For better or for worse, the State Government’s recent victory on power assets means it has both the power and the financial resources to fundamentally reshape Sydney’s public transport infrastructure for the next 30 to 50 years. So instead of continuing my series on Australia’s light rail revival I’m going to take a short break to look at the implications of the government’s announcement that it will now uses some of the proceeds from the leasing of power assets to proceed as quickly as possible with the completion of the rapid transit network.
The ability of the government to get the power assets legislation through parliament and therefore fund its transport plans has obvious implications for the state opposition, so I’ll also have a look at the NSW Labor response to the government’s announcement of its transport priorities as well as to other transport issues such as the debate on the route of the proposed light rail line.
Sydney Metro: The State Premier Mike Baird claimed that with the adoption of the power assets legislation the government had “secured last night a green light” for its rapid transit plans, “so that the project is well and truly underway.” While the overall route is the same as previously indicated, running from the Chatswood terminus of the northwest section currently being constructed under the harbour and CBD to connect to a converted Bankstown line, a number of details were either revealed for the first time in the announcement by the Premier and NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance, or reconfirmed on the project’s revamped website:
- The single-deck, driverless system will now be rebranded as “Sydney Metro”, instead of “Sydney Rapid Transit”;
- The project is divided into two components – the 36 km Sydney Metro Northwest (formerly known as the North West Rail Link) which is currently under construction, and the 30km Sydney Metro City and Southwest, which is the section to funded in part by the partial electricity privatisation;
- The previously-announced completion dates of 2019 for Metro Northwest and 2024 for Metro City and Southwest have been confirmed but the NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance also said tunnel boring machines would commence work for the latter section as early as 2017;
- In addition to the provsion of four new stations at Central, Pitt Street, Martin Place and Victoria Cross (North Sydney), a station will be provided at either St Leonards or Crows Nest;
- Additional metro stations are also being investigated at Barangaroo, the Artarmon Industrial Area and either the University of Sydney or Waterloo;
- Community feedback is being sought about the Metro City and Southwest section, with submissions due by Friday 17th July 2015. Online forums have also been created for less formal input about the project and specifically the station location options mentioned above. Community and industry forums are also planned.
- Train frequencies have been confirmed as every four minutes in the peak for Metro Northwest but Metro City and Southwest will have the capacity to run a train every two minutes. It is unclear whether this frequency will be maintained over its whole length or just in the CBD/Chatswood section;
- Although it is the shorter of the two sections, Metro City and Southwest will be the more expensive project costing $9.6 to $11 billion, compared to $8.3 billion for Metro Northwest. It is not clear whether this is due to cost indexation, the complexities of boring under the harbour and through a CBD with many existing tunnels or the costs involved in constructing new stations in the CBD;
- This means the total cost of the project will be close to $20 billion, making it easily one of Australia’s most expensive public transport projects.
While this news did not feature in the announcements regarding Sydney Metro, a recent SMH article revealed that the seven-month closure of the Epping Chatswood link to allow for its conversion will be preceded by a period of four months during which the line will be disconnected at both ends and run as a shuttle service. The same article confirmed that the contract signed with the operator, a consortium including Hong Kong’s MTR and UGL, specifies that “30 per cent of the capacity of the trains needs to be for seated passengers”, noting that when Sydney’s existing trains are full, “about 75 per cent of passengers are seated”.
State Labor responses: According to media reports, the NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley conceded that the ALP had lost the power assets battle and that it was time to move on. He said that the party would not maintain “an obsessive focus on this one issue” and wouldn’t be “fighting the last war”, though he would “wait and see” if the lease of the assets secures the $20 billion being sought. He also promised to hold the Baird government to account on the delivery of these “very grand promises”.
This would appear to indicate if not support, then at least a decision by Labor not to oppose the Sydney Metro concept outright. If this is the case then NSW Labor has also moved on from its March 2015 election commitment to defer commencement of the second Harbour crossing until 2024 and only after the completion of a “rigorous cost-benefit analysis and business case”.
In contrast Labor has taken the opposite approach with the CBD and South East Light Rail (CESLR). After explicitly supporting completion of the project at the last election, the Labor leader has now said he now supports construction only as far as Central and would oppose the CBD section, accusing the government of delivering a “Berlin Wall down the central spine of Sydney, dividing the CBD into east and west”. This is despite the contract for construction of the whole project having already been let.
