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Issue #1646      July, 9, 2014

Burying Sydney’s public rail network

The Baird government has offered to use the proceeds of the sale of the NSW electricity infrastructure (the “poles and wires”) to extend Sydney’s rail system by 60 percent, if the Coalition is returned to office next year.

However, the proposal would involve privatising not only the crucial energy infrastructure but also the nation’s most extensive urban rail network, which operates with remarkable efficiency compared with privatised rail in Victoria.

The Minister for Transport Gladys Berejiklia, has declared: “The government will set and control fares.”

But the government set the fares to Sydney’s privately-operated airport stations at a scale that suited the private operator, not the public, and it now costs about five times more to travel between Central and the international airport station than to travel between an equivalent number of publicly-operated stations.

For a private operator to make fat profits, fares would have to increase. In reality, if the operator wanted to raise the fares the government would almost certainly buckle under.

But the fares aren’t the only problem.

The line to catastrophe

Melbourne’s rail system was privatised under the conservative Kennett government, and has been beset by delays, breakdowns, accidents, inadequate service and high fares. Unconcerned, the Baird government is already planning the new privately-operated North-West Line, which would run between Chatswood, about 10 kilometres north of the city, to Rouse Hill, about 36 kilometres to the northwest.

All Sydney trains are double deckers, but the North-West line would pass through new tunnels designed to be only big enough for single deck metro-style carriages. City-bound passengers would therefore have to change platforms and wait for one of the existing double-decker trains at Chatswood, instead of being able to simply travel all the way in a double-decker.

However, under the government’s proposal, new below-ground lines would be built from the city to Chatswood and to Bankstown, about 16 kilometres west of Sydney. Those lines would also be privately-operated and would only carry single-deck carriages. The existing lines to Bankstown and Hurstville, 14 kilometres south west of the city, would also be privatised and converted to single-deck carriages.

According to the Fairfax press, Transport for NSW is “struggling to work out how to allow freight trains to continue running on tracks it wants to convert to the new metro-style trains.”

But the North-West Line has been deliberately designed so that only the single deck carriages can use them, and the new privately operated lines would undoubtedly be designed the same way.

If so, passengers on the new lines would be forced to disembark, change platforms and wait for a double-decker train at stations where the new and old systems meet – just as they will have to do at Chatswood if the government’s plans for the North-West line are implemented. Passenger congestion, delays and confusion would snowball.

That’s not all. The government clearly believes that the entire system must eventually be privatised, so the it is already discussing closure of some inner city stations on economic grounds, regardless of inconvenience for local residents.

Moreover, maintenance of the two entirely different single- and double-decker engineering systems would be far more expensive than the present system, which offers superior economies of scale and simpler infrastructure.

And if the entire system was converted to single deck metros, the double-decker carriages, including the beautiful state-of-the-art Waratahs, would be sold off (probably for a song, as happened with the hydrofoil ferries) or even scrapped – a proposition of economic insanity.

What’s driving the government

Several years ago then NSW Premier Morris Iemma wanted to replace the surface rail network with an underground system and single deck carriages. Iemma’s plan would have enabled much of the existing railway real estate to be sold off for development and/or converted into roads.

Iemma claimed that single-deck metro trains would handle peak hour loads better because they spend less time at each station. It’s certainly true that single-deck carriages discharge their loads more quickly than double-deckers, but that’s because they carry fewer passengers. The big double-deckers have been estimated to be 25 percent more efficient during the critical peak periods.

The most likely reason for the promotion of single deck carriages is that they require smaller tunnels than double deckers, so their use would reduce the astronomical cost of excavating the tunnels, thereby increasing the chances of getting federal grants to fund the project and getting the public to accept the deal.

It didn’t help Morris Iemma. Also, the public fiercely rejected his proposal, he resigned and Labor was finally defeated amid scandals about the undue influence of big developers on the party.

But the Coalition liked Iemma’s idea. A report prepared by former premier Nick Greiner for the O’Farrell Coalition government recommended closing down the north shore line and replacing it with buses for years while the city stations were massively reconstructed and new privately-operated lines built.

Following a public outcry the report quietly disappeared from public view, but not from the government’s thinking.

The Baird government has now separated Sydney Trains and NSW Trainlink into two different corporations, to facilitate privatisation of the Sydney rail network.

The government has indicated that each of the proposed new Sydney lines might be operated by a different firm, but the extremely complex rail network would become unworkable if the different firms were unable or unwilling to coordinate their activities.

Moreover, according to the Fairfax press, the government intends to let the Hong Kong-based firm MTR, which manages Melbourne’s trains, run not only the North-West line, but also the Epping to Chatswood line, the City to Chatswood below-ground line and the Bankstown line.

The lobbying firm IPA also wants the government to privatise CountryLink services and the Eastern suburbs and Illawarra lines.

If the electricity poles and wires are sold off, it looks as though the government will use the proceeds to transfer control over the major part of the nation’s biggest rail network to a foreign corporation, as the first stage in privatising the entire system.

The Sydney rail system should definitely be extended to unserviced areas and peak hour congestion should be reduced, but only by extending the current publicly-owned system, not by organising a corporate takeover and rebuilding the entire network.

To avoid a public transport catastrophe the NSW rail system must remain in public ownership, and the Coalition government must be dumped.

Next article – Planned WA heritage changes condemned

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