Maintenance break looks to boost Hunter coal throughput

Australian Rail Track Corporation general manager Jonathan Vandervoort says the Hunter Valley coal chain will get an uptick in performance thanks to a 72-hour maintenance shutdown later this month.

The ARTC on Monday announced scheduled maintenance will close the Hunter coal network from early in the morning on Tuesday, May 31, to 6am on Friday, June 3.

“Keeping the rail network running safely and smoothly is a bit like running a finely tuned racing car,” Vandervoort said.

“There are multiple components that intricately work together for it to perform well and it requires and in-depth check-up and regular maintenance to ensure it continues running safely for over 250 train services a day.”

100 projects are scheduled to take place during the three-day shutdown. 1000 staff and contractors will work to deliver millions of dollars of new work and maintenance.

“It’s far more efficient to package the vast amount of work needed into 72 hours rather than spread over many nights and in-between live running rail traffic,” Vandervoort explained.

“By ‘closing down’ the networks and with fewer trains running we create a safer environment for our people and provide the opportunity to get the maximum amount of rail maintenance done.”

The ARTC and Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator work together to plan maintenance on the network over a year in advance.

The next major shutdown is planned for August 23 to 25. ARTC also plans to do some weekend work on the network near the Port of Newcastle from June 11 to 13.

Port of Fremantle - Photo Fremantle Ports

Fremantle Port privatisation in choppy waters

COMMENT: Recent loss of Nationals support is only one of a number of issues that could prevent the possible sale of Fremantle port, Peter van Duyn writes.

The WA Nationals recently announced they will no longer support the government’s plan to privatise Fremantle Ports.

They also halted the passage of the Pilbara Port Privatisation Bill, which deals with the sale of the Port Hedland Utah Point Bulk Handling Facility. They have asked a parliamentary committee to investigate the proposed sale.

The Barnett Liberal Government had flagged its intention to sell a number of public assets, driven by the state’s large debt and budget deficits in the forward estimates caused by declining revenue from the mining sector.

The WA Nationals’ decision comes soon after political posturing delayed the privatisation of the Port of Melbourne in Victoria.

After a Legislative Council select committee inquiry, Victoria’s Labor government had to water down the proposed legislation to secure the support of the opposition to pass the bill.

The changes resulted in more regulatory oversight, a shorter period of potential compensation payments to the new owners, if a competing port was built during the lease period, and control measures in port pricing regimes.

Whether the delay in timing (the sale is now scheduled for late this year or early next year) and the legislative changes will affect the sale price of the port remains to be seen. Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas is still confident that the sale price will be in excess of $6 billion.

Another obstacle in the way of privatising critical infrastructure (and achieving bigger proceeds) is federal Treasurer Scott Morrison’s announcement of tighter foreign investment rules in the wake of the controversial sale of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company.

The 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to an entity with alleged links to the Chinese government and military did not please the US government. Washington considers Darwin’s port a strategic asset in view of the presence of a large contingent of the US Navy, which uses the port for its supply chains.

From April 2016 onwards, the Foreign Investment Review Board will need to approve the sale of critical infrastructure, such as ports and airports, belonging to the states and territories.

WA Nationals leader Terry Redman previously supported the privatisation agenda. His change of heart comes after likely pressure from provincial backbenchers who still recall the sale of the WA government-owned country rail network to Brookfield, a global infrastructure company based in Canada, that left grain farmers with failing infrastructure and rising costs to get their grain to global markets.

A number of junior miners such as Atlas Iron, Mineral Resources and Consolidated Minerals who use the Utah Point facility to export their iron ore have also expressed concern about a potential increase in handling charges if the new owner was looking to improve their return on investment after privatisation.

WA Labor voted against the sale of Utah Point as well as the privatisation of Fremantle Ports; not surprising given Labor’s strong links to the Fremantle electorate (federal and state).

Maritime union organiser Chris Brown was recently pre-selected for the seat of Fremantle for this year’s federal election, but was then de-selected after it was revealed he had a couple of convictions dating back to when he was in his late teens.

There seem to be plenty of buyers circling Fremantle Ports (the state’s biggest general cargo port and Australia’s fourth-largest container port) with even the Port of Rotterdam’s international arm showing an interest.

