Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trains, trams and automobiles: getting our priorities right |

by Kenneth Davidson

IT IS about time that Melburnians began to confront the sausage rather than the sizzle in the transport debate. Rapid population growth (due to high immigration) and rising oil prices (due to peak oil) mean that public transport will have to bear an increasing share of the burden of providing personal mobility if this city is to remain liveable.

Motorists may love their cars, but that is no reason people using public transport should cross-subsidise those drivers who enjoy a Commonwealth fringe benefit concession, which allows them to write off the expense of using their car against tax, when public transport users have to buy their tickets out of their after-tax income. Nor does it explain why those living in the outer suburbs should not have the same choice of public transport as is available to those who live in the inner suburbs.

The $1.5 billion car subsidy should be abolished and the money used to improve and extend rail networks in the larger cities where road congestion is most acute. By reducing road congestion, the reform would be doing a favour for motorists as well as those who prefer public transport.

The essence of good government is to design a tax and regulatory system that rewards good behaviour.

The fringe benefit concession encouraged the demand and local production of six-cylinder cars in defiance of environmental realities as well as making the benefit proportional to mileage. The more you drive the more you get. Crazy. The real, immediate and urgent question facing Melburnians is why is the public transport system, the rail system in particular, manifestly unable to meet the felt needs of commuters?

Is it due to bad management or to a lack of capacity on the rail system? With better management of the system, would we get more services through the City Loop, or are there real physical constraints on the capacity of the system that can only be relieved by the construction of a new underground rail link between Caulfield and Footscray?

The debate has two clear sides. The Transport Department, supported by the Eddington report, argues that the new $8.5 billion rail link is required to make new services to the outer suburbs possible. This is disputed by advocates of the work of RMIT urban transport planner Paul Mees, who left the urban planning department of Melbourne University after pressure from the Transport Department, whose senior management resented being characterised as corrupt and incompetent by Mees because they had ignored his recommendation to reorganise the City Loop.

What should be a straightforward technical dispute has become a highly charged personal and political issue. In my opinion the responsibility for this lies with the Government, which has refused to have an expert inquiry into the core issue of why the loop is a bottleneck that prevents more intensive use of the present system and why public transport services in suburban growth areas are appalling.

Based on the history of the transport bureaucracy under successive governments, public transport advocates may well be right to suspect that the rail tunnel will never be built but is being presented in the hope of making more palatable the east-west road tunnel connecting the Eastern Freeway with Footscray. This is an extremely unpopular and economically and environmentally unsustainable private-public partnership that will cost $9 billion.

The Eddington inquiry was independent in name only. Most of the information and its staff came from the Transport Department. Department head Jim Betts was employed by Macquarie Bank as the transport expert in the original failed attempt to privatise Melbourne's public transport corporation and he as been involved in every inquiry since.

These have resulted in generous public subsidies and less onerous regulations to prop up the system, which is the worst of all worlds. Victoria has a transport minister who is on the record as saying she doesn't want to run a train system, so franchisees run the system with a focus on profit rather than service, and we have a regulator in the form of the department, which has been captured by the franchisees.

The issue of whether the failure of the public transport system is due to bad management or a physical bottleneck that prevents expansion into the outer suburbs must be resolved by an independent and open inquiry. It should be conducted by experts drawn from cities with successful public transport systems — cities such as Toronto, Zurich and Perth.

There is still time to achieve this. The current franchises are in place until the middle of next year. They should then be converted into operational agreements that will give responsibility for management of the system to a transport commission responsible for investment in track, rolling stock, signalling equipment and timetabling and will operate at at arm's length from the responsible minister. Under this arrangement, the transport minister would be required to communicate any ministerial directives in writing to be tabled in Parliament.

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