NSW public transport in crisis

February 9, 2007

Debate about public transport and its decline is raging in NSW in the lead-up to the March 24 state election. The NSW public transport system is plagued by delays, reliance on old equipment, breakages, lack of staff and, as a consequence, inadequate services to remote and poorer areas. As yet, neither Morris Iemma's Labor government nor the Liberal opposition has proposed adequate solutions to the crisis.

According to the auditor-general's 2006 report, over $20 billion would be required during the next 5-10 years to upgrade the rail network to a reasonable level. The NSW government has committed far less than this, and the cracks are beginning to show.

In order to create the appearance that trains are running on time, a new timetable was released in September 2005 that cut the number of services in half and slowed the trains down significantly so that delays would be less noticeable. This has resulted in dangerously overcrowded carriages at peak times.

In January, Gilbert Goder, a passenger on a train travelling at 60 kilometres an hour near Turrella, almost fell out of the carriage when its doors opened between stations. Talking to the Sydney Morning Herald on January 31, he said that there was no room in the carriage so he and other passengers were forced to lean on the walls. Only by grabbing onto other passengers who could hold a railing were they able to stay inside when the doors suddenly opened. When Goder attempted to use the emergency help button, he received no response and the train didn't slow down until the next stop.

The only carriages with toilets on the rail line between Sydney and the Wollongong region have been removed for repairs. This has resulted in passengers having either to request that the train driver stop for a toilet break, or to "hold on" for what can be a two-hour trip. NSW transport minister John Watkins was forced to apologise to passengers who have been left behind during a toilet break or forced to urinate in the carriage.

Reduced services and increased delays have led more commuters to drive or take the bus, but roads and the bus network are in little better shape. Buses lack the numbers to completely take up the slack and are rapidly becoming as packed as the train carriages people are avoiding. An unintegrated transport system means that to traverse several suburbs — a common commuter trip — passengers often have to change buses several times, which can be extremely expensive.

The government's attempt to upgrade road infrastructure has also encountered serious problems. The government used taxpayer funds to invest with several companies in a cross-city tunnel project. In order to make a profit on the investment, the state government agreed to close other transport options to maximise the number of commuters who would have to use it and pay the toll. The government has since reneged on the deal due to public outcry. The cross-city tunnel has made far less money than its investors desired and has now gone into receivership. It is unlikely to make back enough money to repay its creditor, making a lawsuit against the government very likely. In addition, the NSW government invested $60 million of state employees' superannuation funds into the project, money that has since been written off as an unrecoverable investment.

This public-private partnership has become a standard method used by governments to develop public infrastructure, and a key outcome is the undermining of public control and quality. When a private company — or group of companies — enters into a partnership with government bodies, it does so on the basis of its ability to profit from the investment. This gives the development two contradictory aims. A rail system or a roadway is built by the government to convey passengers. The same, when built by a private corporation, is built to make money. The provision of basic services to the public is undermined by the drive to cut costs and maximise profits. In the case of the cross-city tunnel, it may cost billions in public money.

The Liberal opposition has responded to the rail crisis by proposing a train "fare freeze", arguing that consumers aren't getting value for money. While this may seem fairer, the Coalition has yet to articulate any expansion or upgrade of infrastructure to actually fix commuters' key complaint, which is the insufficient number of services and the poor quality of those services. State Coalition leader Peter Debnam has proposed the axing of 20,000 public sector jobs as a cost-cutting measure, indicating that public transport services are likely to get even worse under Debnam.

Labor proposals include some upgrades to the rail network, such as "rail clearways" that promise to reduce delays by "disentangling" the network so that individual train services are less likely to be held up by incidences on other services. This is a step forward but will not come into effect until 2015. A similar gradual upgrade of current carriages is also planned but according to the auditor-general's report this will be too slow to keep pace with increases in rail patronage and population growth. Labor's plan includes a constant increase in fares, despite little improvement of services.

According to the Council of Social Service of NSW (NCOSS), access to transport is a key determinant of access to other services such as hospitals and schools, as well as to employment. That large parts of Sydney have inadequate transport, particularly poorer sections like western Sydney, contributes greatly to poverty. In a January submission to the NSW transport ministry on bus fare affordability, NCOSS noted that in many rural and regional areas, private companies provide bus services with higher fares and fewer concessions than city services.

If public transport in NSW is to be accessible to all then it needs to be publicly owned and run, free from the demands of capital investors whose only desire is profit. A decent system must cover all residential areas and would require a large injection of funds to bring infrastructure and services into line with commuters' needs. For a start, funds currently earmarked for ticket inspection should be allocated to improving services and providing more transport options. And for a truly equitable public transport system, all fares must be abolished.

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