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O'Farrell has to get on board with trains

By Richard Allsop - posted Friday, 25 March 2011

If there is one statistic which sums up the malaise that has gripped NSW in recent years, it is the patronage on the Sydney public transport network.

The position of Sydney compared to other Australian cities is startling. The most recent census figures available show that for the period 1996 to 2006, while the four other mainland capitals saw public transport share of journey to work trips rise by between 13 and 22 per cent, the share in Sydney actually fell by 15 per cent.

Indeed, by the mid-2000s public transport patronage in most other major Australian cities was beginning to boom. In Melbourne, the numbers travelling by rail increased by 22 per cent between 2006 and 2008; in Sydney the comparable figure was a measly four per cent. Things have only got worse since then, with figures released in recent weeks revealing that the number of trips taken on Sydney's trains fell by 2.5 million last financial year, while the number taken on buses went down by 1.5 million.


One part of the explanation of why Sydney is Australia's public transport laggard is the fact that demand has been suppressed. Sydney has not experienced the degree of population growth of cities such as Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Under Bob Carr's Premiership, the message went out that Sydney was closed, a position that also had a deleterious effect on economic growth, always one of the key drivers of increases in public transport patronage.

However, the bigger problems are with the supply of the service. Public transport in Sydney will not attract new patrons in big numbers until the quality of the service improves. And the key to improving the service is to address the fundamental problem that for too long the system has been run more for the benefit of transport unions than commuters.

Throughout the period that Labor has been in office, few of the inefficiencies in the system have been addressed. One of the rationales for the metro, which was the preferred rail project when Morris Iemma was Premier, was that it would operate with driverless trains. This was a lovely irony given that one of the worst inefficiencies of City Rail was that the network still operated with guards, as well as drivers, a rarity in modern train systems. It was a tacit admission that reform in the present was just too hard.

As well as the operational side, the work practices in rolling stock and infrastructure maintenance need to be made vastly more efficient. Both Sydney commuters and NSW taxpayers are paying the price of restrictive work practices and unnecessarily high subsidies.

Even before likely new Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian turns her attention to the trains she can start on the ferries, where the endemic problems were highlighted in the Walker Report in 2007. The Coalition Policy recognises that "increasing the role of the private sector in service delivery" is the best way to fix the problems. As the policy points out, the ability of the private sector to provide ferry services has been well demonstrated by the Manly Fast Ferry since 2008.

Next in line for private operation should be the STA bus operations, which could be franchised out in selected geographic areas. This model is hardly a radical proposition, having been undertaken in the majority of other Australian capitals in the past two decades. In all cases, it has led to significantly higher patronage, with an increase of a third in Perth in the first few years, while in Adelaide a study found a 15 per cent increase in ridership, combined with a large saving to the state budget.


Of course, this sort of reform is likely to meet significant resistance from unions. This was also the expectation when, in similar circumstances, the Kennett Government was elected in Victoria in 1992. A broad suite of reforms delivered annual savings of $250 million, without cutting services. The closing of one ancient inefficient rail maintenance workshop saved $80 million per annum on its own.

What was remarkable was that these reforms were achieved with the agreement of the transport unions, some of whose leaders were smart enough to accept that the Government was determined to achieve reform and that industrial action would not sway that resolve. One can only wonder whether the incoming Government in NSW next week has established its reform resolve so strongly. Certainly, an O'Farrell Government will need to be prepared for industrial unrest and ensure that it prevails.

Unions are not the only vested interest that the new government will need to address in the area of transport. The level of dissatisfaction with taxis is just as great as it is with public transport. Removing the pernicious effects of the current restrictive licensing system will be a real test of the reform credentials of the new government.

While public transport issues have played an important role in the NSW election campaign, the focus has not been on these core problems facing the system. The Opposition has released a number of transport policies most of which are worthy in themselves but, apart from the promise to involve the private sector in ferries, they only scratch the surface of the fundamental structural issues.

If the commuters of Sydney are to get half decent public transport, without increasing the burden on taxpayers, the inefficiencies in the system need to be addressed as the major priority. It is making the existing operation work efficiently that will be one of the biggest tests of an incoming O'Farrell Government.

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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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