A Barry O’Farrell government, almost certain to be elected in NSW next year, will inherit a public transport infrastructure crisis. Demand is rising relentlessly. To grasp the pace of change, all you need to do is check the streets surrounding Sydney suburban railway stations on a working day. You’ll see that unrestricted parking within hundreds of metres has been taken by new rail commuters. It was not like this even three years ago.

According to the Commonwealth Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics’ 2009 yearbook, passenger car travel in Sydney has been virtually static since 2005 (these statistics pre-date the onset of the global financial crisis in late 2008 after which passenger car travel certainly declined). In the same period, rail travel grew by almost 9%.

This is a global phenomenon that reflects the reality of oil production sliding from a bumpy plateau into accelerating decline. We are in a classic vicious circle. Any substantial reflation of the world economy will increase demand for petroleum fuels and gas, causing a new price surge that will, in turn, cripple the recovery.

In these difficult circumstances there will be huge public pressure for a NSW Liberal government to push ahead with a public transport renaissance that goes against the market fundamentalist drift of recent decades, but we should remember that things were not always seen from the same ideological standpoint.

Until the 1970s, public transport was regarded by most political conservatives as a “natural monopoly”. Experiments with outlandish forms of privatisation and pseudo-competition date only from Margaret Thatcher’s time and have proved a dead end. Robert Askin — NSW’s longest-serving Liberal premier — may have been personally corrupt in a quaintly old-fashioned way, but in the light of the past 20 years, his record on public transport looks very reasonable. Askin regarded the Eastern Suburbs Railway as one of his greatest achievements and he could not have imagined the core public transport task as anything other than a state responsibility.

In the new circumstances it would be the height of folly for a Liberal government not to break from the transport planning assumptions — the priority of road over rail infrastructure and the dominating role of public-private partnerships — that have been championed by Treasury since the Greiner-Carr era.

With traffic static or declining, Opposition roads spokesman Andrew Stoner’s half-hearted endorsement of an industry plan for an overarching PPP to operate Sydney’s toll roads — with the government taking all risk and tolls used to fund more motorways — would be a fruitless exercise.

Until a few short years ago, the problem was that big new roads quickly reached capacity and the additional traffic generated clogged the rest of the road network. It was all counterproductive, but good news for toll road profits. In the post-energy crisis world, things, increasingly, don’t work this way, as has been proved by the spectacular failure of recent toll-road projects. Now, every dollar spent on roads is a dollar not spent on sustainable transport solutions.

Under Kristina Keneally, the Labor government finally took some halting steps in the right direction, cancelling Nathan Rees’ ill-conceived metro rail adventure, committing (hopefully, finally and seriously) to heavy rail expansion and, perhaps most notably, kick-starting the expansion of Sydney’s minuscule light-rail system.

A sustained light-rail program is critical for Sydney. Not only can light rail at least double capacity on trunk routes where bus services have reached capacity, it’s also very cheap to build compared with heavy rail or underground metro. With light rail we can therefore afford to lay down many lines to service suburbs we could never otherwise afford to cover.

Unfortunately, unlike roads, heavy rail, and buses, light rail has no permanent bureaucratic champion and the current response to demand for it is ad-hoc. The remaining institutional opposition to the mode within Transport NSW and Treasury must be swept away. Sydney urgently needs a light-rail planning and construction authority staffed by experts who will mostly have to be recruited in Europe. Without this, the slew of light-rail projects now being proposed by MPs and local government cannot be properly assessed, costed, prioritised and planned for.

It is also critical that Sydney unlocks the enormous potential capacity in the existing suburban rail system. CityRail moves a million people every day but it could easily move a million and a half. With two extra rail tracks under the CBD and across the harbour, it will be possible bring more frequent services to 250 stations. A new underwater harbour crossing might be required, but with road traffic levels static and plenty of capacity remaining in the harbour tunnel, the option of reclaiming the two lost rail tracks on the east side of the bridge should be seriously and rapidly assessed.

But if Sydney never builds another new road, what will we do with all those RTA road builders? They should be systematically given the new skills necessary for a sustained, long-term, expansion of rail, light rail and cycling infrastructure and the renewable energy resources needed to power the new and existing services. Failure to think in these terms and act urgently will cost Sydney and NSW dearly.

*Gavin Gatenby is convener of EcoTransit Sydney, a not-for-profit public and active transport advocacy group.

Peter Fray

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