Last year (FY 2014/2015) the port contributed about A$68 million to the WA government and the potential sale (or long term lease) figure is reported to be in the order of $2.5 billion.

Container volumes have seen a healthy five to six percent annual growth over the last decade; however current year to date figures have seen a decline in numbers.

It is surprising to see the amount of interest given the capacity limits (restriction on vessel lengths in the Inner Harbour, limited room for expansion of the container terminals, opposition to increased truck traffic through the City of Fremantle) of the current port.

The less than ideal rail link into the port, which runs along the Fremantle foreshore and past newly built million dollar apartments, could be another bottleneck for further development.

The uncertainty about the funding and timeline of the Perth Freight Link (PFL) project, which intends to provide better access for trucks to the port, is also not helping the sale process.

The threat of additional container terminal facilities at Outer Harbour near Kwinana (currently partly under control of Fremantle Ports) being established in the not too distant future would also be of a concern to the potential new owners, unless of course the sale includes the option to develop and run these facilities.

Road and rail infrastructure into the Outer Harbour has the potential of being far more efficient and less controversial than the proposed PFL into the Inner Harbour.

A Regional Development Australia (RDA Perth) report on the PFL and the Outer Harbour development, which has not been made public, is rumoured to be less than complimentary on the viability of the PFL and describes developing a new freight hub near Kwinana as a ‘game changing initiative’.

Fremantle Ports is the last capital city port in Australia to be privatised. However, a lot of water will probably have flowed under the Stirling Highway Bridge (a vital link to the port of Fremantle across the Swan River) before a deal can be done.

Peter van Duyn is a maritime logistics specialist from the Institute for Supply Chain and Logistics at Victoria University. He contributed this piece to Rail Express affiliate Lloyd’s List Australia.

Port of Fremantle - Photo Fremantle Ports

Labor supports Perth outer harbour proposal

The Labor Party has supported plans for a new, rail-connected container terminal to be built at the Kwinana Outer Harbour, in south-west Perth.

Shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese on Monday announced a Shorten Labor Government would give $2 million to the West Australian Government so it could put the plan to Infrastructure Australia.

The Outer Harbour – which has the vocal support of the local City of Kwinana council – has been compared as a viable alternative to the controversial Perth Freight Link – a road project designed to boost capacity to and from the Port of Fremantle.

The plan relies on strengthening rail links to the Kwinana site, among other measures.

“Since it was first proposed in 1996, both sides of politics have recognised the Outer Harbour as the solution to existing constraints on container freight coming into Perth,” Albanese said.

“Western Australia’s prosperity depends on all levels of government working together to deliver state-of-the-art infrastructure. It means jobs for Western Australians.”

Government analysis has suggested Fremantle Port could hit capacity by early next decade.

Kwinana, currently a bulk export terminal just south of the Fremantle container port, is seen as a major candidate for boosting that capacity.

“After more than three years in office, the Liberals are sitting on their hands, instead allocating funding to the flawed Perth Freight Link, subsequently blocked by the Western Australian Supreme Court in December last year,” Albanese said.

The Perth Freight Link was stalled at the end of 2015 after the courts ruled out a portion of the existing plans on environmental grounds.

“With the project discredited and the Malcolm Turnbull’s infrastructure record in tatters, we stand ready to work with the State to get on with the job of the Outer Harbour planning immediately,” Albanese continued.

“Western Australians know that careful planning and cooperation across all levels of government is required to boost WA’s economy, and not merely more road tolls.”

Innovation needed to save underground stations from flooding

Flooding is an issue which impacts metros and subways around the world. But innovative engineering could protect them, Dragan Savic writes.

When superstorm Sandy hit New York in 2012, it caused a massive 14-foot storm surge. Several New York City subway stations were flooded and the subway was shut down for days. Although the authorities prepared well for the incoming storm, it still resulted in some $5 billion in damage to the transport system. In other words, it could have been much worse.

Water management is only going to become more important as extreme weather events increase due to climate change and the proportion of people living in cities grows to more than 70% by 2050. Worse still, urbanisation increases the risk of water disasters such as floods because development reduces the amounts of permeable surfaces where water can soak into the ground, creating runoff that contributes to flooding.

