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Not another transport plan

By Richard Allsop - posted Monday, 1 March 2010

Every time New South Wales changes Premiers, it also changes Transport Plans.

The latest one, recently announced by Premier Kristina Keneally, has one key positive - it kills off the Sydney Metro.

Despite the fact that it has already cost NSW taxpayers a whopping $271 million, and that there will also need to be compensation paid to the now redundant bidders, these are actually small prices to pay for avoiding further expenditure on a metro proposal that was destined to be a multi-billion dollar white elephant.


Of course, that should not in any way excuse NSW Labor from the responsibility for having invested in such a foolhardy plan in the first place. Stage One of the metro alone had a price tag of $4.8 billion, and yet was largely duplicating other public transport services.

NSW taxpayers will have to cop the wasted expenditure and Sydney commuters will continue to suffer from the diversion of funds to the metro, rather than to funding realistic solutions to Sydney’s transport problems.

Of course, there is also collateral damage from constantly changing plans. In the case of the now abandoned metro it is highlighted by the plight of small business operators in CBD buildings purchased by the Sydney Metro. Their businesses have already lost most of their customer base, due to office tenants vacating the buildings, but now remain in limbo with the buildings being held in government ownership in case a future government decides to reinstate the metro project.

When it comes to the actual proposals in the Keneally plan, debating their merits is pretty much an academic exercise, as one can safely assume the plan will never be implemented. It is hard to see too much of it being locked in by the time the State Election comes around in March next year. That is probably also why, as the State Opposition have pointed out, it is not fully funded.

There is no doubt that an incoming Liberal-National government will have its own plan. Even in the unlikely event that Labor was re-elected, history tells us that a new plan would not be far away. Certainly, anyone expecting to use the now reinstated north-west heavy rail link, a project originally announced in 1998, but deferred at least four times, to be delivered by the slated completion date of 2024 must possess an unusually trusting nature.

If scrapping the metro had been the only change to her predecessor, Nathan Rees’ transport agenda in Keneally’s first three months in the job, she might earn positive marks. However, three days before Christmas, she seriously blotted her copybook by ditching the previous Rees policy of moving towards privatising Sydney Ferries. This flip-flop was correctly seen by most observers as caving in to the maritime unions.


Ferry privatisation was recommended by Bret Walker SC, who conducted an inquiry into Sydney Ferries in 2007. The need for it was confirmed by a report by the NSW Auditor-General late last year which highlighted a failure to meet eight out of 12 operational and financial targets in the year to June, with on-time running, passenger complaints and sick days per employee all falling below target. And in a startling admission of failure the latest plan actually predicts an ongoing decline in ferry patronage.

In fact, NSW desperately needs to not only privatise the ferries, but the rail and STA buses services as well. Throughout the past decade Sydney has seen much lower public transport patronage growth than other Australian cities, in particular, market leader, Melbourne. A key reason why Melbourne has outperformed Sydney in public transport has been the fact that its trains and trams have been privately operated since 1999.

While the Melbourne system has its share of problems, operators have often been victims of their own success as the patronage boom led to problems such as over-crowding. The Victorian government was slow to respond to the boom and the biggest problems such as the new ticketing system, myki, have been government initiatives.

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About the Author

Richard Allsop is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. He was Chief of Staff to the two Transport Ministers in the Kennett Government and has had a range of other roles in federal and state politics, as well as private sector experience. He has a Masters in History from Monash University and is currently undertaking his PhD. Richard has written on Australian political history for various publications and has also worked on the Nine Network's election night coverage of federal and state elections since 1993.

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