Posts Tagged ‘Tolls’

Monday: NWRL months ahead of schedule, O’Farrell calls double deck trains a mistake

The tunnel boring machines for the North West Rail Link (NWRL) will be in the ground by October, 2 months ahead of the original “end of 2014” deadline. The NSW Government had previously committed to begin construction of the NWRL in its first term of government, which places a deadline of the March 2015 state election.

The tunnels for the new line will be too steep and too narrow for the existing double deck rolling stock to run on, a controversial decision that will save $200m in constructions costs. Opponents have linked this move to the 1855 decision that resulted in different 3 different rail gauges being used in different parts of Australia as it will create completely independent sectors of the rail network. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell countered by saying that “one of the decisions I think state governments got wrong decades ago was to move to double-decks, instead of matching what’s happening in Paris, in London, where single-deck were retained”, adding that single deck trains “can carry more people, travel more quickly, and disembark those people more quickly without people having to come down those difficult steps that exist on our double-decks and that delay people at railway stations”.

Wednesday: Opal to rollout to entire rail network by April

The Opal electronic ticketing system was rolled out the remainder of the Sydney Trains network on Friday 28 March, with 150,000 Opal cards now registered for use. It is currently scheduled to be rolled out to all NSW TrainLink stations progressively on 4 April and 11 April, which will complete the rollout to ferries and trains. The rollout will then move on to buses, which are scheduled to have Opal readers installed by the end of 2014, and light rail, which are currently scheduled to have Opal readers installed by 2015.

An adult Opal smartcard. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

An adult Opal smartcard. Click to enlarge.
(Source: Transport for NSW.)

The lack of Opal readers or poles to hold readers installed at the new light rail stations suggests that readers will be instead installed directly inside the trams themselves. However, given that the current fleet of trams is being replaced, and that the new trams are not expected to arrive until early 2015, this further suggests that the light rail rollout is unlikely to be completed earlier than 2015 unless the new trams arrive earlier than is currently scheduled.

Thursday: Federal Government links Medibank Private sale to Badgerys Creek infrastructure

The $4bn expected to be raised from the sale of Medibank Private could go towards funding infrastructure, particularly infrastructure required for a Second Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek. Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey has encouraged states to follow this policy of “asset recycling”, where state owned assets are sold off in order to fund the construction of additional assets in the form of infrastructure. The NSW Government has done this, with part of the proceeds of the sale of Port Botany funding the initial stage of WestConnex.

 Thursday: Inner West Light Rail extension to Dulwich Hill opens

The 5.6km extension to Sydney’s sole light rail line opened on Friday 28 March, with trams now running between Dulwich Hill and Lilyfield before continuing on to Central Station via Pyrmont. EcoTransit co-convenor Gavin Gatenby wrote on the history of how the line came to be a reality, while Lachlan Drummond wrote a review of the line itself after riding one of the new trams from Dulwich Hill into Chinatown and back.

Friday: Transurban buys Cross City Tunnel for $475m

Toll road operator Transurban has acquired Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel (CCT), solidifying its ownership of toll roads in Sydney. The CCT had been in voluntary administration since September 2013 for the second time since opening in 2005. It first went into receivership in 2007 and was bought by the Royal Bank of Scotland for $700m, much less than the original construction cost of $1bn. Shortly after returning to receivership in September 2013, the senior debt of the CCT was acquired by Transurban in November 2013 for $475m, effectively making Transurban the new owners of the toll road. Transurban owns a large number of other toll roads in Sydney, including the M2, M7, M5, and Eastern Distributor, as well as the currently under construction M1 to M2 tunnel (formerly known as F3 to M2). Analysts predict that this will allow Transurban to operate the CCT with lower maintenance and operational costs than the previous operators.

 

 

 

Roads Minister Duncan Gay has hosed down rumours that the government might eliminate the toll on the Cross City Tunnel following earlier news of it entering voluntary administration for the second time in a decade. Mr Gay told the Sydney Morning Herald (link unavailable) that buying back the road and then not charging a toll was “just an urban myth; that’s not happening”. However, he did not rule out the possibility of buying it back and reducing the toll or paying the new owner a concession to cut the toll.

The motivation for this comes from the 5 to 6 years of construction through the CBD for light rail on George Street and the desire to divert as much traffic away from the city centre in order to minimise disruptions. Such a buyback could also fit in neatly with the introduction of a congestion charge, which could provide offsetting revenue to eliminate the Cross City Tunnel’s toll, thus incentivising surface traffic to re-route underground. However, this is not the current government’s policy, and something it has rejected despite the concept of a congestion charge being raised by both Transport for NSW and Infrastructure NSW.

Video: Gatepass could be removed at Airport stations, Seven News

Meanwhile, the NSW opposition has succeeded in establishing a Legislative Council inquiry into the removal of the airport station access fee. The $2.60 access fee was lifted for Mascot and Green Square stations in 2010, resulting in an estimated 50% increase in patronage. Removing or reducing the much higher $12.30 fee at the airport stations would be expected to also raise patronage. The possibility of this occurring has grown due to the rising proportion of access fee revenue going to the government, which is set to receive close $50m from it next year alone.

A stations access fee of $12.30 is currently payable for anyone travelling to or from the airport stations. Click to enlarge. (Source: Sydney Trains)

A stations access fee of $12.30 is currently payable for anyone travelling to or from the airport stations. Click to enlarge. (Source: Sydney Trains)

However, this remains an opposition and cross bench led inquiry, and the reduction or removal of the access fee is not currently supported by the government, who point out that any money raised goes into general revenue and has already been accounted for in the budget. Despite this, construction of the M5 East expansion as part of WestConnex in the latter part of this decade would be assisted by even a temporary cut in the access fee in order to reduce the already high congestion around Sydney Airport when construction of WestConnex makes it even worse.

The financial collapse of the Cross City Tunnel, likely resulting in it entering into receivership for the second time since it was opened in 2005, has started a debate over the role of private public partnerships (PPP) in delivering transport infrastructure. The Greens have used the collapse to call on the state government to scrap its plans for the WestConnex freeway, which will be delivered and operated as a PPP.

Despite going into receivership, the Cross City Tunnel will remain open to the driving public. Click to enlarge. (Source: Ben Harris-Roxas)

Despite probably going into receivership for a second time, the Cross City Tunnel will remain open to the driving public. Click to enlarge. (Source: Ben Harris-Roxas)

This is rather ironic, as the financial collapse of the Cross City Tunnel actually represents a benefit, not a disadvantage of the PPP model. Despite the financial collapse, for the driving public the tunnel will continue to operate as though nothing had changed. Meanwhile, the cost of the financial collapse will be felt by the private owners, just as any financial benefit would be received by the owners had traffic on the tunnel boomed. The government and driving public benefit from improved transport infrastructure regardless of the financial success or failure of the company that owns the tunnel. That the private sector ended up paying for it, and not the taxpayer, puts the taxpayer ahead.

In fact, the government should use this opportunity to consider whether they could buy back the Cross City Tunnel, at a fraction of its construction cost. If it can do so, it should seriously think about doing so. This would make it much easier at some point in the future to introduce a congestion charge on the CBD surface streets by making the tunnel free and giving drivers an alternative route if not travelling into the CBD itself.