Mr Foley claimed that not only would George Street be “plunged into chaos” during construction but will also become a “permanent congestion nightmare”. He went further, claiming that the government “should listen to Nick Greiner – who made it clear that light rail in the Sydney CBD will increase congestion and grind this city to halt”, referring to the former NSW Liberal Premier who in his time as the Chair of Infrastructure NSW openly favoured bus over light rail public transport options.
Shadow transport minister Ryan Park went further saying that Labor had changed its position after stakeholder discussions and reading a number of reports including the 2012 Infrastructure NSW Report, indicating that Labor had come to the conclusion “that the best way forward is to terminate [the light rail] at Central and to start to have a serious look at the bus rapid transport that was proposed in the Infrastructure NSW report.”
Comment: While the details are yet to be finalised the government will argue that it has the mandate and now the resources to complete its program of public transport infrastructure investment. One project, the Northwest Metro is already underway, while another, the CESLR, has a signed contract with construction about to commence. The third project, the City and Southwest Metro, is well advanced in planning and now has a funding commitment.
As I have outlined in several previous posts I think that all these projects have some serious shortcomings. These include the incompatibility of Sydney Metro with the existing rail system, the fact that the metro also requires the effective transfer of public rail corridors to the private operator and in relation to the CESL the limitations of trying to do too much within one project and in particular the capacity issues.
This isn’t to say that these are bad projects – all of them certainly offer better alternatives than doing nothing – but rather that there may have been much better ways in which to implement them or alternatives that would have offered superior results and/or better value for money. In addition the choices of mode for specific corridors appears to have been made in an isolated, ad hoc and at times even an ideological way, with little thought to the overall coherence of the transport system.
The current State Government is however able to make one strong and valid claim in its favour – that unlike its predecessor at least it is making substantial investments in public transport. And this is Labor’s dilemma; the party’s record in office on public transport infrastructure was frankly a shambles. While there were some achievements especially in aspects of service delivery it failed on the crucial test of investment in critically-needed major public transport infrastructure projects, chopping and changing between various metro-style and heavy rail proposals to the point where any announcement it did make lacked any credibility.
As today’s Sydney Morning Herald’s editorial puts it, Labor was “never confident enough in what it believed, continually shifted its transport priorities and therefore continually failed to deliver on them.” The lack of any solid commitment or practical action not only contributed to Sydney’s congestion problems but also left a completely open field for the incoming Coalition government to implement its own somewhat more ideologically driven investment agenda.
This government can hardly be blamed for cleverly locking in various contracts to ensure that this agenda will be implemented even if it were to lose office at the next election in 2019. Two of these projects, the Northwest Metro and the CESLR, are scheduled to be completed before the next election while the third, the City and Southwest Metro, will be well underway. These projects (and, potentially, the recently-announced preferred Parramatta-Olympic Park-Strathfield option for Western Sydney light rail) will irrevocably establish a new city’s public transport framework as well as the priorities for the location and types of additional infrastructure projects for decades to come.
Labor seems to have accepted that it has lost the battle in relation to its opposition to the electricity assets issue and that by implication the government can and will proceed with the rail projects. It has decided instead to adopt a strategy of holding the government to account in terms of project funding and implementation. This makes its decision to oppose the CBD component of the CESLR all the more puzzling, given that a contract has been signed and the fact that it had previously supported the project. To quote the SMH again, “Luke Foley’s criticisms would have more currency if he had offered them three months ago, when he stood for premier.”
The SMH also points out that in his sudden conversion to the option of a bus tunnel because of the disruption associated with its construction, the Labor leader has overlooked the considerably greater disruption a bus tunnel would be likely to cause – and indeed the road closures and diversions and other associated problems that would result from the construction of any new transport infrastructure in the CBD. There is also the fundamental illogicality of supporting the light rail only as far as Central, meaning that many passengers would be forced to transfer from a bus to a tram at Kingsford and Randwick and then again from the tram to a bus or train at Central.
It is difficult to see what the Opposition will achieve by this new stance, given the government’s political and contractual commitments to completing the CESLR mean it will be completed by the next election. A more logical approach would be have been to have noted that while there may have been better alternatives to this project the government has signed up to it and therefore just as with Sydney Metro the opposition was now going to hold the government to account over its implementation. This would still be a fertile field for the opposition to pursue, with many questions regarding issues such as the project’s inherent capacity limitations and the strategies to manage CBD traffic and bus arrangements yet to be resolved.