Saturday 22nd Feb, 2020

NSW election: slow promises to nowhere’

The transport policies announced so far in the lead up to the New South Wales election look more like a choice between “small target” policy gaps and vagaries the hype and a lack of care about the facts of a political party that knows it will never have to deliver on its promises and in the middle, a party that is likely to promise the world but has traditionally found it bothersome to look for the cash.

In this special feature, member of the Sydney Morning Herald’s independent public transport inquiry, 2009-10, Sandy Thomas, takes a detailed look at the transport policies of all three major political parties announced so far – or lack of.

The Liberals and the National Party
The Liberals and the National Party (LNP), coasting in the polls, have so far offered only a very limited grab-bag of rail-related policies, only three of them specific to public transport and none of them to freight transport.

They have undertaken to:

1.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Build the South West Rail Link from Glenfield to Leppington, but with no specified completion date. (Labor has previously promised to complete this project by 2016, but has now also fallen silent about this in its election promises).

2.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Build an unspecified form of the proposed North West Rail Link from Epping to Rouse Hill, “starting work” (whatever that means) by March 2015 and again with no specified completion date. (Labor isn’t promising any specific start or finish dates either, and is seriously downplaying its commitment to this project, although it still says the project is “due to commence” in 2017.)

Importantly, however, the LNP policies, and the Labor policies as well, are silent about how the new South West and North West lines would operate within the already capacity-constrained wider CityRail network.

Even in the short term the new services to and from these lines would force changes to many existing services, although some recent Labor claims on this – apparently seeking to discredit the North West Rail Link even though it’s also part of Labor’s own policies – have been real works of fiction, utterly contradicted by numerous train planning studies.

But within a matter of years, at most, the existing network’s capacity would be overwhelmed – as Labor once recognised, when it announced the government’s approval, in 2005, for a new cross-harbour, cross-CBD line as part of a new operating sector linking the two new lines.

The need for this new cross-harbour, cross-CBD line if the whole CityRail network is to have a viable future has been confirmed in numerous studies, including recent investigations by the SMH’s independent public transport inquiry (www.transportpublicinquiry.com.au). But for the LNP and Labor alike, it’s still a bridge or tunnel too far.

3.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Introduce (by an unspecified date) several “express” and “semi-express” CityRail services similar to those eliminated in the timetable slow-down of 2005, including three extra Central Coast services, one extra Penrith service and one extra Blue Mountains service during the morning peak hour and one extra Campbelltown express service per hour throughout the day.

This is a “low-hanging fruit” policy that reflects numerous analyses, including studies by the SMH’s independent public transport inquiry, showing service speeds and frequencies can and should be restored without jeopardising service reliability or necessitating additional rolling stock. But as always, it won’t be a trivial exercise and in realising the full potential the devil will definitely be in the detail.

The premier has been quoted in some media reports as suggesting the proposal might be unsafe. This claim is utterly spurious. It is also hypocritical. Almost in the same breath, Labor has paraded an untested assertion that as part of its “Western Express” project it can save seven minutes between Springwood and Penrith – without any new infrastructure in the area, and still with the same station stops – simply by speeding up trains around the curves of the lower Blue Mountains, apparently including those at Glenbrook.

4.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Create a new Integrated Transport Authority which, under a very sketchy governance model, would simultaneously have substantial powers – by being “responsible” for all transport planning, “managing” the provision of all public transport services in NSW and “providing accountability” for the planning and delivery of “major” transport infrastructure projects – while being “overseen” by an unspecified “independent” board which would merely “play a role” in “keeping the state government accountable on transport policy” and in “providing advice”.

In practice, this model seems very similar to the Transport NSW model applying today, under which day-to-day Ministerial control is still absolute and supposedly independent oversight groups have been wheeled in whenever some spin about “independent review” is required.

5.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Create another new and apparently overlapping authority, Infrastructure NSW, which would be directly responsible to the premier, prepare draft 20-year and five-year infrastructure strategies for the Premier and Cabinet, covering all infrastructure projects costing over $100m, provide advice on infrastructure issues, and provide “direct management or oversight” or “co-ordination” of Cabinet-selected projects.

This authority would again be “overseen” by a board with an “independent” chair (whatever that means), five senior public servants and five government-selected “infrastructure experts” from outside the public sector.

6.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Establish an infrastructure fund, Restart NSW, for projects that “could” include public transport projects, with 30% of this fund being dedicated to projects in an undefined “regional NSW”.

The only expressly envisaged sources of Restart NSW funding are “windfall” tax revenues, additional borrowings and the proceeds of a proposed lease of Sydney’s desalination plant.

Other potential sources of public transport funding, ranging from fare increases, parking levies, congestion charges and carbon taxes to vehicle levies, betterment taxes, household and business levies and Commonwealth funds, are simply not mentioned, even though several studies have demonstrated many would gain significant community support if they were tied to real public transport improvements. By the same token, they have not been ruled out, either.

Labor
The Labor Party has splashed out with a wider range of policies, although once again there is more spin than detail.

Although Labor has been criticised by the LNP for “rehashing” old policies, this is hardly a fault. Public transport planning has to encompass long-term plans, and there ought not to be sudden, whimsical “discoveries” of new projects (such as Labor’s 2007 lurch into metro “solutions” and, half a billion dollars later, its equally poorly researched lurch back, early in 2010, to “new” heavy rail projects that had been discarded for good reasons in the past).

NSW Labor’s biggest credibility problem, by far, is its widely perceived failure to deliver on most of its public transport commitments in numerous “plans” released over the last 16 years.

