Report urges expanded public transport

February 21, 2010

The Sydney Morning Herald-sponsored "Independent Public Inquiry" into Sydney's public transport released its preliminary report on February 13. The report outlined a 30-year strategy to massively improve Sydney's public transport infrastructure.

The report called on the government to greatly extend heavy rail, light rail and bus ways across Sydney, and called for the NSW government's strategy — based on building inner-city "metro" lines — to be postponed.

The sting, however, is that it called for significant rises in fares and levies on working people to pay for the expansion, and for cuts to public transport jobs.

Sydney's population is expected to grow to 6 million within 30 years and to 7 million by 2050, the report said. Public transport options must grow accordingly to service the growth in population, and allow people to travel to job growth centres, in the city's north and north-west.

The report supported growth along what it calls a "European scenario", which entails the development of multiple centres. "While CBD jobs would grow, this scenario assumes strong employment growth in other centres particularly Parramatta and Macquarie Park", the report's authors wrote in the February 15 SMH.

"The significance of this scenario is that heavy rail already serves most Sydney centres. Several extensions of heavy rail would be needed, as would be cross regional and fast-bus services in outer suburbs."

An alternative to the "European scenario" is the "East Asian scenario", which government planners favour.

This would rely on development being concentrated in the CBD and being serviced by new "metro" lines that would funnel commuters into the city. Development would largely be high-rise, and along the new "metro" lines.

The cornerstone of the report's recommendations is the construction of new heavy rail lines to link large population growth centres with centres of employment.

Main recommendations are that the north-west and south-west rail extensions (from Epping to Rouse Hill and Glenfield to Leppington), should be commenced in the 2010/11 financial year.

The report envisaged the extension of the north west link to connect with the Richmond line at Riverstone, by 2029.

An additional heavy rail line linking Parramatta with Epping, and connecting with the existing southern rail line at Merrylands, would be completed by 2017, along with a Bankstown to Liverpool rail link and a new CBD rail line to Chatswod by 2020.

A southern extension to Maroubra Junction is envisaged to be completed by 2030.

The report's vision is not limited to heavy rail, however. It also calls for the extension of light rail in the inner city and southern suburbs, and radiating from Parramatta, and for the establishment of "bus first" roads.

In areas of very high population density, the report envisaged a big rise in bus frequency at all times of the day, to avoid the need for a timetable, whereas in lower-density suburbs, the "bus first" lanes would significantly speed journeys.

The report called for a reorganisation of ticketing, to end the penalty levied against travellers who change from train to bus, or to ferries. It called for an integrated ticket, which encouraged travellers to chose the fastest route, even where that required one or more changes.

In the short term, the plan envisages a significant increase in the number of scheduled trains at peak hour.

There can be little doubt that, if implemented in a concerted and responsive fashion, that SMH-sponsored inquiry's recommendations would make considerable improvements to Sydney's public transport.

However, the report is flawed in its funding proposals.

It criticised the record of public private partnerships (PPPs) for their failings in service delivery, and high costs for users (such as Sydney's privately-owned train line to the airport).

However, the report's authors nevertheless envisage only a portion of the necessary funding for their proposed improvements coming from the government.

The report argued for a flat one-off increase in fares of 38 cents per single journey. It also calls for a further 1.3% increase above inflation, to be levied annually on top of fare increases that the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal has set.

While toying with the concept of developer levies and a tax levied on business, the report called for an annual levy on all householders of 20% of rates (which would be passed on to renters in increased rents) — massively increasing housing costs for lower-income households.

It also called for a congestion tax and an increase in parking levies — measures that tend to target working commuters most.

The report also endorsed government plans for "efficiencies" (meaning staff cuts) and suggested unsafe practices including single-person operated trains and ferries should be considered.

The SMH-sponsored inquiry's report is neither a complete, nor equitable solution to the crisis of public transport in Sydney. It is nevertheless, a significant contribution to the debate.

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