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Issue #1792      August 30, 2017

Public transport sell-off

NSW transport chaos a national warning

The NSW coalition government has confirmed that it intends to flog off the operation of the state’s entire public transport networks to private corporations. Last week transport minister Andrew Constance declared proudly: “They will all be private. In 10 to 15 years time government will not be in the provision of transport services.”

The government also wants to introduce driverless trains, and Constance has gleefully predicted that after public transport is automated no employees will operate trains or buses.

The NSW government’s plan for corporations to take over the public transport system would be a catastrophe for Sydney passengers, and would set a precedent for the same thing happening across the nation under coalition state governments.

Bob Nanva, national secretary of the Rail, Bus and Tram Union commented “... there is little chance of a sensible policy discussion around transport services when the primary focus of the responsible minister is finding new ways to sack people.”

As a result of the government’s privatisation agenda, chaos is now beginning to engulf Sydney’s transport, most visibly in the rail system.

The government should be boosting the heavy rail network by constructing new cross-radial suburban lines. But instead, it’s constructing new private light rail (tram) networks and beginning to replace Sydney’s world class double-decker trains with less efficient single-decker privately-operated driverless “stand up all the way” Metro trains.

As a first step it’s constructing a new Metro line from the north-west suburbs, and converting the existing Epping to Chatswood and the Bankstown to Central lines for the use of single-decker Metros.

The privatisation agenda is influenced by the government’s support for big property developers, and its preference for roads rather than trains.

Last month the government introduced a $4.56 each-way toll on cars using a 7.5 kilometre section of the highly destructive $16.8 billion WestConnex Sydney to Parramatta tollway. Motorists then jammed toll-free Parramatta Road or caught the train.

But Sydney’s trains are struggling because of the government’s obsession with maximum inner-city development. That includes Homebush Bay around the Olympic sports inner city complex, and the former industrial area around Green Square station, which will soon have Australia’s highest suburban density.

Over 12 months, the number of trips taken on the main line though the city from the northern and western suburbs has risen by 10 percent, and on the Olympic Park line by a whopping 19.6 percent.

The government has scheduled the working class Bankstown line suburbs for high rise development, but this would increase passenger numbers and the proposed Metro single-decker trains can carry fewer passengers than the double- deckers.

If conversion of the Bankstown and Epping lines proceeds, the thousands of passengers who currently use them would have to catch buses to reach the city while the line is reconstructed. Sydney’s inner-city roads are notorious for traffic jams, and the chaos that would eventuate from closing the line is unimaginable.

The government has also announced recently that it intends to convert the existing Carlingford rail line to a private light rail line capable of carrying far fewer passengers, who would no longer be able to travel directly to the city.

Missing the bus

The government is also privatising government-operated inner-west bus services. It says it received 12,000 complaints about the buses last year, but that’s only 321 complaints per 1,000 trips, less than the rate of complaints for privately-operated south-west city buses.

Complaints are also likely to soar. Unions NSW says private bus operators will cut costs by cutting wages and reducing services. The government argues that buses will stick to timetables better. However, as Unions NSW points out, “... no buses – public or private – can get past the traffic in the inner city. The running times for inner west services are unrealistic and are set by the state government, not by Sydney buses.”

In Newcastle, where bus services are privatised, drivers were given job guarantees for 18 months, not five years as previously promised.

The government also wants to abandon the provision of car parks at suburban stations, and to introduce door-to-door Uber-type services where rail passengers would ring for a vehicle to drop them off at the station.

The government says the cost would range from $2.60 to $5.60, but in reality it would be determined by the maximum profit the company could squeeze out of the market. A trip to the station would probably cost as much as the train fare.

Grim prospects for passengers

The enormous, destructive and vastly expensive changes in NSW public transport will benefit major road and rail transport corporations, not passengers. The corporate objective is to maximise profits, rather than providing an excellent service for minimum cost.

As far as price is concerned, the implications are very grim indeed. It costs about five times as much to exit at the privately-operated international airport railway station as it does to exit at another mainline station the same number of stops from Sydney Central as the International Terminal station.

One Fairfax correspondent wrote bitterly: “The surge in rail passengers might provide a partial solution to the predicted redundancies caused by the arrival of driverless trains. Laid-off rail workers could be employed, Tokyo-style, to apply boots to the backs of passengers attempting to squeeze into sardine-packed city rail trains.”

Privatisation initiatives have certainly brought chaos for some commuters, and it’s going to get much worse. But the chaos doesn’t reflect a chaotic government mentality.

With its available funds, the government wants to complete as much of its privatisation agenda as it can, as fast as possible, so it’s a “fait accompli”, virtually impossible to reverse by subsequent governments. That lies behind its choice of Metro trains, which are cheaper to purchase than double-deckers even though they’re less efficient, and its construction of the new North-west line tunnels so they can’t accommodate double deckers.

In Victoria, privatisation of public transport has been disastrous, with $350 million going to foreign operators over seven years, and half the state’s interest bill owed to private companies. In NSW privatisation can and must be stopped. The Bankstown line adaptation hasn’t commenced and that’s where protest action must be directed to block the privatisation agenda.

Next article – Editorial – Public transport sell-off

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