As I write this post on the eve of the 2023 NSW state election, the major parties are neck-and-neck in the opinion polls. I’m not going to attempt to pick the result but there is already one clear winner, at least on paper – the Sydney metro network. .
There has been relatively little discussion about public transport policy during the campaign. The LNP government is basically promising more of the same – completion of the City and South West Metro and Parramatta Light Rail Stage 1, along with continued building of the Sydney West Airport Metro and Parramatta Light Rail Stage 2. It would also cut the weekly adult Opal card cap from $50 to $40, while the cap for concession holders would be cut from $25 to $20.
Meanwhile, the Labor opposition has committed to the same infrastructure projects, plus additional funding to ensure Parramatta Light Rail Stage 2 commences within the next term of government. It is also committing to a target of 50% minimum local content for future rolling stock contracts, ending the privatisation of public transport and improving bus services. It has not committed to the cut in the Opal cap.
The most significant differences have emerged over the construction of additional metro lines. In February the government made the announcement that it would “kick off the process of delivering four new metro lines in Western Sydney by undertaking the final business cases for the new routes” at a total cost of $260 million. The proposed lines are:
- Tallawong to St Marys – 20 kilometres with six or seven potential stations
- Westmead to the Aerotropolis – 37 kilometres with six or eight potential stations
- Bankstown to Glenfield – 20 kilometres with the number of stations to be determined
- Macarthur to the Aerotropolis – 23 kilometres with six to seven potential stations.
These business cases would be in addition to the one already committed to jointly by the NSW and Federal governments for the extension of the currently under-construction Metro Western Sydney Airport (Metro WSA) from its current Aerotropolis terminus to Glenfield via Leppington (this includes the conversion of the existing line from Glenfield to Leppington to metro standards).
I must confess that I had not anticipated the government committing this soon to any further metros beyond the Aerotropolis to Glenfield link, as I indicated in my recent post about metro expansion. However, I was broadly correct in seeing the next stages largely as extensions of the metros currently under construction.
One difference is that the government appears to be thinking about extending the current Metro Northwest from Tallawong to St Marys to meet Metro WSA, rather than extending the latter to Tallawong. While an interchange between the two metros and the heavy rail network at St Marys appears to be a more practical solution than an interchange at either Schofields or Tallawong, it is unclear how the incompatibilities between the two systems (such as their different power systems and train lengths) will be handled.
More significantly I did not discuss the proposal to extend Metro City and Southwest from Bankstown to Glenfield. Previous plans had shown a link from Bankstown to Liverpool along a more direct corridor than the current heavy rail line, but until now this has not seemed to be a priority. This is also the first time a further extension from Liverpool to Glenfield has been publicly announced.
Separating rhetoric from reality
Despite the government’s rhetoric, it has only announced its intention to complete the four metro business cases if it is re-elected. It has not committed any funding to the metros themselves beyond this; after all, the core function of a business case is to demonstrate whether a project is justified in economic terms in the first place. However, NSW has a history of commencing significant projects (especially motorway-related ones) before their business cases have been completed, so just the act of announcing the business cases were being fast tracked was widely interpreted as giving construction of all the metro lines a green light.
The Labor opposition certainly seems to have interpreted the announcement this way. Shortly after the government’s announcement, opposition leader Chris Minns confirmed Labor would proceed with the business cases for the links between the WSA and NW Metros and the extension of Metro WSA and Macarthur (as well as the previously-announced Glenfield link), but it would defer the business cases for the Westmead to Aerotropolis link as well as the one between Glenfield and Bankstown. The latter was of particular concern to Minns because of the delays in completing the Sydenham to Bankstown conversion.
The government’s announcement seems deliberately designed to plant the assumption that fast-tracking the business cases will automatically lead to the speedy construction, but in reality this is just fanciful. The government simply does not have the funding to commit to five projects of this magnitude simultaneously, nor I suspect would there be sufficient human resources or equipment available to do so. Almost certainly (if they proceed) the completed business cases will also include some sort of prioritisation and sequencing of these projects, though this of course won’t be revealed to well after the election.
The argument that some of the metros will be delayed regardless of whether they are found to be viable is a point the opposition could have made. This would also have provided a compelling context for their commitment to postpone two of these business cases because of the cost blowouts and delays in the current metro projects. It would have also made it much harder for the government to use this response to question the opposition’s commitment to the metro cause.
The opposition could have also raised some more specific concerns about the two metros whose business cases it wishes to postpone, in particular the proposed Glenfield-Bankstown link. Even if this were to provide a more direct corridor between Liverpool and Bankstown, there would be limited benefits in terms of speed between the airport and the city, especially as the incompatibility between the Metro WSA and Metro City and Southwest systems (not to mention their different operating consortia) would require an interchange, most likely at Glenfield. It is also unclear how the Glenfield-Liverpool link would affect the existing heavy rail line which is a major corridor.
And the winners are the metros
One outcome of this debate is that both government and opposition have signed up to complete the metro network. Mr Minns made it clear in his announcement that despite dropping two business cases, the opposition is committed to completing a metro-based “public transport ring” around the city. This is a tacit acceptance of the fact that the strategic location of the metros currently under construction has made it virtually impossible to expand Sydney’s rail network except through their extension.
However, the process of completing these metro lines will provide interesting challenges for either party should they succeed in the election. If the government is re-elected, it will have to come clean at some point about the fact that even if the business cases are favourable, it will be impossible to commence construction of all five metro lines at once. And if the opposition succeeds, they are likely to come under pressure from those within their own ranks opposed to the construction of the driverless metro lines, as well as to their privatised operation. Despite these caveats, Sydney’s rail network future looks to be increasingly metro-based, regardless of which party wins office.
Good analysis Alex
Another interesting perspective is what it all means for the other metros in the eastern bits – a metro West extension via Zetland; Miranda – Randwick and Kogarah to Parra.