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The CARR that ate Sydney

By Garry Wotherspoon - posted Thursday, 11 August 2005

Many of us can remember the way we held our breath during the Olympics in late 2000, hoping that the city rail system - which a few weeks earlier had been hiccuping away as usual - would hold out and impress all our overseas visitors. And it did. But what has happened to it since then? We are certainly finding out the bad news the hard way.

Since Bob Carr led the ALP back to power a decade ago, he has managed to re-direct spending away from a publicly-consumable good - i.e., cheap, safe, reliable public transport - to a form of privatised transport that is unequally distributed in our society: to cars and their infrastructure - tollways, expressways, motorways and under-city tunnels.

This switch is despite his government’s nominal espousal of social justice principles and commitment to cutting pollution levels. One could expect that, on both these grounds, he might set about improving public transport, to both facilitate getting people to and from work and their various other activities, as well as cutting down on the CO² pollution generated by motor vehicles. But clearly this is not so.


In Sydney, while population has grown from 3.6 million in 1991 to 4.1 million in 2001, spending on public transport has fallen behind. Certainly the growth of CityRail fleet has failed to keep pace with the growth in patronage demand.

Yet spending on roads has escalated. According to the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics, in 2000-1, out of a total Australian spending on state roads of $4.0 billion, NSW spent nearly $1.5 billion.

We can already see the gridlocks that are crippling Sydney’s roads. And it can only get worse if we don’t confront the situation as a matter of urgency. Critical long-term decisions about replacing and upgrading our aged public transport infrastructure have to be made. Yet after ten years of “Builder Bob”, what have we got?

Think of city rail. A rail system without enough reliable drivers - it took a rail disaster that claimed seven lives two years ago to draw the government’s attention to this, something it should have been aware of any time in the previous eight years. The betting is that the government hasn’t been spending all that much on rail maintenance since the Olympics.

And what about those promised lines that are still to materialise? Whatever happened to the Carlingford to Chatswood via Epping extension, a connector that would have provided a time-saving link between the west and north of our city, cutting out the necessity for workers to travel into the city and then out again?

And then there are line closures. The previous transport minister, Michael Costa - the one that shoots from the mouth - has justified the closing of several critical lines as a money-saving measure. One of these was the CountryLink daily Murwillumbah XPT service, which would now terminate at Casino. But as a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report into the closure noted, this decision “was primarily based on avoiding a large future track investment requirement …”


If the “unfortunate” necessity for spending on maintenance and upgrading were the main criteria for closing lines with low current patronage, where would that leave our rail network? Should we all rush out and buy cars? This was actually suggested by Michael Costa’s spokesperson late in August 2004. He is quoted as saying, “the rail network cannot be all things to all people … It’s designed to move a large number of people in small amounts of time when demand is greatest … People do have other options. If they want to use their car, it does not make sense (to run trains)”.

Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Mightn’t it be that the train services are so bad, in terms of service, reliability and safety, that people have no other option than to have a car?

As Costa’s spokesperson went on to say, “The minister said you can buy a car very cheaply … even allowing for depreciation, it makes it very competitive”.

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About the Author

Garry Wotherspoon is a former academic and NSW History Fellow, whose books include Sydney’s Transport: Studies in Urban History, The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts: A History, and Gay Sydney: A History. He was awarded Australia’s Centenary of Federation Medal for his work as an academic, researcher and human rights activist.

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