Some people will say we shouldn't be surprised. They are a Liberal government, after all.
Could O'Farrell really be planning to fund the North West Rail Link through an "access fee"?
Earlier today the Hills Transport Group put out a press release that quoted RailCorp CEO Rob Mason as saying in a memo that "a private sector entity will design, construct, commission, operate and maintain the North West Rail link... for a period of 20 to 30 years." The press release goes on to explain that this will operate under an "access model".
In plain English, that means that there will be a special station surcharge for travel on the line, similar to the hated Airport Link surcharge.
As a caveat, I should say that there has been no formal announcement or acknowledgment from the government. O'Farrell may deny any such plans, and it will be anyone's guess whether he has had a quick change of heart or whether Mason was speaking out of turn.
But the plan really does seem crazy. Ridiculous, unbelievable, hubris-fueled crazy.
The North West is Sydney's biggest growth area. These people need access to public transport, as the constantly worsening traffic chaos on the major feeder roads attests.
This is why the North West Rail Link is essential if Sydney is to manage its growth. A government cannot simply keep releasing more and more land to developers and not build heavy rail to get these people around. It should have been built by now, but we can't blame the Coalition for that.
|Map of the proposed route. Taken from the line's website|
To be fair, it is true that a privatised line would be cheaper for the government (and, therefore, the people). The government should spend our money carefully, and if there is a cheaper and equally effective way to move people around then it should be investigated.
Equally, I'm a believer in user pays, to a point. Tolls on roads are appropriate if the tolls are used to fund said roads. There is no particular reason to encourage people to drive, and anyone who lives in the North West and drives to the city for work knows what they are signing on for.
Rail, however, should be encouraged (and yes, subsidised) by government. Rail is cheaper, it is better for the environment, it takes up less space, it is clean and it is far more expandable. We cannot just keep jamming more roads and tunnels into our city - we need a good network that grows as the city grows.
While a private model would cost less money up front, under an access model the people who use the line would simply make up the difference. In other words, the private model would shift the cost away from the rest of the state and towards those people who will actually use the line.
On the surface, that makes sense. They're getting the benefit, right? No.
Those people who get the train stay off the roads. Their polluting cars stay in the garage. The fuel they would buy stays in the bowser. More bridges, tunnels and parking lots stay on the drawing board. The CBD is that little bit nicer, less crowded, and easier to get in and out of.
Moreover, people suddenly have good reason to live in the North West, knowing that they will have a way to get to work. The rest of Sydney will have a little less pressure to grow and shoe-horn in even more people.
The rest of Sydney has access to heavily subsidised public transport. Why do those in the North West deserve any less?
This revelation is particularly surprising in light of the Infrastructure funding models that I wrote about less than a week ago. In that interview O'Farrell explained quite clearly the value of doing things the "hard way". He was right. The North West Rail Link needs to be built, and he needs to find some other way of paying for it.
Public transport (and particularly heavy rail) is the skeleton on which a city is built. And, like an animal without a good skeleton, a city without a good skeleton is liable to collapse.
Putting a massive surcharge onto the line to fund it will simply mean far, far less people will use the line. They will keep driving and paying those tolls because, suddenly, the train trip isn't as economical as it was.
The North West Rail Link has the potential to be O'Farrell's greatest achievement in government. It was one of the key promises that got him elected.