If this blog were voting on September 7 purely on transport issues, and had to make a choice between one of the 2 parties that will form government, then it would with reservations cast its vote for the ALP.

There are many other issues to be considered in this election, and many details as far as just transport is considered. But broadly speaking, for the upcoming election the Coalition has promised to the NSW Government more funding for transport infrastructure (albeit only for roads, not public transport) with fewer strings attached than the ALP have, while the ALP is both prepared to fund public transport and has made a slightly more solid commitment to building a much needed airport at Badgerys Creek.

Funding Commitments

Each of the major parties have made large commitments towards 3 transport infrastructure projects, all roads: the Pacific Highway upgrade on the NSW North Coast, the M2 to F3 Link in Northern Sydney, and the WestConnex freeway in Western Sydney.

The ALP has proposed 50:50 funding, shared with the NSW Government, for the Pacific Highway, which works out to $3.5bn. If the NSW Government does not match this amount then the deal is off, and there is some uncertainty over whether the NSW Government will match this amount. The Coalition has offered an 80:20 split, or $5.6bn, with the extra $2.1bn being the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link funding the ALP has previously promised (but since dropped). It is likely that the NSW Government is holding out for a possible Coalition win on September 7 before it tries to find funding for the ALP offer, but there is no guarantee that it will. If it does, then it is likely that some or most of this money will come from other parts of the transport infrastructure budget, including public transport as NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian alluded to in her bizarre comments that she welcomed news of not receiving any funding for public transport.

The M2 to F3 project is set to receive $400m of Commonwealth funding regardless of who wins next month, following a commitment by the ALP in May which was matched by the Coalition.

Map of the proposed WestConnex alignment showing it connecting to the City West Link. (Source: WestConnex – Sydney’s next motorway priority, Infrastructure NSW, p. 17)

Map of the proposed WestConnex alignment showing it connecting to the City West Link. Click to enlarge. (Source: WestConnex – Sydney’s next motorway priority, Infrastructure NSW, p. 17)

For WestConnex, the ALP is offering to match the NSW Government’s current $1.8bn contribution, while the Coalition has promised $1.5bn. Both parties have made their funding conditional on the M4 East being extended to the CBD (a poor decision, as explained here), while Labor has also required a link to Port Botany and for existing portions of freeway to remain toll free. These requirements will result in a higher construction cost and a lower cost recovery, to the point where the total cost to the NSW Government could be lower if it rejected the extra funding. While the Coalition’s offer does have fewer strings attached, both parties are guilty of this.

Overall, a Coalition Government in Canberra would likely provide more funding ($7.5bn vs $5.7bn), and do so with fewer restrictions.

Funding philosophy

Tony Abbott has consistently voiced his view that the Commonwealth Government should not fund any urban rail projects. He has been given many opportunities to elaborate on this view, and each time he has stuck to his guns on it. Often, this has been based on false assumptions. For example, he initially argued that the Commonwealth had no history of funding urban rail (which was incorrect). He then clarified by arguing that no Commonwealth Government before current Labor Government won office in 2007 had a history of funding urban rail (which was also incorrect). Melbourne based transport advocate put it best when he said perhaps the Federal Coalition has no history of funding urban rail, but the Commonwealth most certainly does.

The ALP, on the other hand, both supports the funding of public transport and has a history of doing so. While there are no current pieces of public transport infrastructure that the ALP is offering to provide funding for, such support may be essential for projects currently in the pipeline, such as the South East Light Rail or a Second Harbour Crossing.

Route of the George Street and South East Light Rail Line. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Route of the George Street and South East Light Rail Line. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Most importantly, public transport projects are much less able to obtain private sources of funding, whereas roads are able to source all (or atleast most) of their funding from user tolls. Therefore, it is the height of ridiculousness for a Commonwealth Government, the level of government with most access to revenue raising, to rule out funding the sort of infrastructure that most needs government support to go ahead and to instead focus its funding on those projects which least need it. This is particularly the case when it’s considered that rail has a capacity 10 times as large as the equivalent amount of road space used by cars.

On the issue of funding philosophy, the ALP comes out ahead.

Second Sydney airport

Neither party is yet willing to come out and state the obvious: that Western Sydney needs an airport of its own, and that Badgerys Creek is the best site for it. Even Max Moore-Wilton, head of Sydney Airport, agrees that Sydney will need a second airport and that Badgerys is the best location. The only thing he disagrees on is the timing, claiming that Sydney Airport will have sufficient capacity until 2045.

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click to enlarge. (Source: Google Maps, modified by author)

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click to enlarge. (Source: Google Maps, modified by author)

But none of this can allow politicians to ignore the fact that an airport in Badgerys Creek is an essential piece of infrastructure that will allow the much needed creation of jobs in Western Sydney, which will soon overtake Sydney’s Eastern half in population. Despite this, 200,000 Western Sydney residents currently commute into Eastern Sydney each day due to a jobs deficit, and this will only increase in coming decades if nothing is done about it. This in turn puts additional stress on transport infrastructure, which in turn has resulted in pressure to build projects such as WestConnex. Improvements to Kingsford-Smith Airport at Mascot will do nothing to ease this strain on jobs and infrastructure.

Transport Minister Anthony Albanese has now declared that if re-elected, he would like to see Labor Government will begin work on a second airport in its next term, but without nominating a site. Meanwhile, the Coalition has refused to nominate a site or a start date, though at the leader’s debate this past Sunday Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did promise to make a decision in his next term. Neither of these positions is ideal, although privately it looks like both parties plan to begin work soon on an airport and choose Badgerys Creek as the location. Despite this, the ALP’s commitment is slightly more concrete than the Coalition’s and Mr Albanese is a stronger advocate for Badgerys Creek than Warren Truss as Transport Minister is likely to be.

Public transport advocacy group EcoTransit has put forward a public transport alternative to the M4 East component of the WestConnex. A new train station on the Eastern end of the M4, next to a large car park in Olympic Park, with trains into Central Station, along with a light rail network, would provide sufficient relief so as to avoid the need for building the M4 East, according to a video it released called “WestConnex — Greiner’s folly Part 3”  (part two of this series have been covered previously on this blog, part one can be viewed here). It also claims to be able to do so at a much cheaper cost of $2.2bn, compared to $8bn for the M4 East.

The video is included below and worth watching. You can also subscribe to the EcoTransit YouTube channel to receive updates when new videos are uploaded.

VIDEO: WestConnex — Greiner’s folly Part 3, EcoTransit

The new train station, named Pippita Station by EcoTransit, would be above the M4 along the existing Olympic Park Line and adjacent to an existing car park currently exists for sporting events with what appears to be (using a back of the envelope estimate) 1,000 to 2,000 car spaces, These spaces tend to be used in the evening and weekends, and remain mostly empty during work hours when commuters making their journey to and from work would need a parking space. There are also enough free slots on the Main West Line tracks between Lidcombe and Central, as well as the Sydney Terminal platforms at Central Station, for a train every 15 minutes into Sydney Terminal.

But the reality is not so simple, and this may not necessarily prove to be the magic bullet solution it initially appears to be.

