The NSW Government has ignored Western Sydney and the advice of its independent advisory body, Infrastructure NSW, according to Opposition Leader John Robertson in a speech yesterday to the Rail Future Conference. He also accused the government of mismanaging those projects currently underway, pointing to cost blow-outs, choosing projects with a poor cost-benefit ratio, and lacking either a start or end date for construction.
Today I gave a major speech on Labor’s transport priorities to the Sydney Rail Future Conference 2013. To read my... fb.me/1lFNRz6w3—
John Robertson (@jrobertsonmp) February 28, 2013
Mr Robertson defended the previous Labor Government’s record on transport, admitting that while he is “the first to admit that the previous Labor Government made its share of mistakes” that it also had its fair share of achievements.
“The South West Rail Link – planned and construction commenced under Labor, leaving the incoming Government with little but a ribbon to cut. The creation of rail clearways – a first step towards untangling Sydney’s spaghetti of lines. Rolling stock renewal through the acquisition of 35 Millennium trains, 55 Oscars and 78 Waratahs. The Inner West Light Rail Line. The Epping-Chatswood Rail Link. Dozens of commuter car parks and easy access upgrades. The $100 million state-of-the-art bus interchange at Parramatta railway station. And an innovative new system of Metrobuses.” – John Robertson, Opposition Leader (28 February 2013)
Many of these achievements should not be understated. Clearways sought to improve the existing network rather than just add new lines, leading to higher capacity and greater reliability. The new rolling stock listed represents a renewal of about half of Cityrail’s electric trains over a period of about a decade. Metrobuses, which introduced the concept of through-routing and certainty over all day frequency, are a fantastic addition to the Sydney transport system, and one which should be expanded. Mr Robertson failed to mention other improvements, such as the introduction of myZone – which was a (baby) step towards integrated fares, the construction of T-Ways from Parramatta to Rouse Hill and Liverpool – allowing fast and reliable bus services to and from Parramatta, or the Unsworth Review – which brought planning for bus routes under central control but established an effective way for private companies to operate them. All of these are positive, and should be remembered every time Labor’s failures (which were more than its fair share, as Mr Robertson claims) are raised.
Where Mr Robertson’s speech falls short is in providing a positive vision for transport in Sydney, it is instead a critique of the government’s policy, what he doesn’t stand for rather than what he does.
“Taxpayers are forking out $17 million a year on Infrastructure NSW – only for the Government to ignore its advice.” – John Robertson, Opposition Leader (28 February 2013)
His attack on Infrastructure NSW shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of that body. Mr Robertson compares the ignorance of Infrastructure SWN to Infrastructure Australia, who’s advice is used to fund various infrastructure projects around the country. But Infrastructure NSW is not designed to hand out funding, it is designed to attract funding, primarily from the private sector via Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). That is why its board includes members with expertise in PPPs – such as Chairman Nick Greiner or board member Max Moore-Wilton. When it comes to making policy decision on which transport project to fund, the government instead relies on Transport for NSW, as it should.
“We have a Government stubbornly committed to its flagship project, the North West Rail Link. One that has been approved outside the Infrastructure NSW process…that Mr Greiner says has a low cost-benefit ratio and is being built for political reasons.” – John Robertson, Opposition Leader (28 February 2013)
In his introduction, Mr Robertson presents transport in Sydney as a choice between differerring options. One of these options is between the North West Rail Link (NWRL) and the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL). He then all but endorses the PERL as a preferred option, while attacking the NWRL for its low cost-benefit ratio. Problematic here is that he relies on Mr Greiner’s judgement, someone who would generally prefer private road projects than public rail ones, and so would most likely also attack the PERL for the same reasons. In fact, this is exactly what Infrastructure Australia Chairman Michael Deegan did when he said that “the Parramatta-Epping rail link…is not on Infrastructure Australia’s priority list” (7 May 2012). Criticising a project for being political in nature, only to put forward an alternative that is just as, if not more political, is not convincing from a policy perspective.
“The problem with the O’Farrell Government’s transport priorities is that they’re completely at odds with Western Sydney’s emerging needs…It has ignored Western Sydney’s exponential population growth, its high car dependency and low residential density…And it has provided no new vision for Western Sydney bus routes and transitways.” – John Robertson, Opposition Leader (28 February 2013)
These words presented the best opportunity for Mr Robertson to attack the government and present a viable alternative. It is very true that the current NSW Government has very little in the way of transport improvements for Western Sydney. But instead of using this as the basis for something transformative, Mr Robertson uses it as a soap box to all but call for the construction of the PERL. Yet this falls right into the narrative of an expensive project that sucks out the capital works budget for the entire region, the very criticism aimed at the government on the NWRL, Second Harbour Crossing, WestConnex, and South East Light Rail. Not only would this project be expensive, but it fails to fit into the dispersed and low density urban form that he himself speaks of.
But his words on a new vision on buses is where he really drops the ball. Here he could have easily have made a commitment to raise bus frequencies to 15 minutes or better all day all across Western Sydney. It would help to solve the problem he had just described: “the Sydney Alliance produced maps showing which parts of Sydney are within 400 metres walking distance of public transport…where a service comes at least every 15 minutes across the day…as soon as you start going west from Strathfield, the map looks pretty bleak”. But instead he opted to talk about the PERL, without ever actually committing to it.
This month will be the mid point between the 2011 election and 2015 election. In that time the NSW Labor Party has barely closed the gap in the polls. Mr Robertson’s speech contained some positive vision, but it was drowned out by the negativity. That is not to say that the opposition should not hold the government to account, but if it then fails to present its own vision, an alternative, then it is likely to stay in opposition for quite some time.
Pointing out Labor’s past achievements are a good start. Now how about telling us what you will do in the future, Mr Robertson?