This poses a particular risk to urban subways and underground railway systems, which can suffer flooding from various sources including tidal surges, river (fluvial) flooding, surface water (pluvial) flooding and burst water pipes. London Underground recently identified 57 stations that were at high risk of flooding, saying it was “only a matter of time” before heavy rainfall caused serious problems for the city’s subterranean transport network. So what can city leaders do to meet this challenge?


How deep is this issue?

Some cities are already used to dealing with flooding. The New York subway uses 700 pumps that typically drain on average around 50 million litres of water (nearly 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools) a day from the network. Before the Sandy flood, the city implemented $30 million worth of projects to prevent flooding, targeting the most flood-prone stations, installing valves to keep pumped out water from re-entering the subway and improving sewers to avoid future flooding. But the subway was still severely affected by flooding because its pump system couldn’t work once its power was knocked out.

Citizens of Taipei in Taiwan are accustomed to severe weather associated with typhoons, which the country experiences on average three to four times a year. And around 2 million passengers use the Taipei Metro (MRT) every day. As a result, the risk of flooding is high on the agenda for the MRT planners and managers.

Their stated goal is to protect against floods that reach 50cm higher than those likely to occur once in 200 years. To do this they have raised all station entrances and network openings by between 60cm and 120cm above the adjacent ground level, as well as installing flood gates and flood control structures along the river.

But when Typhoon Nari swept through Taiwan in September 2001, with one of the highest rainfall records in northern Taiwan, the resulting flash floods and the failure of several pumping stations flooded a number of MRT stations. Flooding caused 94 deaths and approximately $800 million of damage.

In London, this kind of flooding is highly unlikely due to the Thames Barrier, a kind of closable river gate that spans 520 metres across the River Thames and protects 125km² of central London tidal surges. This means that Underground stations within the tidal Thames floodplain are pretty safe. It was designed to protect against all but the kind of floods that would likely occur only once in 1000 years.

But other rivers in London that flow into the Thames, such as the River Lee, the Silk Stream and the River Wandle, still pose some risk of fluvial flooding. Climate change is also making extreme rainfall more likely in the UK, which in turn might increase the risk of surface flooding of Underground tunnels. Even more likely is flooding from London’s water 31,100km of water mains. For example, in June 2012 water from a burst water mains founds its way into the tube, flooding the Central line for 26 hours.


Not an easy fix

In principle, there are two ways of mitigating flood risk: structural and non-structural. Structural measures include engineered solutions to reduce or avoid possible impact of flooding, such as building levees and tidal barriers. Non-structural measures don’t involve physical construction but are instead about reducing risks and impacts in other ways, through policies and laws, public awareness and education. This includes things such as making sure building work considers its impact on flood risks, preventing loss of permeable surfaces, and better forecasting and early-warning systems.

Several measures apply directly to underground transport systems. For example, cities can install backup power for pump systems to reduce or avoid the potential for infrastructure damage when power outages occur, and clear flooded tunnels more quickly. Similarly, flood gates and raised entrances at stations could allow the underground transport system to continue operations even during floods.

Some new technology includes subway “plugs”, being developed by the US government, which look and work like big balloons. They can inflate in just a few minutes to help prevent water from entering underground tunnels. When not in use, the plug packs down to a small storage space in the tunnel, ready for remote, immediate inflation in an emergency.

But for all this useful engineering, we do have to realise that there is no feasible way to provide total flood prevention and there will always be some risk of flooding. That means we need to become more resilient to flooding when it does occur through prevention, preparation and planning. This way we can develop early warning systems, limit exposure to flooding and the damage it causes, and organise more effective recovery.


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Dragan Savic is Professor of hydroinformatics at the University of Exeter. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

Drama at ports as Newcastle blocked, Patrick-MUA bicker

It’s been a dramatic few days on Australia’s waterfront, with climate change protestors blocking trade at the Port of Newcastle, and one of the nation’s biggest stevedores squaring off with the maritime union.

With additional reportage by Ian Ackerman.

