Posts Tagged ‘Perth’

VIDEO: This is Perth

I’ll be in Perth this week from Thursday to Sunday visiting family. I might get some time to check out the transport infrastructure, though it will probably be limited. I’m currently planning to take the train to Mandurah, but have nothing else planned so far. Suggestions and recommendations are welcome. Where to go, what to see, things to keep in mind, etc. But remember: my free time will be limited, and I’ll be staying in suburban Perth with family.

Gina Rinehart. Premier of Western Australia. (This caption is a poor source of satire.)

Gina Rinehart. Premier of Western Australia. (This caption is a poor attempt at satire.)

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The federal Liberal Party's transport policy consists exclusively of road projects, with no committments to public transport. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Our Plan Real Solutions For All Australians, Liberal Party, page 32)

The federal Liberal Party’s transport policy consists exclusively of road projects, with no commitments to public transport. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Our Plan Real Solutions For All Australians, Liberal Party, page 32)

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott declared last week that he would be committing no funding to public transport ahead of this year’s election, despite having committed $4bn to road projects in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

“We spoke to Infrastructure Australia and their advice was that the most pressing road priority in Melbourne was the east-west link. The Commonwealth government has a long history of funding roads. We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting, and the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.”Tony Abbott, Federal Opposition Leader (4 April 2013)

His first point, about the highest priority road project in Melbourne, is correct because he is talking about road projects specifically rather than transport projects in general. However, according to Alan Davies at The Urbanist, the East-West Link road is only on Infrastructure Australia’s “Real Potential” stage, the second of four categories, while the Melbourne Metro rail project is in it’s top “Ready to Proceed” category. At best, Mr Abbott is asking the wrong question, at worst he is committing money to a project with a benefit cost-ratio of only 0.50 (i.e. the benefit is less than the cost), when he could be funding the Melbourne Metro with a benefit-cost ratio of 1.30 (figures from Alan Davies’ article linked to previously).

His second point, on the Commonwealth government having no history of funding urban rail, is just flat out wrong. As Daniel Bowen points out when listing just some of the urban rail projects funded by the Commonwealth, “perhaps the Federal Coalition has no history of funding urban rail, but the Commonwealth most certainly does”.

“I think all but the most car-centric person would see that in modern growing cities, you can’t move everybody around by road — that rail, particularly in inner-city areas, is much more efficient. Unfortunately unlike some of his Liberal colleagues (and unlike conservatives in such places as the UK), Tony Abbott does appear to be the most car-centric person. It comes down to this: if you want more people on public transport, provide more public transport. If you want more people on the roads, build more roads. Abbott is clearly backing the latter.”Daniel Bowen (5 April 2013)

The decision to fund road projects over rail is not a merit based decision, it is a politically based on (and one which I have criticised the Labor Party for doing in the past on both WestConnex and the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link). As a comparison, urban rail has received a majority of Infrastructure Australia funding when merit is used as the criteria.

“Fifty-five per cent of Infrastructure Australia nation-building money went to urban rail on merit.” –  Professor Peter Newman, Infrastructure Australia advisory board member (4 April 2013)

The state governments in Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia, all governed by Mr Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition, have also all publically voiced their opposition to his decision.

“We will continue to vigorously pursue federal government funding for this important infrastructure development.” – Denis Napthine, Victorian Premier (4 April 2013)

“Given the current Federal (Labor) Government’s support of $236 million for rail infrastructure at the Perth City Link and $3 million towards planning of the MAX light rail project, we expect that future Federal governments, whether Liberal or Labor, would consider the benefits of funding such important transport initiatives based on merit.”Colin Barnett, WA Premier (4 April 2013)

“The reality is if there is not federal funding for these projects, they cannot proceed, we cannot afford to do them alone. We’ll continue that process of lobbying the federal coalition and federal Labor.”Scott Emerson, Queensland Transport Minister (4 April 2013)

Feeling the heat, Mr Abbott later clarified his statement, pointing out that his government would still fund freight rail and interstate transport, and that it was only commuter urban rail projects that he was referring to. On his side is the division of powers set out in the Australian constitution, where the Commonwealth government is responsible for freight and interstate transport, leaving state governments responsible for urban transport. While Mr Abbott is well within his rights to follow a strict interpretation of the role of the Commonwealth government, it is also true that such a view would preclude federal funding of schools and hospitals, given that they are a state responsibility. This is why the days of health, education, and transport being funded solely by the states has now long gone.

This is where his argument starts to fall apart on constitutional grounds, and it becomes clear that it is ideologically driven. He seems much like American conservatives, who see public transport as a socialist means of transport “for the masses” requiring government subsidy while seeing the private motor vehicle as a form of transport that is liberating and free and more in line with their small government philosophy. He looks at the inner city areas which most heavily use public transport and sees Labor and Greens leaning voters, then at the car dominated outer suburban areas are where the swinging voters he needs live and decides that the politically astute thing is to build more roads.

“Public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still [a] hideous drain on the public purse…Mostly though…there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads”Tony Abbott, Battleline, page 174 (2009)

Not all conservatives still think this way. NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has successfully championed public transport despite opposition from Infrastructure NSW Chairman Nick Greiner and CEO Paul Broad, while London Mayor Boris Johnson is pushing an ambitious £913m expansion of his city’s bike network. They understand that you can’t build your way out of congestion with more roads and that, while roads play an important role, so does public and active transport. It’s disappointing to see that Mr Abbott hasn’t worked this out yet.

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.

Metronet. The WA Labor Party's proposed rail expansion plan. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: WA Labor Party.)

Metronet. The WA Labor Party’s proposed rail expansion plan. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: WA Labor Party.)

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”.