Another Sydney transport travesty as rail promise shunted

Today’s announcement that Federal Government funding earmarked for the Parramatta-Epping rail link in Sydney’s west has been shifted to a fund for projects not to be built until after 2019 should come as no great surprise, but it is still profoundly disappointing.

Back in March 2011 after the Liberal Government’s landslide win in the State election, I made the following observations regarding the Parramatta-Epping Rail Link (PERL) and North-West Rail Link (NWRL):

While it is difficult to argue against the new government’s case that the North West is a higher priority than the Parramatta-Epping line, both are too important to become a political football between State and Federal Government.

If both governments dig in, there is a strong risk that the Federal Government will simply trouser the $2.1 billion it has offered for the Parramatta-Epping link and use the money elsewhere. This would be a dismal result for NSW and Mr O’Farrell and the new Transport Minister should quickly exercise some nimble footwork to reach a compromise.

I don’t claim any particular prescience for this observation; indeed watching my fears come to pass has been like being the hapless witness who knows in advance an accident is going to happen but is unable to intervene as the slow-moving car (or in this case, train) wreck occurs in front of them. What makes this particular debacle especially galling, however, is that the drivers concerned – the Federal and NSW Governments – also knew it was going to happen, could see it happening, but wilfully did nothing to prevent it.

In that post two years ago I suggested an approach to avoid the looming impasse:

One solution would be to treat both links as a single, staged project, effectively providing a link from Parramatta via Epping to Rouse Hill and incorporating the full extension of the North West link to meet the existing Richmond Line.

The total cost would be considerable, but (along with the South West Link under construction) would be a major investment in Western Sydney’s future. It would mean that all major employment centres and residential release areas in the region would be linked by rail to each other, as well as to major destinations in eastern Sydney.

Of course that didn’t occur. What we got instead was a display of political gamesmanship by two governments that should know a lot better. Now we have been presented with the resulting smouldering ruin, it’s difficult to know where to begin in analysing the causes, but here’s a start:

  • The apparent disdain by the Federal Government for the transport needs of the residents of the North West sector. Even if there are sound arguments for the Parramatta-Epping link and even if the residents of the North West were unlikely to thank a Federal Labor government at the ballot box, the lack of any rail infrastructure in North West has to be the highest transport priority in Western Sydney.
  • The State Government’s blunt response that the NWRL was the only project it wanted to nominate for Federal transport rail funding – full stop. You would expect that with $2.1 billion on the table they would swallow their pride and explore about other potential rail projects including Parramatta to Epping as well as the NWRL. Think of that – two major urban rail projects in Sydney at the same time (or three, counting the South West Rail Link), but no.
  • And even if the State Government didn’t want to make up any potential funding shortfall for the NWRL given the bloated costings which bedevil NSW rail infrastructure projects, its failure to pitch some other alternative like the Parramatta to Eastwood and Macquarie Park light rail link, as proposed by Parramatta Council. While obviously it would not have the same potential for network integration as the PERL, this proposal would deliver many of the same connectivity benefits, linking residents of Western and South-Western Sydney to jobs in the Macquarie Park corridor.
  • The indecent haste with which both governments seized on the WestConnex Motorway proposal spruiked by Infrastructure NSW to extend the M4 to link with the M5, Port Botany and ultimately the CBD, as if this is the only “real” solution to Sydney’s transport problems. While there is a need to improve connectivity to the port and airport for freight traffic, the NSW Government’s proposal to build a full motorway to do this is questionable, expensive and ill-considered (Infrastructure NSW’s proposal to construct it in a slot instead of a tunnel has already been thrown out), while the Federal Government’s demand that it include a direct connection to the CBD is potentially disastrous, as pointed out by Garry Glazebrook and others.*

So what are we left with? True, the NSW Government is to be commended on its commitments to complete the South West and North West Rail Links, even if the government’s plans for the latter are likely to result in the destructive fragmentation of the city’s rail network, as Sandy Thomas has so eloquently noted.

And yes, the Federal Government has funded major urban rail and light rail projects, for example in cities such as Adelaide, the Gold Coast, Melbourne and Perth – any other city it would seem, except Sydney.

But here, in the so-called Global City where despite everything there actually is a culture of using public transport, where the needs for investment in public transport infrastructure are so pressing and where until recently the allocation of funding between the eastern and western half of the city has been so inequitable, our Federal and State politicians play brinkmanship with and ultimately walk away from a $2.1 billion commitment to fund essential public transport in Western Sydney.

Yet in an era when private car use is actually declining around the world and in Australia and when most other major cities have given up on motorways, recognising that they are the cause of and not the solution for their transport problems, the same politicians are happy to contemplate spending billions more on a motorway in eastern Sydney that will add new meaning to the word congestion.

Welcome to Sydney in 2013.

* A response to comments by Mr Paul Broad, the outgoing CEO of Infrastructure NSW, that the cancellation in the 1970s by the Wran Government of plans to wipe out large chunks of Glebe, Leichhardt and Five Dock to extend the M4 to the CBD was  a “$5 billion bad decision”: the campaign against the M4 extension (in which I was very peripherally involved) was only partly about preserving many of Sydney’s iconic inner-city suburbs – it was also because the campaigners wanted to save the city itself.

Even back then people could see the stupidity in plans to dump tens of thousands of cars in the middle of the CBD. The implications were obvious – the city clearly could not have accommodated this number of vehicles without the construction of mass carparks which probably would have resulted in the demolition of many heritage buildings. Needless to say the motorway itself would have become one huge carpark and the endless cycle of motorway expansion and urban and suburban destruction would have gone on.

That is the main reason people campaigned against this motorway and I for one do not resile from my (admittedly marginal) involvement in that successful campaign. The cancellation of the motorway was certainly not a bad decision – and the arguments against its modern reincarnation are as relevant now as they were nearly 40 years ago.

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