Taking its current commitments at face value, however, Labor’s main rail-related promises in this election so far, as set out in a Better Public Transport policy document released on February 18 have been to:

1.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Complete the Glenfield-Leppington South West Rail Link, but now with no specified completion date.

2.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp “Build a Western Express” by 2018, involving faster express CityRail services from Springwood and Penrith to the CBD. (There is now no mention of the previously announced Western Express services from Richmond.)

The only expressly promised infrastructure project for these proposed “Western Express” services is an underground “City Relief Line”, a new stub railway along the western fringe of the CBD from Redfern to Wynyard, which for many services would effectively replace the existing stub line into the country platforms at Central.

This line was costed at $4.53bn in the government’s February 2010 Metropolitan Transport Plan. Yet Labor has now costed the entire project at $4.bn – totally ignoring the costs of the new trains and the major infrastructure upgradings (including several junction grade separations) required along the rest of the route and along the other tracks to which most of the services now using the tracks that will be occupied by Western Express services will have to be diverted, and totally ignoring the costs of essential major signalling and train control changes, including an assumed (and technologically extremely challenging) switch to automatic train operation in inner Sydney.

When the Western Express project was first announced a year ago it was portrayed as “ultimately” delivering more than 5,000 extra train seats from Parramatta to the CBD in the morning peak hour (the equivalent of about five and a half eight-car trains). Labor is now promising that at least an extra 6,000 seats per hour will be delivered as soon as the project opens, in 2018.

Even more incredibly, Labor is also now claiming the City Relief Line will, at some unspecified time, “allow an extra 24 trains an hour from across the network to enter the heart of the CBD”. This is utter nonsense. Even if the twin-track terminating City Relief Line could handle 24 trains per hour each way, west of Redfern these trains will displace other CityRail services, forcing them onto other lines and necessitating major changes in the ‘sectorisation’ of CityRail services. The new stub line will not, of itself, increase total rail capacity into and through the CBD.

In short, the “Western Express” concept, originally based on deeply flawed and misleading analyses (as explained in some detail in the final report of the Sydney Morning Herald’s independent public transport inquiry), has now become a victim of its own spin, with quite extraordinary claims now being made about its benefits.

3.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Construct a new Parramatta-Epping Rail Link “in partnership with the Federal government”, which has undertaken to kick in $2.1bn of this project’s $2.6bn estimated cost (but only after the next federal election).

No promises have been made about construction commencement or completion times. Although this project was described when it was announced in August last year as being “shovel ready”, it had in fact been moribund for many years, after being “indefinitely deferred” when only initial concepts had been prepared. Indeed, the NSW government had submitted an application to Infrastructure Australia (IA) seeking funding for three years of studies, including studies of alternative alignments, only the day before the go-ahead was announced.

This is potentially a very valuable project, especially if it connects with the line south from Parramatta to Liverpool, thereby linking Sydney’s access-starved southwest with the Macquarie employment and education growth precinct. Although few details have been released, the current Labor concept envisages such a connection only in the longer term.

The LNP have indicated they regard the North West rail link as a higher priority, and have stated they would seek the diversion of the Commonwealth’s $2.1bn to that project. The SMH’s independent public transport inquiry adopted the same position, but also regarded a new cross-harbour, cross-CBD line as a higher priority.

4.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Build an unspecified form of the North West Rail Link from Epping to Rouse Hill, with construction “due to commence” by 2017 (not quite a promise) and again with no specified completion date.

5.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Duplicate the Richmond line from Quakers Hill to Vineyard.
This is another regurgitation of a “deferred” project, now without any timeframe.

6.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp “Deliver 1,000 new trains”. (They probably meant train carriages!).

Not surprisingly, given the recent history of the Waratah PPP train project, no timeframe or details are attached to this reannouncement, which encompasses both replacement and additional rolling stock.

7.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Expand light rail “through the inner west and the Sydney CBD”.

“Through the CBD” means Hickson Road – a patronage desert north of the Barangaroo high-rise area. There is no commitment to a route along the central CBD spine (George Street or Pitt and Castlereagh Streets). And again there are now no promised timeframes.

8.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Extend free Wi-Fi to all trains. This is an obvious and positive step in improving the attractiveness of public transport, but it could be a challenge, as anyone who has tried to use a mobile in Sydney’s rail tunnels will attest. And they’ve said they’d “start” with some buses and ferries, at some unspecified time, with once again no timeframes at all for rail.

9.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp And finally, “introduce a public transport electronic ticketing system“. Now where have we heard that before?

The Greens
The Greens may well hold the balance of power in the upper house, but unfortunately it is difficult to assess their potential role on specific public transport issues, including funding issues, because they have yet to release their detailed transport policies.

In more general and long-standing commitments, however, they have undertaken to support:

1.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp A redirection of funding from the proposed M5 motorway extension and widening project and M4 East motorway project to a focus on public transport and freight rail options to reduce congestion.

2.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Accelerated construction of the North West Rail Link and the rapid completion of the South West Rail Link (they have also, very recently, criticised the Liberals’ policies of deferring the Western Express and the Parramatta-Epping link).

3.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp A government buy-back of the Airport Rail Link stations from their private owners.

4.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp A “fully integrated” public transport fare structure involving all transport modes, including light rail and private ferries.

5.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Expansion of the light rail network, including a focus on new light rail opportunities, including the recently proposed “East-West Translink”.

6. &nbsp Cooperation with the Federal government to introduce a high-speed rail&nbsp service from Sydney to Newcastle.

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