AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Viewpoint: Urban rail transport a vote winner?

<span class="" id="parent-fieldname-description"> Transport matters are never a big vote winner in federal elections and rarely feature in pre-election headlines, but Tony Abbott’s comments last week on urban rail funding, or the lack of it under a coalition government, might just allow rail to capture a little bit of the limelight in the lead up to September. </span> <p>For those that missed it, the Opposition leader Tony Abbott when questioned by reporters on possible funding for the Melbourne Metro project last week was quoted as saying, “Now the Commonwealth government has a long history of funding roads. We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting, and the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.&quot</p><p>I imagine this was a bit of a nasty surprise for Victorian Liberal Premier Denis Napthine with a number of major rail projects on his wish list including the proposed nine-kilometre, $9bn Melbourne Metro rail tunnel under the city CBD, which would be heavily reliant on Commonwealth funding if it progresses.</p><p>The reality is that it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise at all for Denis. If he had read Tony’s self-defining tome, ‘Battlelines’, he would have known from the outset that extracting cash from Tony for such a project was never going to be easy.</p><p>I’ve not read ‘Battlelines’, but the following extract is enough to convince me that if I do ever get around to it, it won’t exactly leave me feeling warm and fuzzy.</p><p>“In Australia’s biggest cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still a hideous drain on the public purse. Part of the problem is inefficient, overmanned, union-dominated government run train and bus systems. Mostly though….&hellipthere just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.”</p><p>“They underestimate the sense of mastery that many people gain from their car. The humblest person is a king in his own car&hellip.”</p><p>&nbsp“For too long, policymakers have ranked motorists just above heavy drinkers or smokers as social pariahs&hellip.They’re citizens going to work, doing the shopping, taking the kids to school&hellip”</p><p>Some of his points are hard to argue with, others though are overly simplistic or incorrect and his style has a touch of a 19th century travelogue.</p><p>These and his most recent comments about ‘knitting’ fail to acknowledge the problems of congestion, rising fuel costs, urban sprawl, emissions etc., though given the latter are largely invisible I can understand Tony’s refusal to accept that they exist as a problem.</p><p>Abbott’s anarchic road based vision for the nation’s transport solutions – more cars and more roads for those cars is unsustainable.</p><p>If he thinks that by building new roads you will solve congestion then he should go for a spin around the M25 motorway the next time he is in the UK, as I had the misfortune to do several times last month, just to see the futility of this approach.</p><p>Note the deliberate use of the word ‘nation’ in the previous paragraph. Abbott’s bizarre claim that the Commonwealth is not in the business of funding urban rail projects is of course incorrect.</p><p>Since 2007, the Commonwealth has contributed around $5bn either directly or indirectly towards improving urban rail infrastructure and capacity and still has $2bn in the bank earmarked for the stalled Epping to Parramatta rail link in New South Wales.</p><p>The World is changing Tony and as a nation we need to move with the times. Australia is part of the global economy and our biggest cities, where most of our population resides, are now global cities, and by and large this is what makes us tick as a nation. Huge increases in patronage on most of our urban rail networks in recent years, despite decades of infrastructure neglect, cannot be ignored.</p><p>International visitors to our cities also expect first class public transport infrastructure, or will Australia’s future tourism campaigns market our country as some quaint throwback to the 1950s.</p><p>Abbott’s comments have drawn criticism from numerous quarters including the Australasian Railway Association, Engineers Australia and even Sydney University’s Professor David Hensher, a member of Infrastructure Australia’s peer review committee on public transport, said Mr Abbott’s comments were disturbing.</p><p>”Infrastructure Australia was set up to provide advice on how the Federal Government could best support investment in infrastructure in general,” he said. ”To now say that they shouldn’t fund railways is moving away from the generality of the commitment,” Hensher says.</p><p>Both the Queensland and Western Australian premiers, while yet to make major public statements on the status of their urban rail plans, which will require some serious Commonwealth financial input, will no doubt be nervous.</p><p>I am sure they will both be having a quiet word with Tony over the next few weeks as to whether his recent statements indicate official Liberal Party policy as we head into an election.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp</p><p>The overall response from most quarters has been extremely encouraging – who would have thought that future funding for urban rail projects could rattle so many cages.</p><p>As the old adage goes, now is the time for those stakeholders to “maintain the rage”, and I am sure this won’t be the last you’ll be hearing from me on the matter either.</p>