Some certainty would be nice
With the New South Wales Government ringing in the changes yet again on the North West Rail Link, Peter Costello publicly bagging the Gold Coast Rapid Transit project and the South Australian Government pulling the pin on a significant part of its suburban rail electrification, who would want to plan their future around the rail industry?
By Mark Carter
When it comes to public transport, especially rail, the inability of Australian governments to stick to a plan is legendary. Be it for ideological or budgetary reasons, or just a total inability to plan for the future, this leads to a climate of ongoing uncertainty for businesses involved in the rail industry.
The North West Rail Link (NWRL) in Sydney is the classic example of ideology, financial constraints and a lack of clear planning vision that have caused the project to drag on for 14 years with still little to show for it.
It was first envisaged back in 1998 as a heavy rail extension to Sydney’s existing Cityrail network between Epping and Castle Hill with a future extension to Rouse Hill. After dropping of the radar for a few years the NWRL made a comeback in 2005 only to die a death three years later with the advent of plans for a “metro” style railway on a different alignment to serve the North West.
Ongoing leadership and portfolio changes within the then ruling Labor Party meant that incredibly, this latter proposal only survived for seven months before it was scaled back to become the more modest CBD Metro, which in turn, was scrapped to be replaced by ... wait for it ... a heavy rail NWRL!
However, the NWRL was now destined to play second fiddle to the proposed Parramatta to Epping rail link for which the NSW Government had secured Federal funding.
With the ousting of the state Labor Government in 2011, we could have been forgiven in thinking that this constant climate of change would be over, but unfortunately, it was not to be the case.
The incoming Liberal administration was adamant that the heavy rail NWRL take precedence over the Parramatta-Epping rail link, leading to an inevitable ideological stoush with the Federal Government over funding.
To its credit the state government continued to push its vision for the NWRL and has committed significant funding in its forward budget program for the link, only to provide the final (for now) twist tail when it announced last week that instead of a heavy rail link it would follow a ‘”rapid transit” model (another word for “metro”?) – with an added break of journey for commuters at Chatswood.
While the broader vision includes future, though uncosted, expansion of the “rapid transit” network to the CBD, given the state’s track record, it does not engender confidence that we will be left with anything but an orphaned “non-standar”’ stretch of railway between Rouse Hill and Chatswood.
While the NWRL saga is the most extreme case of our politicians’ attitudes and incompetence in regard to public transport, there are a couple of other recent examples that have made headlines.
Former federal treasurer Peter Costello, in his role as an advisor to the Queensland Government on the state’s financial position, decided to assume the role of attack dog by making a savage attack on the Gold Coast Rapid Transit (GCRT) project saying it had all the makings of another “Clem7”.
Now Clem7 for the uninitiated refers to the private sector toll road running under the Brisbane CBD, opened in 2010, that failed financially as the result of grossly overestimated traffic forecasts. The irony being of course that Clem 7 was a project presided over by then lord mayor Campbell Newman, the very man who as premier chose Costello to undertake the audit.
Costello has singled out the GCRT as a major obstacle to getting the government's debt under control, highlighting the fact that the tram system would never make a profit.
Now I have to admit that at around $1bn, the GCRT is not cheap, but at just 1% of the projected Queensland budget deficit it hardly represents a major obstacle, while the notion of public transport making a profit in Australia, while a noble pursuit, just ain’t going to happen anytime soon.
It’s all very well for Costello to play political tit-for-tat and use light rail as a soft target to highlight the sins of the previous administration, but how are those high-profile private sector companies involved in the project supposed to take such politically motivated attacks and the uncertainty it causes?
Thankfully, Queensland treasurer Tim Nicholls has reaffirmed the government’ commitment to the project, but debt or no debt, it is unlikely that further extensions to the GCRT will now go ahead.
It’s not just differing ideologies that create uncertainty; global financial turmoil has also thrown up its share of problems of late.
Last months decision by the South Australian Government to drop gauge conversion of the Adelaide metropolitan network from its Rail Revitalisation project was no surprise, but the move to suspend indefinitely the electrification of the Gawler and Outer Harbor lines certainly was.
Electrification has been bandied around SA since at least the 1940s, so it was disappointing to have got this far only to see things fall at the final hurdle, especially when two questionable urban road projects have taken precedence.
Of course an unfinished road project will always be in the constant eyes of voters, whereas no one is going to miss a few wires that have yet to be strung up?
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