It’s finally out – the interim report of the Independent Public Inquiry into Sydney’s public transport.
The Inquiry’s report was prepared under the guidance of Mr Ron Christie, former NSW Coordinator General for Rail and former head of the RTA, who famously got the trains (and buses) to run on time during the 2000 Olympics. The inquiry was established and resourced by the Sydney Morning Herald, but was conducted on a completely independent basis.
I felt honoured to be part of a team of transport advisers and planners who spent four months working with Mr Christie to develop the report, based on nearly 500 public submissions, meetings with key experts, detailed research into community attitudes and financial options, team members’ professional experience and expertise and, not surprisingly, robust debate within the team itself.
I assisted in developing the governance section of the report. I also contributed to the overall debate, especially in raising social equity issues and the importance of looking at public transport provision in outer suburban areas, but the report is really a collaborative team effort.
The result is a document which is far more comprehensive than any other transport planning initiative for Sydney I’ve seen in over a decade and which is also much more evidence-based than most transport plans. The report has six sections, starting off with what Sydneysiders actually said to the Inquiry about their own priorities for fixing the transport system, and perhaps more importantly the outcomes of an independent survey which clearly demonstrated their desire for change and willingness to pay for these improvements.
Based on these responses, the rest of the 450-page report is divided into chapters on the long-term development of the transport network, fixing fares, short-term improvements, funding and finance and the chapter I contributed to, “Getting it done”. The recommendations based on these chapters are divided into nine, almost self-explanatory key themes, as follows:
1. We have tried the ‘do nothing’ option for public transport. It has failed
2. We need a complete public transport network plan—and an agency that can deliver it
3. The three-legged stool: urban form, pricing and transport
4. Public transport, not just roads
5. A single, seamless public transport network
7. Short-term urgency and continuous improvement
8. Long-term commitment, now
9. Leadership and transparency for hard choices
I won’t try to summarise the report, because that has been done within the report itself as well as by the Sydney Morning Herald and by Mr Jarrett Walker, one of the team members. I would like however to talk about the two areas I was most involved in – governance, and the identification of transport priorities in Western Sydney.
The governance section, “Getting it done”, was described by Mr Christie at the launch as being possibly the most important chapter in the interim report. To quote from the report:
No matter how visionary a transport plan may be, it will succeed only if it is supported by a strong management structure committed to its long-term implementation.
This management structure, or “governance” system, must be:
- Able to secure the resources required to deliver the infrastructure underpinning the plan
- Strong enough to maintain a commitment to the plan in the face of short-term political considerations
- Able to manage the whole public transport system cohesively and with authority
- Able to obtain enough funding to deliver a high level of services, and
- Be prepared to champion public transport and other sustainable modes in the face of competing priorities and interests, such as the demands of private vehicles.
If the governance system is inadequate the public transport plan is most unlikely to be delivered. Critical infrastructure will not be built, services will be poorly integrated and the level of service provision will remain patchy and unreliable.
The governance section outlines the fragmented nature of Sydney’s current transport management. It compares this state of affairs to overseas and interstate experience, especially systems that operate successfully in places such as Perth, London, Singapore, Vancouver and Zurich. It also summarises proposals regarding governance expressed in many of the submissions received by the inquiry.
The overwhelming conclusion is that to have any success in overcoming its current “silo” based management and ad hoc planning, Sydney must adopt a single new authority to plan, develop and manage all public transport in Sydney. This authority must be responsible for most activities relating to public transport provision, including:
- long-term public transport planning
- defining public transport fare structures and fare setting
- implementing integrated fares and ticketing
- specifying routes, timetables and minimum acceptable performance standards for transport operators
- contracting for the provision of these services
- providing network information
- marketing and promotion of public transport services
The governance chapter also discusses the options for creating such an authority, including reforming the current structure or creating a new tier of governance (similar to the Mayor for London and the Portland Metro Council). It recommends a third option – the creation of an independent public transport coordination authority, called Transport for Sydney (TfS).
This body would undertake all the functions outlined above. The TfS would be managed by an independent Board with members from the State, Federal and local government and persons with experience in the transport sector, business, marketing and transport advocacy. A small secretariat, answerable to the Board, would manage Sydney’s transport through the following sections:
- Plan Process, responsible for developing and reviewing the Public Transport Network Plan for Sydney and conducting public consultations.
- Infrastructure Development, responsible for the purchase (on a contestable basis) and project management of the design, construction and delivery of public transport infrastructure, plus the specification and setting of standards for all new rolling stock.
- Operations, the core of TfS, which would be responsible for the development and sale of integrated journeys to the community and the coordinated purchase of these improved and expanded public transport services, on a contestable basis, from transport operators.
- Budget and Government, responsible for financial management, funding negotiations and TfS’s relationships with State, Commonwealth and local governments in support of the Public Transport Network Plan.
The report goes on to discuss the relationships the proposed authority should have with state government agencies, the federal government and councils, as well as the role of an independent customer advocate and of consultation in the plan development process.
The Inquiry has proposed that the new authority prepare an initial plan for public comment and that subsequently drafts of the plan should be released nine months before every state election, thus providing additional scrutiny of the plan and the responses of the parties and politicians in the run-up to the election. As the report states:
This four-yearly revision process, tied to the four-yearly electoral cycle, would present a major opportunity for the public, the government, the opposition political parties and individual electoral candidates to shape the policies and priorities of the transport authority.
The plan would then be finalised and adopted within 12 months of the election and would be protected by legislation against political interference outside of the plan adoption process outlined above.
The governance model proposed in the Inquiry’s interim report represents a clear break with the Sydney’s current complex and largely dysfunctional management processes. The primary intention is to greatly improve the planning and delivery of public transport in Sydney. In doing so, the model would remove many of the detailed aspects of transport administration from political control and interference, limiting the role of politicians to setting the broad directions of transport policy through the adoption of the four-year plan.
It is likely that this aspect of the proposed changes will meet the greatest political resistance, though, ironically, politicians stand to gain from being able to put day-to-day operational problems at arms length. Whether any or, ideally, all of the major parties have the courage to adopt the Transport for Sydney model remains to be seen.
In my next post I will look at Inquiry’s proposals for better public transport in Western Sydney.