It’s worth remembering that there are currently park and ride facilities across the Sydney Trains network, and if these car drivers are not using them at the moment, it is questionable what difference adding an extra park and ride facility would provide (particularly considering that it would require a second transfer at Central for those continuing further into the CBD or elsewhere). That’s not to say it wouldn’t be of any benefit, and if this can be achieved as a cheap bolt on addition to the network then it should be seriously considered.

The main problem with solutions like this are that is assumes a CBD centric view of transport in Sydney, and that the only congestion problem is in the AM and PM peaks during the week. It should be remembered that only 13% of workers commute to the CBD each day, and 77% of those do so by public or active transport. Most car traffic is not destined for the CBD, and most non-CBD travelers get to their destination by car. Improving CBD transport links is unlikely to entice such people away from their cars.

Another example is when the video shows footage of Parramatta Road at 11:30AM on a weekday, pointing out that there is little to no congestion and arguing that Parramatta Road is only congested during peak hour. Yet had that footage been taken on a Saturday, it would have shown congestion on par with weekday peak hour traffic. The reason for this is only partly the lack of weekend public transport. It’s also the dispersed nature of weekend journeys (where many people are visiting friends, going shopping, or heading to a sporting event) when compared to weekday ones (where many people are going to work or study in the CBD or a major centre). Cars are much better at transporting people for the former, while public transport is much better for transporting people for the latter.

It should also be remembered that a road project like WestConnex can recover a large proportion of its capital and operating costs from user tolls, and can thus be built and operated with only a small tax payer contribution. Meanwhile, public transport projects recover none of their capital costs, and only around a quarter of their operating costs from user fares, and thus require a much larger proportion of their cost to be government contribution. Nor do the costings for light rail used in the video appear to be in line with recent light rail projects. For example, the proposed Parramatta Road light rail project is about 15km in length (using a conservative estimate) and costs $975m, or $65m/km. Meanwhile, the CBD and South East light rail project about to commence construction is 12km in length and costs $1.6bn, or $133m/km. So the $2.2bn total cost could actually be double that, around $4.4bn. Compare this to the current proposed state government contribution to WestConnex of $1.8bn (which was itself obtained by selling an asset whose value increased on the assumption that WestConnex would be completed), and it soon becomes clear why the government bean counters prefer road projects to public transport ones.

Artists impression of Parramatta Road light rail. Click to enlarge. (Source: EcoTransit)

Artists impression of Parramatta Road light rail. Click to enlarge. (Source: EcoTransit)

Finally, neither the “Pippita Express”, nor the light rail network, would provide capacity for road freight transport. Even more so than passenger movements, freight movements are highly dispersed and therefore not suited to rail transport (unless it is from one city to another). Therefore, most freight transport happens on road within Sydney. There would be some benefit from fewer cars on the road, but it would likely only be beneficial around the edges.

This is not to say that the proposals put forward are bad. In fact, the “Pippita Express” is quite innovative and, as mentioned, should be investigated further. So should the extensions to the light rail network proposed in this video. Public transport improvements like these are far more efficient than roads at transporting people to the CBD and other major centres. And if this does help to create an integrated network of heavy rail, light rail, and buses that allow a greater level of mobility between other parts of Sydney, then it might begin to compete with cars in transporting people around for those previously described dispersed journeys. But until then, and for other reasons mentioned, the proposed rail projects are likely to be supplementary to, rather than in replacement of, WestConnex.

Both major parties have committed funding towards the NSW Government’s signature road project, WestConnex, ahead of the federal election this year. In doing so it has become a textbook example of all the significant players putting politics ahead of good policy.

The Federal Labor Government, which had previously committed $1bn, recently upped its funding offer to $1.8bn as part of its annual budget, on the condition that it include “direct routes through to the CBD and Port Botany” and that “new tolls should not be imposed on existing un-tolled roads” (Source: Anthony Albanese). The push to link up to Port Botany has merits, and will take freight trucks off local roads around Botany and Masacot. The link to the CBD is more questionable, given that roads do a terrible job at transporting large numbers of people into a compact activity centre like the CBD. While the limitation placed on new tolls is a populist measure that goes against the recommendation of its own advisory body, of Infrastructure Australia, which normally makes the imposition of tolls a requirement for the provision of funding.

When asked whether the City West Link was sufficient to satisfy the requirement for a direct route through to the CBD, a spokesperson for the Infrastructure and Transport Minister told this blog that WestConnex did not connect to the City West Link. When it was pointed out that the current plans for WestConnex do include such a link, he added that “Infrastructure Australia has advised that there is inadequate links to get people to the city and freight to the port”.

Map of the proposed WestConnex alignment showing it connecting to the City West Link. (Source: WestConnex – Sydney’s next motorway priority, Infrastructure NSW, p. 17)

Map of the proposed WestConnex alignment showing it includes a connection to the City West Link, but no connection to Port Botany. (Source: WestConnex – Sydney’s next motorway priority, Infrastructure NSW, p. 17)

On the issue of whether the widened portions of the M4 and M5 constituted an existing un-tolled road, this blog was told that these were considered existing roads, and that new tolls must not be imposed there in order for the NSW Government to be eligible for the $1.8bn in funding. The spokesperson for the Minister argued that a policy of no new tolls being introduced on existing roads was the “NSW govt’s position before the [2011] election”.

What the NSW Liberal Party’s actual commitments prior to the 2011 election are difficult to find, as policy platforms tend to get taken down from party websites soon after an election, but the following document listing the transport policies of the 3 major parties has been archived by UTS. It does not include any mention of a commitment to not impose tolls on existing roads. However, Roads Minister Duncan Gay did say in June 2012 that “we won’t be putting tolls on roads in their current state…We would only consider tolls as part of the package of improvements and provision of new roads” (Source: NineMSN). This may boil down to an issue of semantics, and whether existing roads and improved roads are the same or different.

On the other side of Parliament, the Federal Liberal Party has put forward $1.5bn towards WestConnex, on the condition that it link up with the CBD, but without the Port Botany link or toll-free requirements. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has ruled out matching Labor’s $1.8bn, saying that “We will not be adding one dollar more than the $1.5 billion that we’ve committed and we can account for” (Source: Sky News), even though Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did exactly that with the M2 to F3 tunnel less than a week ago when he matched Labor’s contribution of $400m. Not that it would matter, given that WestConnex would not be eligible for this funding regardless of who is in the Lodge after September based on the current plan.

None of this leaves the NSW Government off the hook. It is now becoming clear that it did not do its homework on WestConnex before announcing its decision to give it the green light. The suggestion from Infrastructure NSW for a slot design along Parramatta Road has now been discredited as more expensive, not less, than the tunnel option, while its recommendation to build an underground CBD bus tunnel through the CBD rather than light rail along George St was rubbished by Transport for NSW. When given the task of recommending one new road project for Sydney out of the M4 East, M5 East, and M2 to F3 tunnel, Infrastructure NSW recommended two of the three (M4 East and M5 East) as well as another road that was not even on the priority list (the Inner West Bypass) in order to link the former 2 up and technically make it a single contiguous road project, a long bow by anyone’s standards.

It should be clear that Infrastructure NSW cannot be trusted to design transport projects and recommend which ones to build, as all of its attempts to date have been littered with problems. It should instead focus on what it can do – act as a middleman between the government and the private sector in order to obtain private funding to build infrastructure.

