – just before the last State election – then Premier Berejiklian commissioned internationally renowned expert Professor McNaughton to advise on fast rail options like Wollongong and Newcastle to Sydney. Despite alleged urgency, some four years later, McNaughton’s advice is yet to see the light of day. Frustrating the professor, the public and the intent of freedom of information laws.

Minister King, rather than demanding publication of McNaughton’s work, apparently thinks the best idea is for her new authority starting a high speed Melbourne-Brisbane phantasm afresh. Road builders would be giving her a standing ovation.

There is an even more serious reason Federal gullibility is an enormous relief for the Coalition and may be an insurmountable burden for Labor if it takes office in NSW. Unless State Labor ‘corrects’ its Commonwealth counterpart about Sydney Metro projects, it will become an accessory to what looks to be the worst transport blunder in Australia’s history.

Assessing the scale of the howler requires answers to some questions like: Is the (Federally supported) Western Airport Metro stranded in the boondocks rather than joining Sydney’s main rail network because of the Sydney City Metro? Specifically, is it because that Metro precludes any new railway entering Sydney city? And thus prevents augmentation of the main rail network or fast trains to the city from, say, the new airport or Newcastle?

An answer might start with observing the Sydney Metro plan is fundamentally at odds with, and was hatched when, NSW opposed a Western Sydney airport.

An answer might note reports of the ‘Sydney’ station for Newcastle fast trains being at Olympic Park – an underutilised recreation precinct around 20km west of the city centre. And the internationally unprecedented aversion to publishing Professor McNaughton’s report. And the haste with which work on Newcastle fast rail was stopped.

We do not know. Yet. But it certainly raises the questions: what has the Coalition done to Sydney’s transport system; has Federal Labor sleep-walked into complicity?

Does NSW Labor understand?

The 12 years of Coalition Government – abetted by the former and current Commonwealth Governments – appears to have bequeathed a gigantic mess in Sydney with consequences well beyond.

The major projects delivered or on the drawing board – possibly except Northconnex – are problematic to say the least. Most are likely to add to Sydney’s woes, even ignoring their astronomical outlays. And even ignoring the failure to account for the substantial change in travel, especially commuting, evident in the last few – Covid – years.

There are signs Labor has some good intentions and instincts. One is not proceeding with the latest motorway supposedly needed to mitigate the Westconnex traffic disaster.

Another is promising to abolish the Transport Asset Holding Entity albeit without realising why.

Yet Labor shows little sign of understanding the extent and depth of problems it will face if it gets into office.

For example, it says the idea to extend the Western Airport Metro will complete the metro circle around Sydney’. A troubling comment because such a circle around a city is the exact opposite of what metros are designed to do. Does Labor – State and Federal – want to cement Sydney as the global laughing-stock for urban transport? The textbook example of what not to do?

State Labor does not seem to have grasped that policy has been so bad there is a question as to whether reasons are limited to mere incompetence. Nor that much ‘advice’, including from well-paid so-called experts is unreliable at best and often patently wrong – Professor McNaughton excluded! Nor that years of unaccountable arrogance and bad governance have degraded skills and attitudes of transport organisations – as demonstrated in the rail incidents referred to above.

Or that the usual instinctive ‘purge’ would likely lead to a new group of spivs replacing those holding sway over the last decade. Given the flimsiness of Labor’s transport policy, they are probably already lining-up in expectation of an easy ride.

Solution

The only way for NSW Labor to start to address the monumental challenge ahead is a thorough, independent public inquiry into transport and roads. Not least to sort out the bogus from the bona fide.

Much like Mr Menadue and myself have recommended for years.

It needs to be expert, powerful and tough. That may worry some State politicians and bureaucrats. And cause some loss of face for Commonwealth politicians and officials who swallow and regurgitate tall stories from the big smoke.

While it is underway, NSW must deal with Newcastle fast rail. It cannot depend on an ‘outcome’ from the latest Commonwealth high-speed shambles.

This will require some humility and fortitude in Sydney and Canberra. More than displayed in the Newcastle port policy fiasco – a comparatively trivial and straightforward issue. Where, with the major parties at both levels of Government conspicuously failing the community on the matter, it was left to an independent MP to show the way.

If Labor fails to commission such an inquiry, or doesn’t rapidly resolve Newcastle fast rail, it will have shown itself unworthy of being in Government – and probably of sitting in NSW Parliament.

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