A flotilla of kayaks, canoes, yachts and various homemade watercraft blocked the entrance to the Hunter River – and therefore the Port of Newcastle – on Sunday, May 8.

The waterborne-blockade stretched across the river from the southern bank at the intersection of Horseshoe Bend road and Newcastle Dog Beach (approximately 720m south-west of Nobbys Lighthouse) to the northern bank at the Pitt Street Reserve.

Among the waterborne protestors was the Senator for Victoria and Greens leader Richard di Natale.

The port was shut for about six hours from 11am to about 5pm.

A spokesman for the protestors said the blockade and protest was a symbolic demonstration against a lack of perceived action to tackle climate change.

A spokesperson for the Port of Newcastle condemned the protestors’ behaviour.

“Protestors’ actions in attempting to block the port, trains and terminal equipment had the potential to put themselves and workers of the various companies in serious danger,” the spokesperson said.

“In a safety-focused industry, their behaviour is a concern.”

Protestors also blocked a rail-link into the port to prevent the passage of trains and the port’s receival of coal.

Approximately 66 people were arrested, according to NSW Police; most due to alleged actions on landside infrastructure including rail lines, conveyor belts and bridges.

David Anderson, CEO of peak body Ports Australia, said the body was “highly critical of the reckless and dangerous behaviours of the protestors at the weekend”.


Patrick at odds with union

Meanwhile, one of the nation’s biggest stevedoring companies is at odds with the notoriously militant Maritime Union of Australia.

MUA members overwhelmingly rejected an enterprise bargaining agreement vote 98% to 2%, which the union says Patrick arranged in a failed attempt to thwart the union.

“Now it’s time to stop playing games and get back to the table,” declared Mr Tracey.

He went on to say the vote gave the MUA clear authority in negotiations.

“Political parties claim mandates with only 51% of the vote, therefore a vote in excess of 98% gives the MUA an all clear to continue what we’ve been doing from the very start; that is, representing the membership,” Tracey said.

“The overwhelming majority voting no to the shoddy agreement also shows that the stall in negotiations has come from their side of the fence.”

Tracey criticised the cost of the ballot; Patrick hired independent pollster Elections Australia to conduct the vote.

“I have no idea how much this private ballot cost, but I can only assume a pretty penny, a pointless pretty penny, which produced nada in terms of a result for Patrick,” he said.

Although workers have lost $8,275.87 on average as a result of the MUA’s strike action to date, according to Patrick, Tracey argued the workers are willing and able to take the loss.

“Our members are willing to lose money to secure conditions,” he said.

“The workers understand this agreement is much more than take-home cash, this is about ensuring they have job security, increased permanency and safety on the job.”

A senior executive of Patrick, the stevedoring subsidiary of Asciano, meanwhile said it will lock out its workforce in retaliation to any strike action.

“If further industrial action is initiated, a lockout of the workforce becomes a more probable measure rather than a mere possibility,” said Alex Badenoch, a senior member of the Patrick management team.

Badenoch said the company is carefully considering its next steps and may go towards binding arbitration.

Any binding arbitration hearings would be before the industrial umpire, the Fair Work Commission.

“This comes at a risk to the company but we recognise arbitration may be the fairest and most effective path to resolving this impasse, given that we are working with a union that lacks the maturity to negotiate in a manner to conclude an agreement that supports both its members and the business upon which our employees ultimately rely,” she said.

“It’s a path the MUA has refused so far to consider.

“If we cannot reach agreement on what is a fair offer, or have the matter arbitrated by consent then our choices narrow considerably.”

This is an edited version of a pair of stories which originally appeared on Rail Express affiliate Lloyd’s List Australia.

Noble Park crossing, elevated railway. Graphic: Level Crossing Removal Authority

Melbourne’s elevated rail will reduce noise: Report

A report conducted by the Victorian Government’s Level Crossing Removal Authority says several design features of the planned elevated rail line between Caulfield and Dandenong will reduce noise compared to the existing at grade railway.

As part of plans to remove all level crossings on the busy Caulfield-Dandenong line, the Andrews Government is proposing a design centred on three elevated sections of rail viaduct.