Given these continued failures to put the politics aside when it comes to building essential infrastructure, it’s no surprise that the electorate remains cynical of governments’ abilities to do the job effectively.

Two years since the last state election and two years until the next one, it’s time to evaluate how the O’Farrell government has performed on the issue of transport. Given the scale of time it takes to implement changes and additions to such a large system (a new rail line take almost a decade from inception to opening), it would not be fair to judge the government on things it has not yet had a chance to reform. At the same time, 2 years is enough to take advantage of low hanging fruit, make operational improvements, and begin the process of changing the direction of the heavy ship that is Sydney’s transport system.

This is a long post, so here is the summarised version:

  • The good: The government has committed to a Second Harbour Crossing, Gladys Berejikliian is a good Transport Minister, the rollout of integrated ticketing (Opal) is on track, there will be a big increase in train services later this year, the South West Rail Link is running 6 months ahead of schedule, the creation of an integrated transport authority (Transport for NSW) will allow an integrated transport network, the government has prioritised public transport ahead of roads, the government learned from the PPP mistakes of the past, and new transport apps are making getting around easier.
  • The bad: Overcrowding on Cityrail is up, on time running on Cityrail is down, no congestion charging, and no committment to a second Sydney airport.
  • The uncertain: Integrated fares, sectorisation of the rail network to untangle it, and driverless trains??

The most important parts at this point in time, in my opinion, are a Second Harbour Crossing (good), integrated fares (uncertain), sectorisation (uncertain), creation of Transport for NSW (good), Opal (good), overcrowding (bad), on time running (bad), Transport Minister (good). our good, two uncertain, two bad. The two bad points could be improved with the October 2013 timetable changes, if some hard decisions are made, whereas the two uncertain points will require a decision some time this year. It will be worth revisiting this in 12 months time to see if the government delivers on those four points, but until then I would rate the government as a B overall (on a scale of A to F). This is giving them some benefit of the doubt, based on a good overall performance in other areas. Without the benefit of the doubt, bump that down to a C.

This is obviously quite subjective, so I welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below.

Capacity improvements

The best way to improve capacity into dense employment centres, like the CBD, Parramatta, or Macquarie Park, is with rail, preferably heavy rail. It is pleasing to see, therefore, that the government has committed to a Second Harbour Crossing, a new light rail line down the CBD through to Randwick, and the North West Rail Link (NWRL), in addition to the South West Rail Link (SWRL) and Inner West Light Rail extension, both commenced under the previous government. The Second Harbour Crossing in particular, expensive and opposed by some as necessary given the cost, will result in a 33% increase in capacity across the network by adding a fourth path through the CBD.

The decision to dump the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link (PERL) is unfortunate, but was the right call as the priority right now is with the projects listed above. Similarly, the decision to build the NWRL with smaller and steeper tunnels, thus preventing existing double deck trains from using them, could be seen as short sighted. However, it also guarantees that the line will remain separate from the Cityrail network, opening up the possible benefits of a new operating model that has a lower cost to operate and therefore can provide more frequent services (see: Private sector involvement). It also has the benefit of lower construction costs, which would be very beneficial should the Second Harbour Crossing go under the Harbour, as seems likely.

  • Conclusion: A committment to expand the rail network, a Second Harbour Crossing in particular, will improve capacity by 33%. The decision  to make the NWRL tunnels narrower and steeper remains controversial.
  • Grade: B

Service quality

The Cityrail network, which forms the backbone of transport in Sydney, is under a lot of pressure at the moment. Overcrowing is up, while on time running is down. February was one of the worst months in Cityrail’s history, with 5 major disruptions during peak hour causing a suspension of services, which often spilled over onto other lines in the network. You have to go back 4 years to find operational figures this bad. It urgently needs additional train services to ease overcrowding and a more simplified network to improve reliability.

Interior of a Sydney tram. Overcrowding is up on the Cityrail network. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

Interior of a Sydney tram. Overcrowding is up on the Cityrail network. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

Part of the cause of these problems is the network that the government inherited. But 2 years in, it is now incumbent on the government to fix it. So far, this has meant 63 new services per week in 2011, and then 44 new services per week in 2012, for a total of 107 new services per week. This is a good start, but baby steps at best. What is really needed is an increase on the scale of the 2005 timetable, which cut 1,350 weekly services. Previously there have not been enough train drivers or rolling stock to do this, and it remains uncertain whether it’s possible now. Older, non-airconditioned trains may need to be used if the government does not order more Waratah trains to increase capacity.

Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has continually pointed to October of this year as the moment that a new timetable, re-written from the ground up, will be introduced that features a streamlined network with additional services. But few details have been officially released, though some proposed changes have been leaked. Once that is implemented, it would be worth revisiting this issue. Service is also still better than the horror years of 2003-05. These two factors give the government a slightly more favourable rating than would have otherwise been the case.

There have been some minor improvements that are worth mentioning in passing. Quiet carriages have been introduced and phone reception is now available in the CBD’s underground rail tunnels.

  • Conclusion: Overcrowding and reliability are at 4 year lows in the rail network, though there have been minor improvements such as quiet carriages and phone reception. Overall, it’s a poor result.
  • Grade: D

Ticketing and fares

The major issues here are the Opal rollout and integrated fares.

The implementation of Opal appears to be on track, with the new smartcard set to expand to the Manly Ferry on April 8, and then to the Eastern Suburbs and City Circle stations in the second half of 2013. Up to now it appears to have proceeded without any major hiccups, and has gotten further in the rollout than the T-Card did.

There remains little detail on integrated fares other than that cabinet will consider fares at some point in early 2013. This is a potential game changer, and it seems likely that it could be implemented once Opal is fully rolled out.

The government has made a committment to not increase fares beyond CPI unless service levels improve, and has also incorporated the light rail into myZone. Both are positive, though the former is problematic in that it will erode the ability of fares to recover operating costs, as fares only account for about a quarter of the cost to operate Sydney’s transport network.

  • Conclusion: Good progress on Opal, but not on integrated fares. Limiting fare increases and putting the light rail on myZone are also some good minor improvements.
  • Grade: C

Transport Minister

Gladys Berejiklian has been a good Transport Minister for 2 reasons: she supports public transport and she is a strong advocate of it.

She strikes the right balance between public transport (trains, buses, ferries, trams) and private transport (cars, roads). It’s worth pointing out that, despite numerous claims that this government is pro-car and anti-rail, the current government spends more than half of its transport capital works budget on public transport. It’s also worth remembering that private motor vehicle trips will continue to play a key role in providing mobility to Sydney residents, and therefore the road network should still be expanded. But the focus should be on public transport, as it currently is.

As an aside, this support for public transport is unusual for a politician from the conservative side of politics. But both Ms Berejiklian and the Premier Barry O’Farrell are not your traditional hard conservatives, both more accurately described as moderate pragmatists. They both seem to recognise that congestion is costing the NSW economy money and the best way to improve the situation is to focus on public transport.

