TRANSPORT SERIES – SYDNEY: John Austen is a transport specialist with a big track record including senior roles in the NSW government and as a former member of Infrastructure Australia. He claims that NSW’s troubled road and rail infrastructure planning is fundamentally flawed.
John Austen, who worked in operations for the NSW Department of Transport, as the coordinator-general of rail and as a transport advisor for Infrastructure Australia, says a public enquiry is needed to explain transport infrastructure decisions made by successive NSW state governments.
Referring to a number of projects currently underway, including Westconnex, the Metro Northwest and CBD and South East Light Rail projects, Austen claims that planners are either ignoring or ignorant of the basic principles of transport planning.
“It’s not like there are one or two projects we can criticise, it’s just like the whole understanding of transport and human development is way off beam,” he told The Fifth Estate in an interview after he appeared in our We the People panel at Tomorrowland 2018. “It’s hard to imagine getting it more wrong.”
His claims are echoed by a variety of critics of the Berejiklian government’s transport planning, among them Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi, who observed in a Sydney Morning Herald column:
“The system is stretched to the limit and their response is to close down two train lines and hand them over to the private sector. I suspect this government’s strategy is to run the system into the ground to make the handover to the private sector more palatable, meanwhile the people suffer.”
Negative submissions on the Westconnex development through the Legislative Council’s Public Accountability Committee are manifold. They go beyond disaffection with higher traffic impacts, poorer air quality, expensive tolls, and the misdirection of road taxes, with one private submission citing damage from construction to a home in Beverly Hills running upwards of $250,000 and homeowners exposed to the full financial risk of repairing their own property.
The first expert independent assessment of the Motorway, by economics firm SGS Economics & Planning, warned it would not achieve any of its touted aims in financial viability, travel time savings or other key justifications.
While the government’s infrastructure planning remains highly secretive, it has made no bones about its intention to privatise much of Sydney’s transport network. Its predilection for selling public assets to “political friends” has been harshly criticised by commentators such as influential blogger John Menadue. He observes that the NSW government’s “roads fetish” has seen it massively overestimate toll roads usage because of its vested interest in political favours for road builders.
“The motor and road construction lobbies apply intense pressure on governments to commit to wasteful road expenditures,” he wrote. “Those vested interests are … exploiting business opportunities with taxpayers money and residents having to bear the cost. ‘Infrastructure’ has become almost beyond criticism or challenge. We are encouraged to believe that it is all good. It is not.”
John Austen emphasises that the current administration’s focus on road transport gets the principles of transport planning all wrong.
“In 2010 Ron Christie, who used to be the head of State Rail and was the guy in charge of transport for the Olympics, did a very extensive review of rail in Sydney, which basically covers road issues as well,” he said. “He underlined the fact that in a medium to big city like Sydney, the railway determines the shape and structure of the city. It’s not the road system at all.
“When city populations get over a few million, the railways become really important, so in cities like New York and Moscow, Shanghai, Tokyo, the railway systems determine the performance of the city.
“In Sydney we’ve got this belief that roads determine the needs of the city. But in Sydney the main non-negotiable transport task is commuting and the average commute time has been an hour for as long as I can remember.
“There’s a theory backed by loads of practice around the world that it’s almost impossible to change commute times, that the size of the city changes according to the speed of the transport system, so in Sydney people live inside one hour from where they work and if you speed up the transport system they’ll move further out. If you slow it down they’ll move closer in.
“That’s been observed in London for about 5-700 years and in other cities as well. So the notion of improving transport times into the city with more roads is just absolute crap.”
Austen is a strident critic of the thinking behind the Westconnex motorway.
“With Westconnex, they say it’s going to make it easier to drive from the southwest of Sydney, where I live, into the CBD. Well, you’re nuts if you drive from here to the CBD, everyone catches trains. About 90 per cent of the people going into the CBD go on public transport and probably 90 per cent of the rest are in taxis. Nobody drives to work, not just because traffic so awful, but because parking is so expensive.
“What it will do is attract people to drive through the CBD, so if I wanna go to the eastern suburbs from the western suburbs, I’ll go through the CBD. If I wanted to go to the Northern Beaches at the moment the best way is to go down the M2. In the future it’s going to be through the CBD, and you’ve gotta ask yourself, who in their right mind wants to put a whole lot of new traffic through the CBD?”
Don’t point a highway at a CBD – it’s crowded and there’s no parking
“It’s first principles; don’t point a highway at a CBD, that’s why the Pacific Highway is being focused on missing town centres. You don’t put traffic where lots of people are, so why do you aim a motorway at a CBD?” Austen said.
“Seoul knocked down a freeway and the traffic sped up, which is in mathematical terms what you’d expect. Knock down a freeway and your congested area improves, because you’re not funnelling traffic into it. You’re trying to keep traffic out of the CBD, that’s why you have bypasses and ring roads, to keep traffic out of built up areas.”
He’s equally scathing of the closure of the Epping to Chatswood rail line, in anticipation of the $8.3 billion Sydney Metro Northwest project.
