Sydney’s Metro mania is policy based on vanity

Is it of interest that a 2018 study by Transport for NSW and its federal counterpart into rail connections to Sydney’s second airport was made at roughly the time the same the federal portfolio spent $30 million to buy land near Leppington worth only $3 million?

What is behind the NSW government’s Metro mania, which at an unnecessary cost of more than $40 billion jeopardises transport throughout Sydney?

The speculation is that the folly is continuing because of a bureaucratic spat and for fear of admitting gullibility and error. That is, policy is based on vanity.

Do things take on a different light in view of recent revelations from a parliamentary inquiry about federal land deals near Western Sydney Airport and at the ICAC inquiry into Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s one-time beau Daryl Maguire?

Sydney Metro rail project was referred to a NSW parliamentary inquiry into its extension from Sydenham to Bankstown. In April, the inquiry recommended against the extension as it would create permanent disruption to commuters.

The majority of the inquiry members, comprising Labor, Greens and Shooters and Fishers parties, were not persuaded by evidence put forward by the government, which appeared nothing more than ludicrous propaganda. Evidence included claims of a ‘plan’ in which Metro would take over Sydney’s branch lines – the inverse of the situation everywhere else in the world.

The members were also not persuaded by Infrastructure Australia’s suspect 2017 ‘assessment’ which merely recited NSW Government claims; recommended the project proceed without knowing the costs; has not been revisited despite a $4.5-$5.5 billion cost blowout becoming known by the Government in 2018 (which was publicly revealed only after the 2019 state election).

The NSW committee majority also recommended there be better explanations of, and consultation for, future projects and that actual business cases (if any) be published.

A committee minority – government members – dissented, claiming the inquiry was politically motivated.

In early October, the Government rejected the Committee’s recommendations and proceeded without addressing any of the serious issues raised. Such obstinacy is as consistent and unsurprising as the idiocy of reasons advanced – which included an oxymoronic reference to the publication of a detailed summary as an excuse for  failure to produce a business case. As usual, the Premier intends to push ahead no matter what.

And it gets worse. At present, the most outlandishly stupid infrastructure idea involves preventing public transport users from readily accessing the Western Sydney Airport, which is under construction. The long-established plan was to extend an existing rail line a short distance from Leppington – which would have allowed direct trains to run to the airport from most of Sydney.

The plan now is to have a stand-alone Metro from a much more distant suburban St Marys, 50 kilometres from the CBD, a plan that will cost perhaps five times as much. It also means the millions of residents in Western Sydney need to change trains at least three times to get to the new airport.

Yet NSW is not alone in planning this lunatic scheme. The Commonwealth is paying half the cost, some $5.25 billion for the first stage alone. This was announced in June 2020, three months before even a flimsy promotional pamphlet became available, with an assessment or even business case yet to be sighted – Infrastructure Australia is .

The Commonwealth contribution – to total well over $11 billion – is on the back of a March 2018 study report jointly authored by Transport for NSW and the Federal Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities.  The study was likely rigged to achieve a pre-ordained result – the Commonwealth Minister lamely reiterated its preposterous reason for preventing connection of the airport to Sydney’s rail network: single deck trains cannot run on tracks used by double deck trains.  A previous post on the matter concluded:

‘As it is almost impossible to believe any report could be so incompetent, there probably are undisclosed reasons for the recommendations.’

So is it of interest to observe the study report and farcical comments were made at roughly the time the same Federal portfolio spent $30 million to buy land near Leppington worth only $3 million – a matter referred to the police by the Audit Office?

Same area, same Department-author and same time for an incredibly incompetent report and a possibly criminal purchase of land – coincidence?  Hopefully nothing more, given the enormous project expenditures and consequences.  Yet well before hearing of the land deal, I was so disturbed by the study report and the Commonwealth Minister’s “explanation” that I wrote to him in August 2018 saying:

‘You should:

  1. commence an investigation into what lies behind the advice given to your Government about this matter;
  2. withdraw Commonwealth support for Metro and Western Sydney rail until an independent public inquiry has examined and reported on Sydney rail matters.’

To which there was no response.

Another matter that ‘hopefully’ is merely coincident with the Department’s behaviour is activity of the Premier’s one-time beau regarding land etc. near the airport site, which is part of the NSW Corruption Commission investigation that led to the Premier’s latest ‘hand on heart’ pronouncement.

For completeness, it might be noted the Premier, when Transport Minister, publicly opposed the airport when initiating Sydney Metro – i.e. her grand transport scheme is predicated on there not being a Western Sydney Airport.

Epithets like ‘hard working’ don’t count for much when viewing a Premier presiding over  the world-scale Metro debacle.  Especially when the disgrace is compounded by such recent revelations of her Government spending $250m on projects (mostly in Government held electorates) in the lead up to the last election – $100m reputedly at her behest – without (written) authorisation.

There has to be a public inquiry into what has been going on in NSW transport and infrastructure. A Royal Commission is overdue but inevitable.

In addition to the need for a fundamental revision of Sydney transport plans in the light of Covid, all Sydney Metro projects should be stopped immediately, and the Commonwealth should suspend funding to all NSW infrastructure projects – pending the results of thorough investigations including into possible malfeasance.

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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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