BY GEOFF PAYNE
NEWCASTLE — There is mounting pressure on Premier Bob Carr's Labor government to retain rail services throughout NSW, as people organise to defend public transport. In the face of this, the government and its lackeys can only lie to bolster their case.
On October 18, for example, 500 Nambucca Heads residents rallied at 9.30am to protest against the planned closure of their CountryLink service.
Vast areas of country NSW now have to depend on buses instead of the much more comfortable — and safer — trains. People on the NSW mid-north coast remember the deaths of 35 coach travellers in Grafton just before Christmas in 1989.
The November 22 Newcastle Herald reported that transport minister Michael Costa said that cutting the rail line at Broadmeadow station was the most likely of the five options for public transport under consideration. His opinion was based on the comparative costs of each option, with ending the Newcastle line at Broadmeadow being the cheapest. The final report is due in December.
The first report of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group (LHTWG), which is directly accountable to Costa, claimed that "current public transport patronage levels in Newcastle are in chronic decline" and in report's "Rail — Current Patronage Data" section alleged: "Patronage on the Newcastle City rail line has declined significantly in recent years."
These statements are all lies but the information to rebut them is not in the first report; it's in the second report, released on November 21.
State Rail's annual ticket sales figures for the four stations facing the axe show that the number of tickets purchased at these stations increased from 557,947 in 1999-2000 to 596,136 in 2002-03. In fact, the number of passengers purchasing tickets at the stations increased by 1.59% in 2000-01, 2.52% in 2001-02 and by 2.63% in 2002-03.
The State Rail figures show that in the last three years the city stations that Costa plans close are the ones where passenger growth is occurring!
The other fact that needs to be investigated from the State Rail statistics is why nearly 300,000 people in the Hunter Valley region stopped paying for rail travel between 1996-97 and 1997-98. The reason has to do with the implementation in 1998 of the job cuts flowing from the previous year's State Rail Work and Job Redesign program.
Something like one-third of station assistant jobs were "rationalised" into part-time positions, with no staffing of stations on weekends and only a single person staffing stations during Monday to Friday daylight hours.
Clearly a sizable chunk of the travelling public rationally decided to take the lowered risk of a fare evasion fine and travel for free. The government has no-one else to blame for this except itself.
Another reason may have been the sacking of thousands of BHP steelworkers and the associated flow-on effects before October 1999. Of course, the LHTWG report does not deal with any reasons for the almost 18% slump in ticket purchases in those two years.
Both the first and the second reports emphasise the significance of the change between the 1997 and 2003 barrier count numbers. The corporate media has also lamented the "17% reduction in patronage between 1997 and 2003".
Why is 1997 used as a base line? The only significance of 1997, which has been purposely left out of the LHTWG reports' tables, is that that year had the highest ticket sales for any year in the Hunter area in the last 15 years. The government's agents on the LHTWG have selected the comparison year that puts their case in the best possible light.
The state government recently released another transport report — the interim Review of Bus Services in NSW by Barrie Unsworth, a former Labor premier. That report is trying to sucker punch the Newcastle public by promising free bus travel from Broadmeadow station to Newcastle in the event of the rail lines being ripped-up — while proposing that bus fares in Sydney be hiked by 25%!
A big protest at Newcastle station at noon on December 6 will give all these reports the answer they deserve — not worth the computers they were typed on.
[Geoff Payne is the chairperson of the Save Our Rail campaign.]
From Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2003.
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