“The Christie review went through the Metro argument. He said if Sydney needed a Metro, it should be in the inner part of Sydney, not out into the suburbs. The planners are people who haven’t understood how cities are structured.
“Metro systems go in the middle of big cities, between points of attraction and one of the purposes is to carry many, many people short distances. The peak hour on a metro is bidirectional, so as many people are going one way as are going the other. On a commuting system they have directional peak flows, so it goes into the city in the morning and out of the city in the afternoon, like a tide.
“In New York you’ll see the tide going in and out but in the centre of the city you’ll only see people moving around – the Metro is used all day.
“For many years they’ve been looking to place the Metro in Sydney. It’s like they decided ‘we want to have a railway’, now they’re looking for a place to put it. The right way to do it is you look at what transport needs you have, [then] work out what transport system to put in there.
“Putting it in the west of Castle Hill down to Chatswood, they’ve interdicted the commuter rail system, wrecking part of it and they don’t seem to recognise that.”
Popular criticism of the Metro line is focused on its purpose-built inability to integrate with existing rail networks. The Berejiklian government’s insistence is that this line be retrofitted for single deck carriages, which means it will not be able to take regular double deck services.
“Some of it’s just plain incompetence,” Austen declared.
“Commonwealth officials bought this line and told their ministers that single deck trains can’t run on the same tracks as double deck trains. I wrote to the Minister saying ‘what about the single deck Canberra train that comes up three times a day?’”
Critics also point out that the use of single deck trains will actually increase congestion, as more commuters will be squeezed into less space. This will mean more people will take the option of road transport rather than rail, increasing congestion on already overloaded roads infrastructure.
The Metro business model, a public-private partnership, is historically flawed. Previous examples include the Cross City Tunnel and the Airport Rail Link, both of which are under utilised, poorly conceived and have blown out their sizeable budgets.
“The Western Sydney rail study is probably the oddest one of the lot,” Austen laughed. “They said ‘let’s have a Metro between Campbelltown and St Marys’. What are these people on? You could put in a bus rapid transport system for a fiftieth of the cost.
“To unscramble all this now is going to take years. They’re going to have to rebore the tunnels to take a normal size train.
“They did that in Paris in 1884, but that was the provincial government attempting to keep people out of Paris to thumb their nose at the national government. Sixty years ago they admitted they f**ked it up and their new tunnels can now take big trains as well as their Metro trains. But here now to do the same thing? In Sydney the tunnels have been bored too small, but nobody in the public domain has said why. And all that does is destroy options in the future.”
“I think that somebody had the project and just threw it down, and in order to save embarrassment they kept on doubling down and spending more and more. It goes back to [premiers] Carr, O’Farrell. When Iemma was in, people said they wanted a Metro from Woop Woop into Chatswood. Reese designed his Metro in seven weeks [laughs]. It went to Rozelle. Was it going to Rozelle so he could put the spoil there from the tunnel? It’s just laughable.”
With Sydney’s population growing at a frightening rate, the pressure on travel infrastructure is only going to get worse. Internationally, the trend is to reduce reliance on roads and move towards more sustainable people-moving options. But while heavy and light rail upgrades are underway in Sydney, Austen insists they are being rolled out with absurdly skewed planning.
“The airport line in Sydney is actually not an airport line, its purpose is to bypass Sydenham Junction. The Railway people never thought there’d be so many airport passengers, ergo the passenger peak of people from the airport wanting to go into CBD is also the commuter peak in Sydney, so you’ve got the worst possible outcome as a result.
“The light rail system or even a heavy rail system is probably a really good idea to go to the Eastern Suburbs, no problem, but then extending it down to Circular Quay, what’s that all about? The way light rails work in reasonable sized cities is in a grid, that is east-west or north-south. Melbourne is a good example. You don’t have a single line rail line going through a CBD. There’s no grasp of the principles of transport – they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Austen points out that infrastructure planning is only part of the problem in NSW. He points to John Menadue’s observations that holistic approaches to mitigating emissions will need to be made in future.
In order to seriously tackle climate change issues, Menadue makes recommendations in line with EU laws on reducing emissions. He cites congestion taxes to reduce the number of cars in cities and increasing sales taxes, registration fees and fuel excises in line with countries such as Denmark, where the sales tax on vehicles is 143 per cent.
Austen has called for a public enquiry into transport planning in NSW. His blog www.thejadebeagle.com states:
“Only an open public inquiry can assure us that advice and decisions – costing up to $66 billion and forever changing Sydney – are not tainted by arrogance or vested interests. Other approaches are unsatisfactory because government statements are untrustworthy.”
He claims there is evidence pointing to a cover up over poor transport planning and further wrote:
“The issues go beyond trains into the failure to provide proper, adequate, accurate and unbiased information about important proposals. Unless such information is published, politicians will be locked into policies they don’t understand. The community will then suffer.”
The NSW Greens have successfully pushed for a public enquiry into Westconnex, convening a Public Accountability Committee to inquire and report on various aspects of the project by December 1, 2018.