The design has been met with opposition from some locals, who are concerned over the ‘skyrail’ being too loud, and an eyesore.

The report, released last week by the Level Crossing Removal Authority, aims to address at least one of those claims.

“The proposed design will alter how noise is generated and propagates throughout the rail corridor and surrounding community,” the Authority said.

“A range of design features will reduce the level of noise being generated, and noise walls will be included within the proposed design to further minimise noise transmission to the surrounding community.”

New continuously-welded rail track is predicted to reduce noise by 5 decibels (dB).

Further reductions in noise are predicted thanks to direct fix using resilient pads (6 dB),new station designs (0-5 dB), removal of the level crossings themselves (6-8 dB), reduction in horn soundings (3-6 dB),  noise walls (5-15 dB) and vibration isolation (0-10 dB).

Gradient changes are predicted to result in between a 4 dB reduction and a 1 dB increase in noise.

While the factors act individually (i.e. they are not additive when combined), the study was clear enough for public transport minister Jacinta Allan to be convinced the elevated rail proposal would reduce the amount of noise made by the railway.

“The report confirms the elevated line will reduce train noise for local residents day and night,” Allan said.

“This $1.6 billion project will create greener, safer, quieter neighbourhoods, with less traffic, more trains and more open space.”

The full report is available here.

Flinders Street Station, Melbourne. Photo: Creative Commons / Adam J.W.C.

31 councils, one voice: Why Melbourne needs a Metro Commission

COMMENT: Governance of metropolitan Melbourne is fragmented among 31 city councils. All levels of government need to work towards creating a metropolitan authority to meet the challenges of a growing city, Martin Brennan writes.

City and local governments anchor our democracy. They do so by providing opportunities for local communities to address their interests and needs of living in the 21st century. To prepare for the next decade, the City of Melbourne has undertaken public consultations to refresh its strategic goals.

Melbourne City Council has a responsibility beyond those who live and do business in the city. Its capital city role and status have direct impacts across metropolitan Melbourne.

Future Melbourne 2026 provides an opportunity for the city council to recognise its role as a collaborative city. It should be proactive and acknowledge the role of the city across metropolitan Melbourne. This requires increased collaboration working toward a metropolitan authority where our collective futures lie.

All the metropolitan city councils need to work together to achieve a post-carbon and resilient future for all Melburnians.

Click to enlarge

Graphic: Live in Victoria / State of Victoria
Graphic: Live in Victoria / State of Victoria

Melbourne City Council has over recent decades developed and implemented polices to deliver a liveable and sustainable city. The council has set the bar high in undertaking work to become a post-carbon and resilient city. This has received national and international recognition.

The rapid growth of Melbourne’s metropolitan population, from its current 4.3 million to an anticipated 7.7 million by 2051, presents the challenge of working toward a sustainable region. Meeting energy, water, waste, transport and food needs will require whole-of-government collaboration between federal, state and local levels.

Models of metropolitan governance

An interim collaborative approach would encourage us to consider governance models such as the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC).

The London Assembly, which comprises 25 councillors plus the mayor of London, governs the GLA. With a population of eight million and encompassing 32 boroughs plus the City of London, the authority may well provide a blueprint for our future.

The New South Wales planning minister has established the GSC to promote the integration of state and local government decision-making for the Sydney metropolitan region. It is led by Chief Commissioner Lucy Turnbull, a former lord mayor of Sydney. The commission’s membership includes economic, social and environment commissioners, plus six district commissioners reflecting the interests of the current 41 local government authorities.

Starting the groundwork

The City of Melbourne should start the groundwork for a Greater Melbourne Authority.

The first step is to identify the city as a collaborative city in Future Melbourne 2026. This means working in partnership with metropolitan city councils to develop projects and activities that make progress towards a post-carbon and resilient region in energy, food, water, waste and transport.

An example of how Melbourne City Council has already initiated metropolitan action is “Resilient Melbourne”. The council delivers this Rockefeller Foundation-funded initiative in collaboration with the other 30 metropolitan city councils. The project began in 2014 and is developing a strategy to:

… foster the long-term viability, safety and wellness of our interconnected communities and municipalities.

