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Pain with trains lies mainly in the brains (or lack of them)

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Unless you've been on holidays in some remote place over Christmas you'd have noticed that trains have been making the news a lot lately in south east Queensland. Mainly it's because of the lack of them running, which it seems in turn is because there are not enough people to drive them. Much of which was triggered by the opening on one extra line of just 12 kilometres in length, which has been talked about for close to 130 years and which has been in detailed planning or under construction for the past decade. Kind of snuck up on them all I guess.

Having so many scheduled services pulled at no notice has given the hapless Queensland Rail every appearance of being utterly unable to organise a round of drinks at a brewery. Steeped in olde worlde tradition, it's not hard to imagine the departmental mandarins enjoying a regular cup of tea at work delivered by a tea lady, her trolley complete with lace doilies as it rattles along the corridors of rail power.

It's not just management which gives the sense of something scripted around Reg Varney in "On the buses" (a British sitcom of the early 1970s) but the Rail Tram and Bus Union too seems rooted in a bygone era. According to the Union's website "The RTBU was formed 1 March 1993 through the historic amalgamation of three railway unions and one tram and bus union... These unions have a strong tradition dating back to the nineteenth century." It seems that's a tradition they are intent on keeping alive and well in the 21st century.


There are always more accurate back stories than sensationalist headlines, and no doubt there have been many contributing factors behind the latest embarrassments. Some of these date back many years, some date back only a few years, and others just a few months. Not all have been due to decisions of QR Management either. However, as generous as we taxpayers can be, it is hard to have confidence given the opening of the new $1.2 billion Redcliffe line seems to have been quite predictable, while there was no heads up that services could be impacted in the slightest way.

The Redcliffe line came in at $100 million per kilometre, which is hardly small change for the taxpayer. We are entitled to question how well our taxes are being spent.

With this in mind, it's very hard to have much confidence in the proposed $5.4 billion cost proposed for the 10.2 kilometre cross river rail link. This one's $530 million per kilometre – five times as costly as the new Redcliffe link (going underground a large part of the reason). But here's the rub: we are being asked to trust the same crowd who seemingly can't staff the trains we already have, and who insist that without this extra $5.4 billion of our money (that's us, the taxpayers) that the whole network will choke and congestion costs will escalate.

The cross river rail is not a new proposal and dates back many years. Successive governments have been told the same story: that without an additional crossing, the network will reach capacity. The date for that capacity breaking point keeps getting extended and the project delayed. The fact that Brisbane has only one river crossing is a real issue. But what's at stake here is a question of trust and given the latest series of debacles, can we trust that an extra $5.4 billion is going to be well spent and well managed?

If you look for details on the business case you can find a five page PR document which calls itself a 'cost benefit analysis summary' but which is preciously short on evidence and long on promise. Have a look for yourself. It's not much given the sums of money we are being asked to part with. There's an older business case by Deloitte in 2011 which assumed a 50% increase in public transport mode share from 2009 to 2031 (from 8% to 12%); a 23% increase in rail patronage by 2031 with cross river rail, and which attributed 39% of the project financial benefit to "perceived" public transport benefits. Would you call these heroic or conservative assumptions?

All of which prompted me to check on the actual numbers of people across Greater Brisbane – an area with a population of around 1.8 million – that actually use rail. Based on the last Census, the number of people who used rail – either in whole or in conjunction with some other form of transport – was 65,212. Not a big number. That's 65,212 out of the 925,385 employed persons in the region of 1.8 million people. The number correlates with QR's 'Passenger Load Survey' (the most recent one of which was in 2009). It showed that the network carried 65,752 people in the morning peak and 57,286 people in the afternoon peak. Which however you cut it is a small number and less than 5% of the population.


What's more, the rail network is mainly designed around servicing inner city employment. There are around 180,000 jobs in total in the inner city – one in ten jobs of the broader metro region. Nine out of ten of us work in suburban areas which are largely not serviced by train. The same QR survey shows that, of 65,231 total boardings and alightings in the AM peak, 33,738 (52% of the network total) were at Central Station. Roma Street came next with 9,319 followed by Fortitude Valley (4,757), Bowen Hills (2,116), South Bank (2,790) and South Brisbane (1,751). Put these together and you have 84% of passenger movements across the network being at these six inner city stations.

But we are told by the rail experts that unless we spend another $5.4 billion on a transit service that moves less than 5% of the population - almost all of whom are travelling to six inner city stations to access the 10% of metro jobs that are in the inner city – then we are facing a transport meltdown.

I know it's not fair to divide the proposed $5.4 billion for the Cross River Rail by the 65,000 users (but if you did, the answer would be $83,000 per user) or to add the $1.2 billion cost of the Redcliffe Line (which would bring the answer to over $100,000 per user) because these investments have network wide implications that benefit both public and private transport, as well as freight. It would be equally unfair to divide the project cost by just the additional number of people projected to be carried as a result of the extra investment, because that's the sort of number crunching business people do; it's not meant for transport businesses. It would also be wrong to point out that these are just the capital costs and that each trip – per person per direction on a CityRail train – is subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of $10, or $20 for a round trip.

I am not suggesting an additional river crossing is not a good idea. But based on recent performance, and given the very large sums involved – all of which is taxpayer money not privately funded – then you'd hope for a bit more detail than what's in a five page PR document for a project promoted by a government agency which seems incapable of managing the existing network.

Maybe management of the project and the network should be given to someone else? How about the aviation sector? Our airports were privatised in the late 1990s, as was our airline Qantas. Both the airline and the airports are now vastly more modern and efficient, and serve the travelling public far better than when they were basically government organisations. Plus they aren't going cap in hand to the taxpayer on a regular basis to keep them afloat. (The privatisation of airports and Qantas, by the way, were originally decisions of the Keating Labor Government). Aviation is a type of public transport and freight business, as is rail. So why not drag some aviation experience into the rail sector?

Queensland Fail (aka QR) and the government's insistence that we need to spend a further $5.4 billion on a network managed by the same people behind the recent debacles is just not confidence inspiring. It leaves you with the sinking feeling that they've based their business case and management model on an episode of the ABC's satirical 'Utopia' – a "multi award-winning satirical comedy about a group of people charged with building this nation – one white elephant at a time."

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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