The Victorian Liberal Government’s top transport project is a road tunnel under the CBD, while the recently elected WA Liberal Government rejected the opposition’s 75km expansion of the rail network in favour of a short airport rail link and light rail for the inner city with a greater focus on improving the road network. Across the Tasman, the Auckland Transport Blog speaks favourably of conservatives in Australia (though really it’s more a comment on NSW, because as seen this is not a view necessarily shared by Liberal Parties in other states):

“I guess this is what happens when you have a centre-right government that isn’t completely insane in its ideological dislike of public transport…I do wonder why centre-right politicians in Australia don’t seem to have the same ideological dislike of public transport as seems to be the case in New Zealand.”Mr Anderson, Auckland Transport Blog (23 December 2012)

The other, and arguably more important, reason why Ms Berejiklian is a good Transport Minister is her strong advocacy. It’s not enough to support something if the cabinet or Premier overrule you. And Ms Berejiklian has demonstrated an ability to get her agenda through the cabinet where it’s been needed. She got cabinet to support an expensive Second Harbour Crossing, despite opposition from Infrastructure NSW Chairman Nick Greiner and took the light rail issue to cabinet 3 times until it accepted her preferred option of George St light rail over the CBD bus tunnel. These two major items, along with numerous other minor ones, were not a fait accompli, and are a testament to Ms Berejiklian’s influence.

  • Conclusion: Gladys Berejiklian is supporter of and effective advocate for public transport
  • Grade: A

Funding, costs and scheduling

Public transport projects in NSW seem to come in over budget and behind schedule all too often. That appears to have been partly continued. The Inner West Light Rail extension has been delayed by 18 months and its cost blown out by $56m, while the cost of the South West Rail Link (SWRL) went from $688m to $2.1bn. However, the SWRL is running ahead of schedule: the new Glenfield Station was completed 4 months ahead of schedule, while the new line is on track to open 6 months early. While this project was started by the previous Labor government, it’s delivery has been overseen by the current Liberal government and that’s what matters. The North West Rail Link has seen some blow outs in costs, but these are tens of millions of dollars in a multi-billion dollar project, so here it’s too early to make any judgement.

On the revenue side, the government has spoken about value capture as a way of funding infrastructure improvement, where property owners whose land values increase because of government built infrastructure contribute to the cost of building it. This is welcome, but no action has yet been taken. It has also openly committed to making users of any new or improved freeways pay tolls to contribute to their construction. This move to a user pays system, where the users of motorways pay for them rather than all taxpayers whether they use them or not, is a welcome one. What is unfortunate, is that the government has refused to introduce congestion charging, as pricing roadspace would allow a more efficient use of it, reducing congestion and the need to build more roads.

  • Conclusion: Cost blowouts and delays remain, though a possible early finish to the SWRL is a welcome surprise. Tolling and funding is a mixed bag, but mostly positive.
  • Grade: C

Governance

The two big reforms made by the government in the area of governance are the creation of Transport for NSW, which brought all transport related departments and agencies under the one umbrella, and the splitting of Railcorp into Sydney Trains and NSW Trains.

Transport for NSW’s creation is a game changer. By centralising planning into one department, rather than independent “silos” in separate departments that rarely communicate with each other, it will allow transport in Sydney to be fully integrated as one network, rather than a collection of separate networks. This extends to things like timetables and fares, but also adds roads to the mix – changing a transit department into a true transport department. All of this which will allow commuters to get from A to B much more easily than is currently the case. It will make examples like the following a thing of the past:

“For example, a customer could travel from St Ives to Sydney, via a private bus to Turramurra, a Cityrail train and walking along the city streets… The journey requires 2 separate tickets and therefore revenue streams, which never meet. The two vehicles are owned, maintained and driven by vastly different staff working for different silos.

The station facility is provided by Cityrail. If they’ve thought to accommdate the bus in the design of the facility, it would be the exception rather than the norm. The timetabling, if it is done at all, would be by a third silo in a distant building, remote from the reality of what’s happening.” – Riccardo, Integrated transport planning – what is it really? (11 June, 2011)

The Transport Master Plan put a great deal of emphasis on moving towards an integrated network, one where it would be much more common practice to take a feeder bus to a transport interchange and then take train, tram, or another bus to your final destination, with all coming frequently and all day, in order to maximise mobility. This would be a big improvement on the current network design, which is designed more around a single seat trip to the CBD than on connections to get you from anywhere to everywhere. However, this will be difficult to implement without integrated fares (discussed above), as currently commuters are penalised for making a transfer as though it is a premium service, when really it’s an inconvenience.

Evidence of the benefits of centralised planning can be seen in the recent decision to house metrobuses in separate depots in order to minimise dead running. This was not previously possible, as planning was done at the depot level, and so shifting buses from one depot to another was not feasible.

A Metrobus on George St in the Sydney CBD. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

A Metrobus on George St in the Sydney CBD. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Author)

The changes to Railcorp are not set to occur until July 1 of this year, so the jury is still out on that.

  • Conclusion: The creation of Transport for NSW, centralising the planning function and creating a true transport department.
  • Grade: A

Planning

NSW has had no lack of plans in recent years, if anything it’s had the problem of too many plans but not enough action. When it comes to just planning, the government had 2 competing visions: the Transport Master Plan from Transport for NSW and the State Infrastructure Strategy from Infrastructure NSW.

To its credit, every time the two plans disagreed, the state government sided with the Transport Master Plan every time. That means it has committed to building a Second Harbour Crossing for the rail network and light rail down George Street rather than the ill-fated bus tunnel idea.

It also dogmatically refused to commit to a light rail line to Randwick until a feasibility study was completed, but then got totally behind the project once it was completed and put before cabinet.

That is not to say that there aren’t concerns about the planning process. For example, the government has committed to the Second Harbour Crossing before having done enough work into it to name a cost or set a timetable for its completion. It was this sort of behaviour that contributed to the $500m spent on the aborted Rozelle Metro by the previous government.

  • Conclusion: The government has sided with Transport for NSW, rather than Infrastructure NSW, leading to a greater focus on public transport, rather than private transport. However, it has a mixed history of committing to projects before having done its homework.
  • Grade: B

Private sector involvement

The failure of PPPs like the Airport Line as well as the Cross City and Lane Cove Tunnels mean that government’s should approach private sector involvement with caution. But that does not mean that it should avoid it entirely.

In NSW, the government has opted to adopt the WA model, rather than the Victorian model. In WA, the government plans and owns the network, but puts the operation of various lines or regions out to tender, allowing competitive practice to drive down costs while maintaining a minimum contractual level of service. The government then pays the operator, but keeps all fares, ensuring that the operator can increase profits only by operating more efficiently, rather than by cutting service. The Victorian model sees the operators keep farebox revenue, which is then topped up by a government subsidy. The disadvantage of the Victorian model is that the operator can increase profits by cutting services with low patronage, even if these services are part of an overall network such as feeder buses.

The chosen model has proven successful in NSW, having been used on the bus network for almost a decade. It allowed the government to put some bus contracts out to tender, resulting in $18m of annual savings for the tax payer. It has also recently been expanded, when Sydney Ferries being franchised last year. The NWRL is also planned to be privately operated, while the Sydney light rail line was recently re-purchased by the government but will remain operated by a private company.

