The last train out of Sydney’s almost gone

Liam Thorne investigates the sad history of the NSW approach to infrastructure

Meme: the Trolley Cart problem with Mike Baird forced between a dystopian cityscape and a normal train line.

Sydney used to have what can only be described by public transport nerds (like me) as a truly majestic tram system. By most metrics—reach, capacity, interconnectedness—it was the bedrock of a welcoming and energetic city. Before its eventual demise at the hands of the automobile, it brought the North and South together, from Narrabeen and Willoughby down to Cronulla. It reached outwards to Ryde, Concord, Enfield, Hurlstone Park, and Earlwood. The height of its majesty, however, was found around USyd, snaking along almost every main arterial road that today finds itself clogged with cars; along Parramatta Road and King Street, up Victoria Road through Balmain and down the Princes Highway towards Tempe.

George Street featured a tram that ran from Central Station up towards the crown jewel of the network: the Harbour Bridge. A pioneering piece of engineering and city planning, the bridge was and is impressive both for the service it provides, connecting North to South, and the transport features it boasted. Sir John Bradfield, the bridge’s designer, fought for 30 years for a design that would accommodate the mass population growth he correctly foresaw. The six lane design was seen as entirely unnecessary in the period prior to the rise of the automobile. Possessing two tram and two rail tracks, the system incorporated what are jargonistically called ‘redundancies’, essentially backup plans in the event of an emergency. This was a diversified system, one that easily handled the population growth following World War II. And while many argue that the bridge’s roads nudged people toward cars, Bradfield still prioritised an urban ideology of creating a city based on an interconnected mass transport system. This ideology defined Sydney for its first 50 years following federation.

Image: the Northern Approach to the Harbour Bridge in 1932, featuring the now demolished tram bridge.

Sitting on the 370 bus now, running late as ever for class, the contrast between now and then could not be more disappointing. That the modern transport system deviates so radically from Bradfield’s plan is yet another item on the ever increasing list of complaints Sydneysiders have about traffic and congestion, especially given that old network offered solutions to these modern complaints. An ABC Rear Vision report from 2006 found that in 1946, only years before the tram lines were removed, the system moved 400 million people around Sydney in a year. In 2006, City Rail (affectionately termed ‘Shitty Rail’ by Sydney commuters) could only manage a mere 200 million, at full capacity. When trains break down now on the North Shore Line, the entire system slows to a crawl. Where cars now pile up on main arteries sprawling from the inner city, tears are often shed for the high-capacity trams of old, which could take such congestion in their stride. And of course, the Sydney Harbour Bridge trams are no more. There is, however, a pattern behind these changes. Successive Australian governments, especially NSW’s, have consistently prioritised money and self-interest over the public good. There are countless, separate allegations that the NSW government is deep in the pockets of corporate interest, cutting corners when it should have been meaningfully investing in the future of an ever-growing city.

The push to remove Sydney’s tram system was motivated by an asserted need to modernise, namely by making way for the automobile. Despite the many successes of Sydney’s major, heavy-lift tram system (a type of tram system specifically able to handle high passenger volume), critics focused on the injuries caused by tram accidents, or their clunky and industrial appearance. At the centre of this debate was the National Roads and Motorways Association, the current-day insurance giant NRMA. In its earlier days, the NRMA saw itself as a lobbying power representing the voices of, initially largely privileged, motorists. This was a global trend: in cities across the world, powerful lobbying groups were responsible for dismantling mass transport systems—in American cities like Los Angeles, General Motors and National City Lines were effectively responsible for the removal of the streetcar system.

In Sydney, one of the earliest tramline closures, in Enfield, was met with public protest. Similar protests against the closure of the Watson’s Bay and Ryde lines even resulted in their temporary reopening. But despite the NSW Government’s initial policy stance—to remove some of the standalone and periphery lines while maintaining the high capacity routes closer to the inner city—the eventual result was far more drastic. By 1961, Joe Cahill and Bob Heffron’s Labor Governments were finally successful in dismantling one of the largest tram systems in the world.

One need only look at the success of Melbourne’s tramlines to consider what might have been. The Victorian governments of the time chose to maintain their system by upgrading its technology. It isn’t hard to see how this explains, at least in part, why Melbourne is consistently considered more livable than Sydney.

