NOTE: I’m not an expert on Perth’s transport network, the extent of it isn’t much beyond the one time I caught a train in Perth back in the mid 90s. So apologies if there are any inadvertent errors about the network or specific policies by either government (the ABC’s 730 WA program did a more in depth report here, for those interested). It’s more the general concept that I’m trying to comment on than the specifics of Perth itself.
WA voters go to the polls this weekend to elect their state government, and one of the major issues is public transport. Perth in particular is suffering growing pains and the failure of infrastructure to keep up has resulted in big increases in congestion. In an attempt to re-gain power, WA’s opposition Labor Party has put together a heavy rail expansion policy known as Metronet: representing 75km of new rail lines out into the outer suburbs of Perth. The Liberal government, led by Premier Colin Barnett, is proposing a single new line to the airport, light rail from inner Perth into the CBD, and improvements to the road network.
One of the lines promised by Labor’s Metronet is the Ellenbrook Line in Perth’s North (the green line in the top right of the map). The current Liberal government actually promised to build this line during the 2008 election that put them into power, but later reneged on this promise on the basis that no work had been done on it and that the PTA (WA’s public transport agency) did not consider it a priority. Labor Leader Mark McGowan was criticised for this during the leaders’ debate (video available here, skip ahead to the 30 minute mark). This was the content of the exchange:
Geof Parry (7 News): The PTA had a look at this and there’s not the case now for a rail line to Ellenbrook. I mean, that’s PTA, not the government, saying there’s no case for it.
Mark McGowan (WA Opposition Leader): Ellenbrook is growing massively and everyone out there knows it. My colleague Rita Saffioti tells me about it everyday. But this rail line will also connect Morley up to Ellenbrook. There will be 200,000 people living there and they need decent transport.
Mr McGowan has the right conceptual framework here. Nothing competes with heavy rail when it comes to passenger capacity, and building lots of it is the most effective way of relieving congestion. But Mr Barnett has the implementation right. He promised the Ellenbrook Line from opposition, but when in government the public service informed him that it was not a line that was needed, and so he abandoned it.
Without knowing much about the details of the Ellenbrook Line it’s impossible to say for sure, but the earlier quote does make it look more like a line on a map drawn for political purposes than the conclusion of a well thought out process of how to improve Perth’s transport network. In that regard, it is quite similar to the now abandoned Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) in NSW. Here you had a line which was supported for political reasons, rather than because it fit into a big picture plan (even Infrastructure Australia rejected the PERL as “not on Infrastructure Australia’s priority list”).
The reality is that going to an election with very specific plans for what you are going to build is not the right approach. It would be like the federal opposition in 2007 promising to not only build the NBN, but providing a detailed list of where it would be rolled out to over the next decade. Those sorts of details are better left to when you get into government, with a more general view until that point.
The O’Farrell government did this well regarding light rail in the lead up to the 2011 election. It used phrases like “could expand Sydney’s light rail” rather than “will expand”, and attached the words “subject to feasibility” to the end of most of its promises (Source: page 19, NSW Voting Guide 2011). Some may have criticised this as providing themselves with a get out of jail free card. But if the alternative is dogmatically following through on an election promise which the public service have shown them to be misguided, then some wriggle room is much preferred. (It should be noted that there is a fine line between outlining your ambitions, and pretending to endorse a transport project without actually committing to it.)
In fact, the current NSW government’s backflip on the NWRL – which it promised would run double deck trains through to the city – is further evidence of the importance not to promise down to the minor details when you don’t know what will or won’t work. Politicians of all parties and in all jurisdictions would do well to remember that, and learn to say the words “subject to feasibility”.