Sydney Ferries were franchised in 2012. (Source: Author)

Sydney Ferries were franchised in 2012. (Source: Author)

The decision to turn the NWRL into a completely separate and privately operated line, but one where commuters still pay the same fare as if they were on a Cityrail train, has the potential to finally stem the bleeding in Cityrail’s costs, perhaps through the use of driverless trains that would allow very high all day frequencies.

The recently introduced unsolicited proposal process has also allowed a proposal for an M2-F3 link to be constructed by the private sector at no cost to the taxpayer. While the outcome is uncertain, the process has been shown to work, and is a great way to increase the stock of infrastructure in Sydney. (Setting aside the involvement of this process for another Sydney Casino, which has raised some controversy.)

  • Conclusion: The government has learned from the bad PPPs of the past and appears to be using private sector involvement as a means, rather than as an ends.
  • Grade: A

Second Sydney airport

The current government has not only ruled out the preferred site of Badgerys Creek for a second airport, it has ruled out a second airport altogether, suggesting that a high speed rail line to Canberra airport could be used as a substitute. Not only is this unlikely to happen, given the high costs involved, but it means passing up on the opportunity to bring jobs to Western Sydney and revitalise its economy, which currently has a huge jobs shortfall that is only predicted to increase.

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Google Maps)

Current and proposed Sydney airports. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Google Maps)

Given the lack of support for a second airport, it is then disappointing that the government has not sought to reduce or elimiate the access fee for users of the airport train stations in order to ease the ground transport congestion around the airport, cited as the biggest constraint on Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith Airport at the moment.

  • Conclusion: The government does not support a second airport, and has not done enough to improve the capacity of the existing airport.
  • Grade: F

Transport apps

The makers of transport apps have seen an increase in the amount of transport data available to them. This has allowed for Google Transit to expand to all forms of public transport (previously it was just light rail and the monorail), and has also now included bike paths (though it seems Google did this on its own, rather than with help from the state government). More recently real time bus data was provided for STA buses, and will hopefully later be extended to all buses and also trains.

  • Conclusion: The government has been proactive in improving transport information to commuters by involving third party developers.
  • Grade: A

The Prime Minister Julia Gillard has offered $1bn in funding for Sydney’s WestConnex, based on it meeting 3 conditions. It must go all the way to the CBD, it must go all the way to Port Botany, and the government must not impose tolls on currently untolled roads. None of these are currently part of the WestConnex proposal. The Premier Barry O’Farrell immediately dismissed the offer, claiming that doing these three would cost $5bn to $9bn in additional construction and lost revenue.

Map of the proposed WestConnex route. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Open Street Map.)

Map of the proposed WestConnex route. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Open Street Map.)

It is the first point, on linking WestConnex through to the CBD, that has obtained the most attention, and here Mr O’Farrell has got it right. Many transport experts support the decision to not send WestConnex right into the CBD. It’s worth remembering that private vehicles on roads do a terrible job of moving large numbers of people to a single place: a single track of rail has ten times the capacity of a single lane of road. Congestion on the roads leading into the CBD cannot be solved by building more roads into the CBD, it won’t eliminate the bottleneck – it will merely shift it closer to the CBD. Not only is CBD road space limited, but so are parking spaces, and both of these are a poor use of the very limited space available in the city centre.

The only way to improve capacity into the CBD is to improve public transport, and that means more investment in train, buses, and trams. Public transport (and to a lesser extent, active transport – walking and cycling) are effective to areas with a high employment density.

So if WestConnex will do a bad job of transporting people into the CBD, then why isn’t it being scrapped entirely? Answering that question needs a non-CBD centric perspective on jobs and commuting in Sydney. One of the experts opposing the CBD link, Dr Garry Glazebrook of UTS, points out that “the point about motorways is not to service the CBD. It’s cross-regional traffic”.

Location of jobs in Sydney. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney's Centres, 1996 - 2006, page 2.)

Location of jobs in Sydney. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney’s Centres, 1996 – 2006, page 2.)

The Bureau of Transport Statistics compiled these figures from the 2006 census and released it in a document called Employment and Commuting in Sydney’s Centres, 1996 – 2006. These show that 1,923,900 were employed in 2006 in the Sydney statistical district, an area which includes the Central Coast. It then breaks these jobs down by location, into one of 33 activity centres and the remainder of Sydney, while excluding the 110,342 who’s employment location is listed as “unknown”. The largest centre is the CBD, with 230,049 jobs (12.7% of the total), with all other centres collectively employing 484,447 people (26.7% of the total). The remaining 1,099,062 work in the rest of Sydney or have “no fixed address” (60.6% of the total).

Sydney CBD has an employment density of 546 jobs/Ha, and hence a very high public and active transport share of of journeys to work of 76.6%, with only 19.5% of journeys primarily made by car (combination of driver and passenger).

Journey to work modal share for Sydney CBD. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney's Centres, 1996 - 2006, page 10.)

Journey to work modal share for Sydney CBD. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney’s Centres, 1996 – 2006, page 10.)

The 32 other centres are classified based on type, which include Central Sydney (e.g. Redfern), Commercial/Business Park (e.g. North Sydney), Education/Health (e.g. Westmead), Industrial (e.g. Port Botany), Regional (e.g. Liverpool), and retail (e.g. Castle Hill). These centres have a large range in employment density, from 1 job/Ha in Eastern Creek to 369 jobs/Ha in North Sydney. However, these are both outliers, and all other centres range from 11 jobs/Ha to 271 jobs/Ha. This lower employment density leads to a lower public and active transport share of 30.0%, with 69.1% of journeys primarily made by car.

Journey to work mode share for other centres in Sydney. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney's Centres, 1996 - 2006, page 10.)

Journey to work mode share for other centres in Sydney. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney’s Centres, 1996 – 2006, page 10.)

That leaves the rest of Sydney, where 60.6% of people work. These are dispersed and have a very low employment density of 0.8 jobs/Ha. This is very difficult to service by public transport, so these parts of Sydney have a public and active transport share of only 14.0%, with 85.2%  of journeys primarily made by car.

Journey to work mode share for rest of Sydney. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney's Centres, 1996 - 2006, page 10.)

Journey to work mode share for rest of Sydney. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Employment and Commuting in Sydney’s Centres, 1996 – 2006, page 10.)

By not linking directly to the CBD, it is precisely these dispersed jobs that WestConnex is best equipped to serve. Critics of WestConnex who (rightly) point out that dumping more cars into the CBD will not solve Sydney’s congestion problem fail to acknowledge that this is a very CBD-centric view of roads planning. With over 60% of jobs outside of major centres, and 87% outside the CBD, roads have and will continue to play a role in providing the appropriate mobility to the people of Sydney.

It is in the CBD, and to a lesser extent the inner city and other major centres, that public transport should and must be the priority.

Despite the conflicting views between the Transport for NSW Transport Master Plan and Infrastructure NSW First Things First report, the two reports actually agree on quite a few things. Both endorse the construction of one large rail project: the Northwest Rail Link, and both endorse the construction of one large road project: the WestConnex. Both endorse distance tolling and time of day tolling (i.e. congestion charging).

A summary of the projects recommended, along with the timetable for their construction, is included below. It is split up by transport corridors identified as having high and medium constraints by Transport for NSW, and also colour coded by which department supports each project.