The state can drive a metropolitan agenda through Plan Melbourne, the Victorian government’s planning strategy to 2050. It was released in 2014. In October 2015, the state Labor government announced an update known as Plan Melbourne Refresh.

The refresh has focused on climate change, housing affordability and updating Plan Melbourne to reflect current government transport commitments and priorities. In the foreword to Plan Melbourne Refresh, Planning Minister Richard Wynne writes:

I want to see us build a city that sets an example to the world for environmental sustainability, social equity, enhanced liveability and economic strength.

Such a vision will require the support and actions of all 31 Melbourne metropolitan city councils.

To achieve this vision we need to establish a Melbourne Metropolitan Commission. It would include representation from metropolitan city governments for collaborative decision-making to achieve integrated strategic planning for all Melburnians.

The ministerial advisory committee for Plan Melbourne Refresh recommended that the Metropolitan Planning Authority be retained. However, the board lacks authority, a broad agenda and local government representation.

The OECD’s 2015 report, Governing the City, presents a range of metropolitan governance arrangements. The report provides advice for cities seeking more effective co-ordination for strategic urban growth involving transport and spatial planning. The report says:

A governance model depends on the capability to address three principal challenges: co-ordination, action and trust.

Metropolitan Melbourne needs to provide for a population almost doubling in the next 35 years in a carbon-restrained world. It must be resilient to climatic, economic and social shocks. To achieve those goals, we will need a metropolitan governance structure that delivers a whole-of-city approach.


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Martin Brennan is Senior Research Fellow Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL), University of Melbourne. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

Hills M2 toll road (owned by Transurban) Photo: Creative Commons / Sardaka

Greens not happy with road-rail imbalance

The Greens have accused Malcolm Turnbull of being too much like Tony Abbott, saying the federal budget announced on May 3 “is full of rehashed Abbott-era projects and does little for commuters”.

Australian Greens senator and spokesperson for transport and infrastructure Janet Rice described the 2016/17 budget as “a huge let down for Australians who are suffering from congestion and sub-standard transport”.

In a budget which Rice says “continues Abbott’s roads roundabout,” just under $2.4 billion is estimated or projected to be spent on rail transport by the Federal Government between 2016/17 and 2019/20.

That compares to $25.3 billion allocated to roads in that same time frame.

Click to enlarge.

Budget transport and communication spending

The Commonwealth’s listed rail spend will be reduced as existing projects are paid off and new work is funded through alternate means. $0 of capital investment is projected for rail transport in 2019/20.

“Expenses on rail transport will cease from 2018/19 reflecting the completion of existing rail projects, and the government’s decision to provide equity investment in future rail projects,” Budget Paper 1 explains.

Rice says the imbalance between rail and road spending is a continuation of “chronic underinvestment in our trains, trams and buses” by the Federal Government.

“Turnbull’s much-trumpeted $50 billion infrastructure spend is just smoke and mirrors, most just re-announcing Abbott-era projects,” Rice said on Wednesday.

“Less than 10% is going to public transport.

“We’re not going to ease congestion by continuing Tony Abbott’s addiction to great big polluting toll roads.

“Trying to fix congestion by building more roads is like loosening your belt to cure obesity – car use will inevitably expand to fill the space.”

Rice also expressed disappointment the budget was absent of any action on high speed rail.

“Disappointingly, the government’s commitment to high speed rail seems to have been all talk, yet again,” Rice said.

Turnbull’s city funding plan still no more than a pamphlet

COMMENT: The budget paints a picture of higher debt, little relief for growing cities crying out for infrastructure investment, and no detail of how City Deals might work to fix this, Phillip O’Neill writes.

Mounting public debt has sucked infrastructure spending capacity from the nation’s public balance sheets. The federal government proposes a new way forward, called “City Deals”. But the budget papers contain no further details, which is disappointing.

Infrastructure provision in Australian cities, especially for transport, is in crisis. Our cities are growing rapidly, they are congested and they lack planning direction.

The crisis has been elevating for some time. It has many origins – most notably in the aggressive paying down of government debt under four successive Howard governments. Between 1996-97 and 2006-07, net Australian government debt fell by more than A$125 billion. With the sale of Telstra, a further A$50 billion was made available to establish the Australia Future Fund.

