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Issue #1657      September 24, 2014

Editorial

Planned break-up of Sydney rail must stop

Last week the NSW Coalition government signed a contract for a Hong Kong firm to operate Sydney’s proposed Northwest rail line. The line will have a new tunnel connecting Sydney’s outer north-west suburbs with the rail intersection at Epping, and from there via an existing tunnel to Chatswood, 10 kilometres north of the city.

However, the new tunnel will not be big enough to accommodate Sydney’s very efficient double-decker trains, only single deckers, which Sydney abandoned in the 1960s. The government has promised a faster service, but the existing double-deckers could travel just as fast as single deckers, and carry far more passengers.

In peak hours about one third of the Northwest passengers will have to stand while travelling through Australia’s longest underground rail tunnel, compared with one quarter in double-deckers. All passengers will have to disembark at Chatswood, crush onto a different platform and wait for a connecting train to the city, instead of travelling all the way on a double-decker.

The existing underground Epping to Chatswood tunnel was opened only five years ago. It will be out of service for at least seven months, while its equipment and stations are adapted to suit single-deckers only and the train service is replaced with 75 buses, forcing their way onto the inadequate road network and making more than 300 trips each weekday. And when those adaptation works are complete, the existing double deckers will not be able to use the Epping to Chatswood tunnel, not even during an emergency.

The existing double-deckers are built locally, but the new single decker driverless trains will be built in France, costing Australian workers their jobs and probably eliminating yet another sector of Australia’s manufacturing industry. Running two different train systems will make maintenance costs soar and increase the possibility of delays and breakdowns. And judging by the existing privately-operated airport line, the Northwest line would be far more expensive to use than the government-operated lines, because it too would be privately-operated.

And there’s the rub. From the passenger’s point of view the government’s decisions demonstrate unbelievable incompetence, bordering on inanity. But for private rail operators they’re brilliant.

The government believes Sydney rail should be run by big business for profit, not by government providing optimum service for passengers at minimum cost for taxpayers. However, the government knows that openly advocating replacement of the entire rail network would incite public rebellion, as happened when former premier Morris Iemma canvassed the idea. Instead, it’s proceeding in small steps, starting with the Northwest line. It’s already talking about a second underground line from Chatswood to the city, then another running 20 kilometres west from the city to the existing station at Bankstown.

New lines would then be built to other stations, all following the existing lines, all underground with single-deckers, and all privately operated. The clear intention is to phase out the existing surface lines, leaving Sydney with a private rail network. Much of the funding for this gargantuan program would have to come from the federal government and private sources. Sydney would end up with a rail system privately-operated and largely privately-owned.

The long-term cost of total replacement would be truly staggering. Try multiplying the Northwest line’s $3.7 billion cost in proportion to the length of Sydney’s entire existing track! Using single deck trains would somewhat reduce the cost, thereby increasing the chances of attracting sufficient funding, but the program itself is totally unnecessary and against the public interest. The proposal to break-up the network and introduce a totally different train system on the Northwest line and elsewhere reeks of corruption. It would benefit its new owners and operators, but not Sydney’s passengers, nor Australian taxpayers.

Sydney already has a very efficient, innovative public rail system which has successfully met the city’s growing needs. It should be expanded and adapted. Works for the Northwest tunnel as currently configured should be stopped, the design altered to accommodate the existing carriages, and the new line incorporated into the existing service, which the government should continue to own and run.

And the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption should hold a full public inquiry into the process that led to the current government’s appalling scheme to break up and privatise Sydney’s rail network.

Next article – Save Medicare action

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