Click on image for higher resolution. (Sources: Transport Master Plan, Transport for NSW, and First Things First, Infrastructure NSW.)

Probably the best bit of news is that both agree on what needs to be done in the next 5 years. Even in the medium term, there are only minor differences between the 2 plans, essentially a choice between light rail on George Street or a bus tunnel connecting Town Hall to Wynyard. It’s only in the long term, the 10-20 year window, where serious differences begin to appear.

It will be up to the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and the Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, to make the final decision on which bits of each report to go along with. In an interview with ABC’s 7.30 NSW program, Mr O’Farrell has recently repeated his promise that congestion charging will not be introduced, despite both plans recommending it, and that a Second Harbour Crossing will occur, despite opposition from Infrastructure NSW.

The ideological debate

The transport debate in Sydney seems to be building up on two sides: those who want more public transport, and those who want more roads.

On one side you have those who want funding for public transport prioritised. This includes the Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, who’s department, Transport for NSW, released a (relatively) pro public transport report: the Transport Master Plan, as well as the Sydney Morning Hearld, which released a (very) pro public transport report: the Independent Public Inquiry into Public Transport and has trashed the idea of the $10bn WestConnex plan as “an awful lot to pay for a bigger traffic jam”.

On the other side you have those who want funding for roads prioritised. This includes Nick Greiner, who’s department, Infrastructure NSW, released a pro roads infrastructure report: First Things First, as well as the Daily Telegraph, which released a (mildly) pro public transport report: The People’s Plan for Sydney (Transport and Driving), then ironically went on to seemingly only focus on the roads aspect of it, dismissing the Transport Master Plan as “vague and cobbled-together”.

The tension between the two sides erupted quietly behind the scenes two months ago when the Director-General of Transport for NSW, Les Wielinga, resigned from the board of Infrastructure NSW due to differing visions that each of the two bodies had towards how transport should be approached in Sydney. The differences of opinion, amongst other things, became so great, that Mr Wielinga no longer felt it appropriate to sit on a board that would sign off on a report that presented recommendations so different to those of his own department’s report.

Interestingly, when asked what the best way to reduce traffic congestion was at the recent Community Cabinet this past August, Roads Minister Duncan Gay said it was to get as many people out of their cars and into public transport. That puts the 2 most important members of the cabinet more or less on the side of public transport, while the biggest supporter of roads, Mr Greiner, sits as the chairman of an independent body that advices cabinet but does not make the final decisions.

Where the risk lies

The poor financial experiences of both the Lane Cove Tunnel and Cross City Tunnel, which saw the private sector take on the risk of unknown levels of traffic, have put a dent in the viability of private public partnerships. Many private infrastructure funds are now hesitant to invest in road projects, given the uncertainty of toll revenues that may come from it. However, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – both the M7 and M2 have performed well, with the latter being widened to meet higher than expected traffic levels. The difference, I think, was the higher costs of tunnels, making recouping the initial investment more difficult – if you raise the toll then you also reduce traffic, which further reduces your revenues.

The Infrastructure NSW report seeks to lessen the risk to private investors by shifting some of that risk back to the government. Presumably, if traffic forecasts, do not eventuate, then it will be the government that is left to pay the costs of the project, rather than the private investor. This will increase the number of potential investors, but at what cost?

The point of PPP projects is precisely that it shifts the risk away from the government and into private hands. And risk goes in two ways – you might get a dud (like the CCT or LCT), but you might also land what is effectively a license to print money (like the M2 and M7). It’s the basic risk vs return concept that you learn in every introductory business subject in the first year of university. If the government is now suggesting that it will accept the downside risk, while letting the private investors take all the upside risk, then it defeats the purpose of doing a PPP in the first place! You may as well get the government to build it.

In reality, the way to lure more private investors is to find ways of building new roads more cheaply. Tunnels are expensive, building on open land is not. This where the WestConnex plan of digging a slot under Parramatta Road came from – it’s cheaper than building a tunnel, thus making it a more viable project. It can then be tolled and given over almost entirely to private investors, who will then take on the risk of what the actual traffic volumes will be. But if the government takes on the downside risk, then that estimated $2.5bn government contribution could balloon. Suddenly that Second Harbour Crossing won’t seem so expensive after all.

The cost of priorities

Barry O’Farrell’s landslide victory in 2011 was based in large part on a promise to build new infrastructure. His biggest promise was to build the Northwest Rail Link, which is progressing and will be built by the end of the decade. (The Second Harbour Crossing is not quite guaranteed to happen, no matter how many times the government wants to reassure the people of Sydney that it will also complete it.) He also promised to build a new motorway, but declined to specify which one, instead choosing to commission Infrastructure NSW to decide which one. The release of its report this week meant the government will now get started on building the WestConnex. The price tag for these 3 projects is $29bn, or over $6,000 per person in Sydney. Excluding the Second Harbour Crossing, and assuming that three quarters of the WestConnex will be paid for by tolls still leaves the government with a cost of $11.5bn.

This has to be paid for. And it would be difficult to pay for under normal conditions. But this government doesn’t have normal conditions. It is facing a revenue black hole, led by a slow NSW economy and lower than expected GST receipts. This is why the government has been cutting spending so much: $1.7bn cut from education, $3bn cut from health, $2.2bn from capping salary increases to 2.5%, amongst others. It has also put privatisation on the table: the power generators, Port Botany, the desalination plant, everything except the poles and wires might be sold off by the government. Many of these are unpopular, but the government has made the decision that its priorities lie in funding infrastructure investment and that this means other areas must have their priorities reduced in order to achieve that goal.

The government has not considered deficit spending to build new infrastructure, and this is a shame. A budget deficit now means spending tomorrow’s money today. If spending that money today results in a stronger economy tomorrow, one that creates greater tax revenues tomorrow, then deficit spending makes sense. Spending on infrastructure or education, things that create a more productive workforce and/or economy, are different to spending on social programs or handing out tax cuts. But don’t expect that to happen if it puts our AAA credit rating at risk.

Infrastructure NSW released its 20 year infrastructure strategy, titled First Things First. Most of it was dedicated to transport, which I will be focusing on, though there were also sections on energy, education, water, etc. The recommendations of the report were summarised in this video below, which is a good 4 minute version of the 200+ page report.

The report agreed with some recommendations of the Transport Master Plan, but disagreed with others. And these weren’t just alternate views, it actually took the time to highlight its points of disagreement and explain why it disagreed with Transport for NSW. The Infrastructure NSW report feels very much like it comes from Treasury, and has what I would classify as a pro-road and anti-rail bias. Even when discussing public transport, the report almost universally discounts rail projects in favour of a bus one. But I’ll save those comments for a later post. For now, I’m just going to focus on some of the things that I thought were good about this report.

Prioritisation of projects

No one likes being the fun police, and when it comes to funding that means being the department that tells you that you can’t afford something. This report does that well, which you could argue that the Transport Master Plan did not. While the Master Plan was a bit of a wish list, this report did a good job of emphasising the limited nature of funding available and promoted projects which it believed give most bang for the government’s buck.

