Last Friday afternoon I read on Crikey an anonymous tipster’s story that claimed Taverner’s, a market research company, was doing a survey in the Pyrmont area for the NSW Government. The survey focused on the proposed, and very controversial, metro rail projects and interviewees were being asked to choose between expensive overloaded trams running hourly (the light rail service actually runs every 10 minutes in the peak and 15 off-peak) and cheaper metros with plenty of seats running about every six minutes.

On Sunday afternoon a colleague rang to say that she had just encountered the survey team in the Broadway Centre and I decided to check the accuracy of the anonymous report. I found three Tavener’s Research people outside K-Mart and they seemed desperate for interviewees. I was told the survey was “for the NSW Government” the criteria were quite narrow.

Hoping to recreate the metro versus light rail scenario I told them I was employed at Rozelle and that I travelled there from Central station. Unfortunately, they weren’t interested in the daily commute, they wanted to talk to people who did “business trips” by public transport. Had I recently made any?

Thinking quickly, I concocted a trip from Rozelle to Parramatta on a recent but unspecified date. How had I done it? Well, I’d caught a bus to Summer Hill station (I estimated 20 minutes) and then the train to Parramatta, changing at Strathfield. This met the survey criteria.

To my astonishment, what followed indicated that the survey misrepresents the CityRail system as grotesquely as it does the light rail service.

In a set of “scenarios” I was asked to choose between going from Rozelle to Parramatta via the proposed CBD and Western metros and doing the trip by the bus and rail combination with various situations of seating at over- or under-capacity and differing travel times and prices.

The survey represented CityRail rail trains as running only hourly — or alternatively and more bizarrely, every 50 minutes — compared to the spiffy six minute headway of the proposed metro.

I pointed out that there’d been several services an hour on the Western Line for over a century, so it was all rather slanted, but the interviewer said I had to choose between the two scenarios as given. Naturally, I had to prefer the metro.

As I recall, the metro ticket price was significantly cheaper than the rail fare, even though my putative metro trip was twice the distance I’d have been travelling on CityRail — and of course the bus fare added more on top. How the metro fares could be so cheap, considering that the Government’s current estimate for the CBD plus Western metros is $13.4 billion and a huge swag of that would have to be expensive private capital is a mystery to me … but so are a lot of things on Planet Rees.

The key issue is precisely who in the NSW Government commissioned the survey. In the sprawling war zone of overlapping responsibilities and factional nastiness known as the NSW Government, the Ministry of Transport (presumably its Centre for Transport Planning and Product Development), the Premier’s Department, the Metro Rail Authority, the Department of Planning, or even Joe Tripodi, the Minister for Infrastructure and Finance, would all have some motivation for engaging Taverner’s and some interest in the outcome.

On the evidence that I saw, the survey is an outrageous attempt to set up a spin about enthusiastic public endorsement for the metro proposals. A push-polling effect is a secondary outcome of this weird little operation. Punters who don’t use CityRail or light rail, and who may have absolutely no idea about the frequency of existing services, will come away assuming that trains and trams currently run very infrequently compared to the proposed metro.

*EcoTransit Sydney is a community public transport lobby group. It is currently campaigning for the extension of Sydney’s small light rail service from Lilyfield to Dulwich Hill along an existing and unused freight line.