In my last post I discussed the implications of the North West Rail Link (NWRL) for the 2015 and 2019 NSW state elections. This time I thought I’d survey the wider implications of some of the state government’s public transport decisions.
The government does at at least deserve credit for committing to a major transport project in Western Sydney that doesn’t involve bitumen and tolls. Nevertheless its decision to construct and operate the line as a public-private partnership (PPP) has attracted enormous controversy and is seen by many as the first big step in a plan to eventually privatise the Sydney rail network.
However this is only area in which the government could be seen as providing some of the groundwork for privatisation to occur. To be fair, a lot of the other decisions look fairly innocuous if they are considered in isolation and would provide benefits even if the network stays in public hands. But if you consider them collectively then some interesting patterns emerge which could be seen as providing clear signs of a privatisation agenda. Starting with the NWRL itself, have a look at the list and see what you think:
- Constructing the NWRL as a PPP and locking in an incompatible single deck design. Let’s start with the most obvious. Not only has the government decided to construct the NWRL as a PPP, they have reinforced their determination to ensure its separation from the rest of the network not only by specifying single-deck rolling stock but also by ensuring that the tunnels are being bored too small to take double-deck trains. I won’t go into all the criticisms here as these have been well canvassed and the line is now a fait accompli, but it will be very difficult – if not impossible – ever to integrate the line with the current rail network, even if a future government wanted to do so.
- Building the NWRL as an automated line. While there may be other reasons for introducing fully automated operation for the NWRL, it obviously reduces labour costs, not to mention union involvement, and sets a precedent for any other new lines. It also adds another layer of incompatibility between the NWRL and the rest of the current system – unless of course additional segments of the suburban network are converted to metro operation.
- Adopting a route for the NWRL that works only by taking over a significant section of the existing rail network north of the harbour… When completed the NWRL will be one of the few outer-suburban high-capacity metros in the world – and the only one to be deliberately constructed before there are any inner-city metro lines to link to. At least until the second stage is constructed, passengers heading for the CBD will have to change from a high frequency metro to suburban-style double-deck trains for the last part of the journey. Even to get to this stage a substantial piece of public urban infrastructure which forms part of the current rail network, the Epping to Chatswood Rail Link (ECRL) which was completed only five years ago, is to be integrated into the private NWRL. This route provides easy access for the NWRL to the existing north shore rail line at Chatswood and an eventual approach to the city. However the changeover will also require a seven-month shutdown of the ECRL to install new signalling, upgraded systems and the platform doors required for automatic operation.
- …and south of the harbour for stage 2. A similar approach is proposed when the line is extended south of the harbour, with plans to convert the Bankstown line to connect to the new metro. The reasons for this choice are not entirely clear as the Bankstown line is not experiencing the same overcrowding issues as some other lines (or perhaps this is the reason for this choice…). And as well as setting an obvious precedent for privatisation if not in ownership then at least in operation of public assets, the route chosen both north and particularly south of the harbour effectively divides the existing network, making it easier to break it up into different operating segments.One practical issue with this conversion is the amount of time the line is likely to be closed. If it is going to take seven months to convert the ECRL, an underground line only five years old with only five stations (counting Chatswood and Epping) and modern design and system infrastructure, imagine how long it will take to do the same job on the line to Bankstown, which is a similar length but over a century old and with at least 11 stations to contend with.
- Introducing an electronic ticketing system while retaining an intermodal flag fall between buses and trains – and not explicitly ruling this out for the NWRL. The retention of the flag fall for interchanges between different modes (mainly between bus and train, and vice versa) with the adoption of the Opal ticketing system has already been widely criticised. However the transport minister’s stubborn reluctance to remove this may have more to do with the useful precedent it provides for private operators to be able to impose a flag fall for changing to a “new” mode such as the NWRL metro. People have been quick to say that the government plans to integrate fares on the NWRL with those on the current system, but that’s not actually what the minister said in her media release of 1st May 2013. To quote: “Importantly, the State Government will set and control fares – which will be determined the same way as fares on the rest of the Sydney rail network. The private operator will make no money directly from the fares.” So the fares won’t necessarily be the same – they will just be determined “in the same way” – and this assurance does not definitively rule out a separate flag fall.
- Splitting CityRail into two new entities and announcing a new fleet of inter-urban trains. The split into Sydney Trains and NSW Trainlink – which incorporates all country and intercity services – will make it a good easier to privatise or franchise the latter and the government’s announcement that it will invest $2.8 billion to replace the entire fleet of intercity trains could provide an early opportunity to do this. While potentially good news, the announcement has come as a bit of a surprise and is seen by some as overkill, given the patronage levels on many of these services. However it would make it easier for the whole of NSW Trainlink to be privatised or franchised to a private operator who would then have a clean slate to construct their own fleet of interurban trains. While nothing has been mentioned about a possible PPP for this, to my knowledge it hasn’t been ruled out either.
- Not selling Opal cards or top-ups at stations. Finally the decision to sell Opal cards and top-ups through pop-up kiosks, convenience stores, newsagents, other shops – in fact, almost anywhere other than a railway station ticket window, will (if the practice continues) also reduce staffing levels and costs over time. It also means that future private operators would also not be expected to maintain or provide ticket windows or other infrastructure at stations, thus reducing their costs.
So are we on the road to complete or partial privatisation of the Sydney rail network, or not? As I said at the outset, a lot of these changes while controversial can be seen as benefitting the current publicly-owned system – others, much less so. Whether or not this is the explicit motive, however, most of these changes will undoubtedly make a future privatisation much easier to achieve.