Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Training for the Future

The issue of train fares is an odd one. I'm not certain of the timing, but I think it was late last year that Keneally announced that train fares would be frozen - no fare rises in 2011.  This is not an original tactic - multiple previous premiers have done so in the lead-up to elections.  It is painfully transparent, but apparently effective.

Labor have also detailed on their website that under their Fairness for Families Act (see my comment thereon here: http://bit.ly/ezmkWU) that all further fare rises would be tied to CPI increases.

O'Farrell announced today that the Coalition would be reducing fare for persons who buy monthly, quarterly or yearly tickets.  As someone who buys a yearly ticket once a year, this certainly has appeal to me - O'Farrell says that commuters such as me could save as much as $108 per year.  When you consider that a yearly MyMulti3 ticket costs $2280, that's a pretty good deal.

At its centre is the issue is the level of contribution that a train user should make towards their travel.  At present, the contribution from the government hovers around the 70% mark (see page 9 of this report: http://bit.ly/dS1f8k)

There can be little doubt that people using public transport is good for the community.  It reduces pressure on the roads, reduces the travel-related environmental impact, and means that less roads need to be built to handle the public's transportation needs.

More people on trains and busses is, I think most people would agree, good for everyone.

On one hand, on that basis it could be said that public transport should be free, or at least as cheap as it possible to ensure that as many people as possible use public transport.

There are two problems with that - first of all,  CityRail needs funds to operate, and in the absence of further funding from the state government, CityRail needs that income from fares.  Further, if fares are reduced there will be additional pressure placed on the train system that will result in further costs incurred.

Lower train fares are good, but they will inevitably result in further costs to the state.  The state budget is, it would appear, constantly pressed, and it doesn't appear that further expenditure is available.

The question I ask is - should it be?

Earlier on today I retweeted a tweet from Jo Tovey that linked to Labor's 1998 transport plan.  It listed shockingly large number of plans and projects that have, for the most part, not proceeded.

Public transport funding is, for reasons passing understanding, shockingly transient.  

The fact is that an cut to fares (or even a fare freeze) will inevitably lead to a larger number of people relying on public transport.  Whilst this is an undoubted good, it requires further expenditure.  Not only day to day expenditure, but ongoing capital investment.

The more people that use train lines, the sooner that further capital expenditure will be required. 

It appears, from my vantage-point, that this cash is simply not available, or at least it is horribly difficult to come by.

It's a sad state of affairs.  Sydney (and, for that matter, NSW) needs further expenditure on public transport, both capital and recurring.  But expenditure begats further expenditure - and the blow-outs in other areas of state expenditure make this all a very difficult balancing exercise.

Add the fact that it is a devastatingly sensitive political issue, and you have a situation where an area of public policy that is incredibly important to the NSW society is also a hot-button political issue,  And we all know what kind of public policy this inevitably leads to.

The result?  Both parties engaging in the illusion of action.  O'Farrell has committed to a number of capital projects, which is good.  Time will tell whether he is a promiser or a doer.

But public transport needs to be a public expenditure priority.  For the last 16 years it has been the first item to get cut as soon as pressures build on the budget, as they inevitably do.  If the further of NSW is to be protected, we need a government that is not afraid to invest in public transport.  Otherwise we risk become one groaning, smog-choked metropolis that is hopelessly reliant on cars for transport. And surely that is a future nobody wants.

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