There are good arguments for lowering public debt and setting aside savings to cover liabilities for public servant pensions. However, under the Howard government, actions to enhance the liveability of our cities were not given spending priority.

A continuing story of rising debt

The election of a Rudd Labor government in 2007 came with the promise of major infrastructure spending on our failing cities.

Instead, a global financial crisis led to the federal government balance sheet exploding with debt to fund massive spending injections and shovel-ready infrastructure projects, especially in the education sector. By the end of the 2013-14 financial year net Australian government debt exceeded A$200 billion.

The Abbott Coalition government eased back on spending with non-metropolitan roads spending preferred to the urgent refits our cities cry for. Now the 2016-17 budget papers tell us debt will exceed A$325 billion in the coming financial year, or 18.9% of GDP. That is Australia’s highest debt ratio in modern times.

When the Howard government was elected in 1996, Australia had just over 18 million residents. Since then another six million have been added; all are urban dwellers.

In this 20 years, Sydney has grown by one million people and Melbourne by 1.2 million; yet neither city has been the target of significant transport infrastructure spending by government. The major transport investment in each city has been by the private sector on motorways.

Private sector role favours roads

Look closely at this recent history and perhaps the logic of the City Deals initiative becomes clear. In 1994, the Kennett Coalition government granted Australia’s first tolled-motorway concession to the CityLink consortium.

Motorway deals in New South Wales and Queensland, for all their start-up failures and hiccups, have reproduced the CityLink model in three major ways.

First, they have used private finance to pay for the capital investments required.

Second, users must pay tolls to use the service the infrastructure provides, which, after deducting the minimal operating costs needed to keep a road open, forms the basis of a reliable return to private investors over many decades.

Third, and unlike the operation of a public transport system, the user fully bears the costs of providing and running a vehicle on the motorway.

Not surprisingly, cash-strapped governments have encouraged motorway investments in our cities and remained wary of new public transport investments. The latter depend heavily on public finance – and are also hideously expensive to run with low cost recovery from fare revenues.

For instance, after fare revenues, each of Sydney’s and Melbourne’s public transport systems still needs annual taxpayer injections of around A$5 billion to cover operating costs. Roads cost governments significantly less.

So what about City Deals?

In announcing City Deals as part of the Smart Cities Plan last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that the days of the federal government acting as an ATM for the states’ infrastructure spending were over. This seems a most peculiar warning given the major role of the Commonwealth as a collector of taxes and their efficient deployment.

But if direct federal government spending on infrastructure is scaled back in favour of encouraging private finance into the void, then the rules of financing and funding infrastructure need to be obeyed.

The parameters are clear. Where there is risk – be it construction risk or revenue risk – then private finance will demand government pick up the tab for cost blowouts and revenue shortfalls. Then reliable funding streams must be created to feed competitive returns to the private capital investors. Funding can only come from two places: taxes or user fees.

Funding is the harsh discipline of private infrastructure investments. Public transport deals especially will be starved of private finance because in Australian cities commuters refuse to pay the full costs of their train, bus, ferry and tram rides. But without higher fares, or continued public sector fare subsidies, private sector finance won’t be attracted.

Private infrastructure investment is a complex process, especially in multi-billion-dollar projects. The detail matters and is different in every case. Yet last week’s announcement of City Deals as a solution to the nation’s failing urban infrastructure systems was, in the end, the launch of a brochure.

Perhaps an election campaign will tell us more.

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Phillip O’Neill is Director, Centre for Western Sydney, Western Sydney University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

Sydney from the air. Photo: Southern Cross Maritime / Chris Mackey

Signs of hope in Turnbull’s Cities Plan, but is he dreamin’?

COMMENT: The recent cities discussion paper makes all the right noises, but, Paul Burton writes, the proof of the policy will be in the detail of partnership arrangements and implementation structures, and in how new money is used.


For committed urbanists, any sign of serious urban policy action by the federal government is welcome. Early announcements by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his appointment of a minister for cities were cause for some celebration.