The NSW government has on several occasions recognised the increasing strain their tramless system has come under. Infuriatingly, however, their proposed solutions have tended to be quickly abandoned, half-heartedly completed, or replaced by more expensive road plans. In that context, it’s not surprising that many suspect that, as in the case of trams, the government is simply caving to pressure and the influence of money.

In 1968 and 1974, transportation studies by the State Planning Authority of NSW recommended the building of several rail lines to support growth in the city’s outer areas. The majority of these recommendations went unfulfilled, and unsuccessfully suggested since. Notably, express lines from Parramatta to Redfern and Chatswood have been proposed frequently. The Redfern-Parramatta proposal still sits on the table over 50 years later, and the Chatswood-Parramatta Line was only half-completed as the Chatswood-Epping line in 2009. In most cases, commuters have been left to choose between the overcrowded main suburban line, or roads like the City West Link (attacked for being overly-congested only four years after completion), the similarly congested M4, or the Parramatta Road tram gravesite.

The more recent Cross City Tunnel (CCT) and WestConnex projects show that this pattern of road-obsessed development has not been lost on the new century. Even before construction began, many had suggested that the CCT was unnecessary and wasteful. Sydney traffic planner Michelle Zeibots, for example, warned that the required journeys per annum through the tunnel to turn a profit were impossible. To the surprise of virtually no one, the $680 million tunnel became insolvent only two years after opening due to low traffic numbers. It was bought out privately by Keighton Contractors and ABN AMRO, before it again fell into voluntary receivership in 2013. More worrying than the project’s lack of use to Sydneysiders, however, were the shady lengths to which the NSW Government went to secure, in vain, the project’s success. In order to manufacture demand for their tolled-road, streets around and above the road, especially William Street, were treated to diversions and lane reductions. Not only were these moves explicitly motivated by the desire to increase profits for private firm Cross City Motorways, but the effort to cover up the contract detailing these facts was especially elaborate. And of course, most of the analysis shows that the move worsened, rather than improved, congestion, especially for people who do not use the tunnels.

The latest road project designed to alleviate traffic-congestion is the dubious WestConnex project. Critics, including members of the Greens such as Mehreen Faruqi, have voiced the same criticisms that were levelled ats the CCT project and the Lane Cove Tunnel: that the required tunnel usage and toll revenue will not nearly cover the construction costs. Faruqi’s website claims that “by 2029, WestConnex will have lost over $4.5 billion in taxpayers’ money.”

Critics also contend that big road projects only encourage higher use of cars, ensuring their role as the dominant mode of transport. The concept of induced-demand suggests that households are more likely to opt into driving when an arterial road is built. Advocates for WestConnex, including majority-owner Transurban (whose non-executive director, Peter Scott, is also a University Senate Fellow), contend that the motorway will ease the strain on Sydney’s roads. But what seems more likely is that congestion levels will stay the same, just on a larger scale and in more places. The same resources could secure more public transport lines, which would make a larger difference comparatively.

Examples of the NSW government’s detached priorities could fill this entire edition, but the clearest case study of recent times is a more relevant, ongoing standoff between the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) and NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance. Though this stoush received mainstream media attention in January when the RTBU proposed widespread industrial action, its origins date back to mid-2017. The RTBU’s core demands are a wage increase beyond the 2.5% public service wages cap imposed by the Liberal NSW government and improvement of unsafe, uncomfortable working conditions.
By January this year, it was clear that transit workers were under strain precisely because successive governments have focused on overburdening existing structures rather than increasing capacity. Back in November, Sydney Trains released a new timetable with 1500 additional weekly services to try and meet the burgeoning demand for public transport. There was no consultation with the RTBU regarding the likely results of such significant changes. The RTBU claims that 150 new workers would have been required to operate the new timetable, and yet no new workers were hired. This resulted in train operators being forced to work huge amounts of overtime, with some reportedly rostered on for twelve of every fourteen days.

Image: commuters consumed by chaos at Central Station during the two day train meltdown.

