Four Twenty-Two: Privatise It?

Investigating the recent changes to the 422 bus route and what it means for commuters.

The ill-fated Jack’s burger shop on Missenden road had one of those feature walls typical of the the great hipster burger revival of 2015. A big, cartoony homage to canonical local ‘institutions’ complete with bubble text. But amid tributes to “college”, “RPA”, and “USyd”, two clipart interpretations of the 423 bus was perhaps the most authentic touch. The denizens of the inner west—or Sydney Metropolitan Bus Service Contract region six—do tend to cherish their public transport.

Over the past few years, however, region six has done little to justify such appreciation. Like the eatery housing the wall, the 423, along with so many other bus routes in the Inner West, has fallen victim to corner-cutting and greed, much of it self-imposed.

Back in October 2015, 45 Inner West routes were altered, a decision that saw over 2,000 consumers cop an increase in their total fare. Last November, the Roads and Maritime Service proposed cutting stops and routes in the region. And on May 6 this year, nine Inner West routes were changed, including the 423’s close relative, the 422.

The NSW government said the changes, which included withdrawing the 462 and 463 routes, would offer “greater travel options”. But whether the change to the 422 achieves that depends on where you want to go. Whereas before, the route serviced the hallowed stretch between the Marlborough and the Lansdowne Hotels, now it turns left down Missenden Road towards RPA. After moving onto Parramatta Road, the route continues to Central, where it terminates well short of Martin Place, its prior endpoint.

While a small minority benefit from extra coverage of Missenden and the Forest Lodge section of Parramatta Road, far greater demand exists for City Road. Independent Inner West Councillor Pauline Lockie has written to NSW transport minister Andrew Constance, started a petition, and moved a Council motion in an effort to reverse the changes. USyd students have similarly articulated disappointment with a route that takes longer to approach the university, drops students further away from the campus’ busiest spots, and increases walking time. Students who live south of Sydenham have been particularly affected by the withdrawal of their only direct route to City Road, while fewer total services mean longer wait times for those hoping to alight on King Street.

Normally when governments make changes like this they do their best to frame them as good for commuters. But this move was notable for its lack of spin—“greater travel options” was all the PR machine could manage. But even when the supposed benefits are small it pays not to take institutions at their word. And given that the private firm ‘Transit Systems’ will assume control of bus region six next month, the NSW government’s word seems especially worthy of interrogation.

For the uninitiated, Sydney’s bus network is divided into 15 regions. The government awards multi-year contracts to companies, who then provide and manage bus operations within each of them. Currently, 11 regions are managed by private operators, while the state-owned State Transit Authority (STA) operates four, including the Inner West region. But in May 2017, the NSW government announced that they would not renew STA’s contract in region six, increasing the amount of private contracts to 12.

The announcement was not well received. Bus drivers, especially those from the affected Leichhardt, Burwood, Tempe, and Kingsgrove depots, struck shortly after, and a few months later they refused to take fares for a day. Commuters also expressed their disapproval, with tens of thousands signing petitions amid a proliferation of grassroots campaigns.

This is not surprising. As former Premier Bob Carr noted in a 2014 Saturday Paper article, attempts to privatise “are never popular”, adding that it needs to be carried out “quickly”. As Mike Sercombe, the interviewer, summarised: “[you must] sneak [it] through”.

The NSW Liberal government clearly learnt this lesson. For one, they avoided campaigning on a privatisation platform, and have ensured privatisation announcements don’t coincide with elections. As a result, some, especially unions, have suggested there is no mandate for the privatisation drive. For another, the government has exploited broad frustrations with transport. For instance, Constance has maintains that region six’s buses are the latest on average, claiming the STA has received “12,000 complaints” about them. But sabotage has been the sneakiest of strategy of them all. In an interview with The New Daily, Greens legislative council member Dr Mehreen Faruqi revealed that through a Freedom of Information [application] she had learnt that “the government had ignored repeated requests by the STA to implement changes to improve on-time running for buses in the Inner West.” Given the area’s rapid population increase, a lack of new buses and drivers will only see a surge in congestion and lateness—an effect compounded when commuters get so fed up they decide to drive a car instead.

In fact, in the words of Dr. Faruqi, it’s as if the government “wants to run it down, then sell it off”. Such a suggestion is not so far-fetched: the Conservative British government has been accused of similarly sabotaging the UK’s National Health Service, and so were the NSW Liberals before the electricity sell-off last year. In fact, intentional sabotage is a common strategy among pro-market governments—and it’s actually in their interests.

First, if public transport is bad now, then privatisation appears more successful. By starting the trend line at a lower base, miniscule improvements are amplified, though many can be chalked up to the end of active tampering and neglect. Second, bad public transport increases the appetite for change. When people become sick of losing hours of precious recreational and family time because of late buses an emotional element creeps into their thinking, a sense of powerlessness and a willingness to trial any fix. When people have an unpleasant experience,they’re more receptive to fixes that allegedly enhance accountability. And if that doesn’t work, people just end up apathetic about buses—unwilling to even use them. And that also suits the agenda: a 422 that doesn’t go where people want to go is a 422 waiting to be cut.

But regardless of how they’re trying to get there, it’s clear the government is not interested in improving services. Simply changing who administers the bus network won’t fix congestion caused by population increases and poor infrastructure. That the government is reducing, rather than increasing, their involvement at such a critical time reveals their true goal: to tap into the savings promised by pro-privatisation groups like the Tourism and Transport Forum while also bringing the state one step closer to the minimal one they openly support in principle.

This is a real shame. All citizens have a right to mobility within their state, and where they can’t achieve that on their own the state ought ward off iniquity, no matter the expense. Public transport that is expensive or non-existent threatens this and limits freedom. But even where routes do exist, there is something crushing about a system that forces people to bear the whims of traffic without compensation, siphoning off already limited hours of free time. It’s especially heinous that such a system disproportionately penalises workers the further away they live from employment centres. People everywhere, especially those workers, should expect more than the bare minimum—the state should go out of its way to help people get around.

The change to the 422 is a small one that reveals a lot. Not only does it make life harder for groups that tend not to support the government, it does so in service of a privatisation agenda people in the area have resisted precisely because it will make transportation worse. But while the opportunity to enjoy a delicious Jack’s burger has passed, there is still plenty of time to ensure public transport avoids a similar fate.