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Issue #1778      May 24, 2017

Sydney bus privatisation

One part of govt’s agenda

Members of the public have supported strike action taken by Sydney bus drivers last Thursday over the Berejiklian coalition government’s shock announcement that it wants to privatise public bus services in the city’s inner west and south.

The government made its decision despite having reassured drivers last December that it would not privatise public bus operations. The Rail, Bus and Tram Union described the announcement as a betrayal.

Chris Preston, secretary of the union’s Bus Division, said that the government had given the union no alternative but to strike, even though the Fair Work Commission had declared industrial action illegal. He said:

“There is one person to blame for this stoppage, and that is [Transport] Minister [Andrew] Constance. With no warning, no consultation and against explicit undertakings he has placed the future of 1,200 bus drivers and depot staff in limbo.

“... you cannot treat the community and public transport workers with such contempt. We call on the Premier to intervene as a matter of urgency and put a stop to this attack on our public transport network.”

Predictably, Transport Minister Andrew Constance attacked the union over the strike, asserting that “[Customers] don’t deserve to be treated like this by a reckless, selfish act on the part of a union who, time and again, demonstrates contempt for customers.”

But many people are now very mistrustful of government promises about superior services being provided under privatised government agencies. Although some people complained about travel difficulties, many interviewed by the press and on TV expressed support for the drivers. One retired railway worker noted that “I don’t think [the bus drivers] would have taken action unless they really had to”.

The bigger picture

The government has tried to justify privatising inner city bus services on the grounds that it receives a greater level of complaints about those services.

But as drivers have pointed out, and as anyone who has driven or caught a bus in the inner city knows, road travel there is extremely difficult, especially during peak hours. Chris Preston commented: “Here at Leichhardt [bus depot] drivers can’t get out of the depot on time because of the congestion”.

The government has even blamed drivers for speeding past commuters waiting at bus stops, even though drivers are forbidden from picking up any more passengers if the number already on the bus has reached the legal limit.

On the other hand, the government has pulled back on its plan to have the new “B-line” double-deck bus services to Sydney’s northern beaches privately-operated. For the moment at least, those services will be handled by publicly-operated State Transit.

Brendan Lyon, chief executive of lobby group Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, declared that not privatising the B-line services was a “missed opportunity for commuters in the northern beaches”, and that “it would be good to see a consistent focus turn to modernising service models and costs”.

The decision was, of course, also a missed opportunity for the private operators who had lined up to bid for the potentially lucrative contract to run the northern beaches bus service, the only public transport option for passengers in these areas.

The government has said it won’t privatise the new B-line services because government-operated buses are still serving those areas. But the real reason is that privatising the new services was opposed by local Liberal MPs who feared losing electoral support.

A question of class

The government has no qualms about imposing an expensive privately-operated service on inner city residents. Its first loyalty is to the private sector and it despises ordinary working people, but it also controls only one inner-city electorate, so it has little to lose.

On the other hand it can’t afford to lose seats on the north shore or northern beaches, because that would mean it might lose the next election, and that would spoil its chances of implementing more of its privatisation agenda.

That agenda involves all the public transport network – and for that matter all the state’s public services. So far, the government has managed to limit public opposition to privatisation, with the help of a very sophisticated PR campaign. For example, residents of north-western suburbs have been told the new single-deck carriage Metro trains will be more comfortable than the current bus service to the city, even though most passengers will be standing most of the way.

The government also wants to implement its transport privatisation strategy as fast as possible, before the appalling results of doing so become evident. Constructing the crucial new north-west rail line with small tunnels, only big enough to accommodate single-deck trains, has reduced expenditure, thus opening up the possibility of even more of the transport privatisation program being implemented within the government’s anticipated period in office.

Aware of the need for urgent action, and emboldened by the success of its PR campaigns that have highlighted major new transport construction projects, the government recently took the bit between its teeth with a proposal to convert the existing Bankstown line to carry Metro trains.

To quell public anger, passengers on the line have been told the Metro trains will be faster than the existing double-deckers, even though the double-deckers would actually carry far more passengers to the city per peak hour than single-deckers, given the same conditions of tracks and signalling equipment.

Moreover, the government is biased in favour of roads, not rail, and it has told transport planners to ignore public transport alternatives to motorway projects.

A recently-revealed Transport for NSW memo indicates that upgrading the rail line between Sydney and Wollongong would cut travel time between the two cities from 90 to 60 minutes, and would cost about $10 billion less than extending the WestConnex tollway about halfway, to Waterfall. However, planners only considered the tollway project.

The government is focused solely on furthering the interests of the major private transport corporations, not the general public. It certainly wants to implement its privatisation strategy rapidly. But the public interest lies in ejecting it from office even faster.

Next article – Public transport, public hands

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