The subsequent appointment of Angus Taylor as assistant minister for cities and digital transformation continued the positive outlook; a relatively new parliamentarian with a good track record of business development and an analytical disposition was entrusted to advance this policy agenda.

April 29 marked the start of the next phase of policy development, when we got to see what a Smart Cities Plan looks like and whether it was worth the wait.

On first reading it contains all of the right words – smart, innovative, liveability and prosperity. It also advocated some sensible principles – collaboration, co-operation and partnership. But do these nice words and sensible principles add up to a real step change in urban policy thinking, or to a business-as-usual approach wrapped in the latest policy terminology?

At this stage we cannot be sure, but prospective partners in state and local government seem to have a fair degree of optimism about the plan.

Most sensible public bodies will profess their support, in principle, for any initiative that offers the prospect of new money to support development proposals in their area. They will commit, in principle, to working together for the common good in their locality. And, if necessary, they will rebadge their current plans to fit more easily with the rhetorical flavour of the new initiative.

The proof will, however, lie in the detail of partnership arrangements, in the implementation structures that are developed and in the way new money is allocated. Even more importantly, success will depend on whether the actual measures employed work in practice.

Partnerships in practice

In each of our cities – large and small – we need all three levels of government to work together if growth is to be supported and managed effectively. Intergovernmental partnerships have been proposed for as long as we have had different levels of government.

There is much research on what makes such partnerships work well and what does not. Where partnerships work, much of this success is based on mutual respect and recognition of the distinctive contribution of each partner.

It becomes more challenging where the reality of an urban area requires horizontal partnerships between local councils as well as vertical partnerships with state and federal bodies.

The patchy experience of Regional Development Australia committees across the country gives some indication of how well this has been achieved to date. Some have worked very well. Others have struggled in the face of varied and variable enthusiasm among partners.

Getting implementation structures right

I have argued previously that effective implementation of any policy initiative is often plagued by a lack of long-term commitment and bipartisan support.

Along with a seemingly irresistible belief within governments of any hue that policies need to be fiddled with (the technical terms would be refreshed, refocused or rebadged) every few years, carefully designed initiatives are rarely left to get on with their work and run their course.

Another problem is bureaucratic capture, in which early ambitions to work differently, with greater agility perhaps, are slowly but surely overtaken by implementation regimes that do the opposite in practice. The business experience of both the prime minister and his assistant minister for cities will be needed to prevent this type of sclerosis taking hold.

Finding and spending new money to best effect

As Taylor told Michelle Grattan recently, some partnerships between public bodies and private investors have been very effective in the past – the construction of the national rail network in the US, for example. But there is also no shortage of ones that have not gone well for any of the parties.

So, while there has been some enthusiasm for the potential role of value capture of late – and certainly in the new plan – we need to see the detail of particular proposals.

The UK City Deals model includes the principle of transferring some of the increased tax revenue associated with growth from the Treasury back to local partnerships. However, this has sometimes proved difficult to agree in practice.

And it is here that bipartisan agreement in the urban policy field seems unlikely at present. The shadow minister for cities, Anthony Albanese, has come straight out with a ringing condemnation of the Turnbull-Taylor plan as a policy without substance.

Albanese also joined with the Property Council of Australia in invoking the spectre of Australian families being slugged with a new property tax to capture some of any increased value associated with public investment in infrastructure.

How will we know what works?

Tucked away on page 23 of the plan is a small section about measuring success. This acknowledges the importance of having good-quality data to provide a baseline against which future performance can be measured. It cites the need for “unambiguous targets, accountabilities and timeframes for city-level reforms”.

The plan recognises that, without these, it will be impossible for the government to hold itself and its investment partners to account. I would like to think that in five years’ time we will be able to read a National Audit Office report (like this one on the 2011-14 Liveable Cities Program) describing how this bold new Smart Cities Plan heralded a new era of productive intergovernmental collaboration.

That would mean it succeeded in attracting substantial new private investment, which set our cities on a clear path to being smarter, more productive and nicer places in which to live.

Let’s hope that if I shared this view with The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan he wouldn’t tell me, or indeed Angus Taylor, that we’re dreamin’.


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Paul Burton is Professor of Urban Management and Planning & Director, Urban Research Program, Griffith University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.