The vulnerabilities in this system were finally exposed when lightning strikes at Penrith, Gordon, and Sefton brought the entire rail system down for two days, taking Sydney’s entire transport infrastructure with it. The Government’s immediate response was to blame workers for taking “excessive sick leave”. The RTBU set the record straight: there had “been no abnormal spike in sick leave” and this was “another attempt by Sydney Trains to demonise their hard-working drivers”.

After concluding that discussions had broken down, the RTBU democratically decided to pursue what was, in their own words, their last-resort: industrial action and strikes. But before they could, the Fair Work Commission controversially declared such an action illegal. The union fell back on negotiations, which at the time of writing are ongoing. An RTBU representative told Honi that for the past two weeks, Sydney Trains management has been touring workplaces across NSW in attempts to reach a new agreement. A postal ballot will be dispatched this Thursday, with counting to conclude on the March 24. Until then, Sydney Trains operators’ safety while on the job, and the security of the jobs themselves, remain open questions. In any event, what seems clear is that the NSW government will continue to look for easy ways to dig itself out of this hole, regardless of the cost to the most vulnerable.

One such shortcut, and one that is always towards the top of Liberal government agendas, is privatisation. Despite Mike Baird’s 2015 electoral promise to use “asset recycling” (electricity privatisation) to ensure public transport would stay public, rumours began to circulate in 2016 that parts of NSW Public Transport would soon be sold off. Indeed, in February 2017, the government announced that bus services in the Inner West would be put to private tender. A year later, in February 2018, Australian company Transit Systems was declared the successful contract bidder. Transit Systems will operate Inner West buses from July, and its contract will last for eight years. What its services will look like is still unclear. NSW Transport Minister Constance has said the company will introduce extra services and the luxury of ordering buses on demand, just “like they order an Uber”. The RTBU is less enthusiastic: its press releases claim that fewer bus services and increased fares are likely.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in Newcastle. After the hurried sale of Newcastle’s entire transport system in July 2017, there has been a 30% drop in on-time bus trips as well as reports of the underpaying of bus drivers. Melbourne’s rail privatisation has also been criticised for similar reasons. Though it still owns the infrastructure, Victoria franchised the running of trains and trams in 1999. Despite original promises that subsidies would only be a stop-gap measurement, Hong-Kong based rail operator MTR was still receiving government support in 2013-14, to the tune of $1.188 billion. Yet it still managed to make an after-tax profit of $46.22 million. It’s only too likely that similar wasteful and suspicious funding arrangements will emerge from the Inner West privatisation. Ultimately, though, the biggest worry for Inner West residents is the cost increases that privatisation almost always involves, with limited improvement in efficiency or comfort. The Government, of course, will benefit from reduced costs and the redirection of complaints towards someone else.

And it’s the same with projects that are currently in the planning stage. The upcoming Chatswood to Sydenham Metro line will feature driverless trains, which—along with design shortcuts like single line designs—will be effective in reducing costs and the power of workers, without any commensurate benefit for commuters.

These are design features that governments exploit to the full. When public transport is shit, people do not appreciate it fully. When that happens, governments find it easier to convince the public that workers do not deserve pay rises, while privatisation can be more easily characterised as panaceas when people are desperate for action. Throughout all of this, commuters are the victims.

Nonetheless, there are a few causes for optimism, especially ongoing light rail development like the CBD and South East Light Rail, and the Parramatta Light Rail. These projects recognise that population growth and subsequent congestion cannot just be dealt with by building roads. Ultimately, however, it seems as though far more projects of this kind are necessary to meet current, let alone future, demand, especially in light of the many high density developments that local councils have approved. Moreover, the fact that many of the future lines will be privately owned and automated is an ominous sign for the RTBU and workers across NSW.

We are still burdened by the irresponsible and frankly, corrupt decision making of past governments. Almost 60 years after Sydney’s tram network was ripped out, and the lines tarred over to prevent their return, we are finally returning to the tramline option: hopefully, it’s a move that challenges the pattern of putting the masses last. However, in order for NSW to have a majestic transport system, or even just a bearable one, voters and commuters must realise that mass public transport is the most effective solution to congestion. They must also validate the crucial role played by those workers who run our buses, trams, and rail. And yet, as the 370 pulls into USyd well behind schedule, I am reminded of the history of this issue and our broader power structures. I am not especially optimistic.