Maximising efficiency

Building entirely new projects – another road or a new rail line – is incredibly expensive. Maximising use of existing infrastructure, on the other hand, does not give the impression to the voters that you are doing much to improve the situation much, but is actually a very effective way of increasing overall capacity.

The Clearways project for Cityrail is a great example, which has helped to increase rail capacity via track amplifications, more turnback platforms and additional stabling yards, none of which make the headlines quite like a new rail line or freeway do, but have increased rail capacity by similar amounts for a fraction of the cost. Time of day tolling on the Harbour Bridge/Tunnel is another example, which used pricing to encourage some people to drive during off peak hours (as you only need a small change in traffic to provide a big improvement in congestion).

Infrastructure NSW is encouraging further use of time of day tolling on the remainder of the road network in order to improve efficient use of Sydney’s freeways. In regards to public transport, it looks at ways that portions of the rail network that are currently under utilised, such as the City Circle, can be better used. It also proposed that off peak travel on public transport be given deeper discounts once Opal is rolled out in order to encourage more off-peak travel where possible, rather than peak hour travel.

Funding new infrastructure at minimal or no cost to the government

Where possible, the report has attempted to minimise how much funding the government itself will have to contribute to projects, usually by emphasising private toll roads. The WestConnex (a combination of the M4 East, M5 East, and the Inner West Bypass), for example, has a price tag of $10bn, of which $7.5bn is expected to be paid by the private sector. A cheaper way of building the M4 East, by digging up Parramatta Road itself, rather than a very expensive tunnel, to bring down the cost was also welcomed. The M2-F3 link would be built if a current private sector proposal to build it entirely with private money were to go ahead. These are achieved through a user pays system, in some cases with some government funding where necessary. But if the government can get new infrastructure built for free, paid for by the user, rather than the taxpayer, then it should get as many of these projects built as possible.

Construction costs would be cut by building the M4 East as a “slotted road”, similarly to how the Eastern Distributor was built. Click on image for higher resolution. (Source: First Things First, page 89.)

A second Sydney airport

The report recommends a new airport be built in Badgerys Creek. Right now this is at odds with the O’Farrell Government, which opposes any second airport in the Sydney basin, and also the federal Liberal and Labor Parties, which support a second airport at Wilton, which is a less optimal site than Badgerys Creek is.

XPT and High Speed Rail

Both regional rail links and high speed rail are played down by the report. Both are on the expensive ends of the scale, with limited benefits. Many XPT routes in regional NSW would probably be better served by buses, which would allow better connections with the limited budget, while high speed rail is just too expensive with its $60bn-$108bn price tag for the improved connectivity that it would provide.

Faster rail to Wollongong and Central Coast

The report calls for an improvement in rail lines to allow for an average 80km/hour link to both Gosford on the Central Coast and Wollongong, which would put them within 1 hour of the Sydney CBD. That trip currently takes 60km/hour on rail. Improvements like this are incremental and affordable, and are what would be required if high speed rail is eventually to be introduced to Australia’s East Coast.

Media Coverage

O’Farrell sets aside $1.8b for new motorway, Sydney Morning Herald

Transport report draws mixed reactions, Sydney Morning Herald

And finally there was movement in Sydney, Daily Telegraph

New roads a fast track to the future, Daily Telegraph

Roads a priority in $30bn plan for NSW, ABC News

NSW unveils 20-year infrastructure plan, ABC Radio

Prior to the 2011 NSW state election, the current Liberal Government promised to build either the M4 East or F3 to M2 Link, or to duplicate the M5 East. To decide which one of the 3 would be built, Infrastructure NSW has been tasked with determining which was most appropriate. That report is to be finalised in September.

M5 and F3 to M2

Current rumours are that Infrastructure NSW will recommend the construction of the M5 East duplication, as its $5 billion price tag is considered more affordable than the larger, but bigger impact, M4 East at $10 billion. Roads minister Duncan Gay has ruled new tolls, but has made an exception for tolls that would be used for the construction of new roads:

“We would only consider tolls as part of the package of improvements and provision of new roads.”Duncan Gay, Roads Minister

As a result, it is speculated that tolls will return to the M4, and be introduced onto the M5 East in order to fund the construction of new roads. Such tolls would raise $250m per year and, together with $2.4 billion  raised from electricity privatisation, would pay for the duplication.

Further North, it is speculated that a new freeway linking the F3 to the M2 would be privately built and operated. The government has been in talks with Transurban, the owner of the M2 and Lane Cover Tunnel and also part owner of the M7, M5 and Eastern Distributor, over the possibility of building such a freeway.

This raises the question over the role of tolls. On one hand, they serve as an excellent form of user pays funding – those that use the freeway are those who pay for its use. And lets not forget that making road usage free while charging for public transport only discourages people from taking the train or bus while encouraging car use. While people should be free to drive, it is also not something that should be encouraged by subsidising it via toll free freeways.

At the same time, a large portion of the community benefit from the existence of a freeway, as it removes cars, traffic and congestion from local streets. Look at the Lane Cove portion of Epping Road, which has seen a big drop in traffic and a reduction in speeds following the opening of the Lane Cove Tunnel.

Ultimately the question therefore becomes not one of “Should there be a toll?” but rather “How much should the toll be?”. And it is here where the problem emerges – many of Sydney’s freeways are privately owned (M2, Lane Cove Tunnel, M5, M7, Cross City Tunnel, Eastern Distributor and Harbour Tunnel), with tolls set based on contractual agreements entered into at the time of construction. Some of these are set to revert to public ownership in the next 10-15 years, but others still have decades left before that happens. In the past this has meant the M4 and M5 have been free (or had a cash back system in place), while freeways North of the Harbour (M2, Lane Cove Tunnel and the Harbour Bridge/Harbour Tunnel) were all tolled.

Any government that can untangle this mess of contracts, tolls and financing, and come away with a city-wide tolling system that will fund the construction of future roads will have done what is generally considered impossible. For that reason, don’t expect it to happen.

Cashless tolls

Posted: February 3, 2012 in Transport
Tags: ,

Sydney’s M2 and Eastern Distributor freeways have just recently gone cash-free on January 31. This leaves the M5 as the only tollway in Sydney that still accepts cash payments, rather than requiring electronic payment via an e-tag. Ironically, the M5 is also the only tollway in Sydney where the government offers a cash back offer, in which it refunds 91% of the toll.

Removing the cash payment option allows a more streamlined movement of cars through toll plazas and also allows for an increase in the speed limit in these areas (which are often 20km/hour lower, even for cars that are using their e-tag).

These M2 and Eastern Distributor, completed in 1997 and 2000 respectively, were the last tollways built in Sydney that accepted cash. All tollways built since then have been completely cashless. The most recent of these, the M7, goes as far as calculating the distance travelled and charging the toll based on the number of kms used. Ideally a fully integrated freeway system in Sydney would be entirely based on distance travelled (with perhaps a premium for going into/through the CBD). However, the mix of private and public ownership of the different freeways, as well as the government’s reluctance to charge tolls for publicly owned freeways means this is unlikely to happen.

As a sidenote, the government does charge a toll on the Harbour Bridge and Harbour Tunnel, but this is because the Harbour Tunnel is part privately owned, and thus requires both for a toll on it and the same toll to exist for the Harbour Bridge.