A tale of two projects
How Mick Costa cost Sydney 10 lost years
1 November 2008
So the fix is in and the Rees Government is asking the Feds for billions of dollars for motorways, motorways, and more motorways. Oh, and the “Western Metro”, an underground rail line from Parramatta to the city. This item is estimated at $10 billion and there’s no guarantee it would be in place inside 10 years or that that’s the final cost. And bugger-all work has been done on feasibility.
So how does this particular rail project get a guernsey?
To grasp what’s going on here you have to go back a few years and understand that Sydney’s Western rail line (the one to Parramatta and over the mountains) has reached capacity. For years there’s been an urgent need to add a couple more tracks, but there’s no room left in the surface corridor and the only way to put extra tracks along the same route is to tunnel, at vast expense, all the way from Parramatta to the CBD.
This problem has exercised the minds of planners for more than 20 years, and if a certain decision hadn’t been made in the Carr years, the solution would have been in operation before 2010.
And a nifty solution it was. By taking a different route, one that avoided tunnelling for much of the way, there would be stations in a previously unserviced part of Sydney and you’d still achieve the same travel times.
The Parramatta–Chatswood line solution, (aka Parra-Chat), was to have used the Carlingford line for much of its route then go by tunnel to an interchange at Epping station and on to Chatswood, after which the trains would use the Northern line – which still has spare capacity and corridor space for expansion – into the City.
The solution was decided on, the environmental impact statement hit the deck in January 2000, and construction started in 2002.
But others had different ideas, and when I read a story by Linton Besser in the Sydney Morning Herald of August 23 the mystery surrounding the NSW Government’s public transport paralysis suddenly disappeared. “The boomerang train”, opens with a meeting in the office of Col Gellatly, Director-General of the Premier’s Office, in April 2002. Various head honchos from Treasury and Transport were invited.
Besser writes: “Before them stood the Labor Party heavyweight Michael Easson. He is a close mate of the NSW Treasurer, Michael Costa. At his side was Peter Hicks, the manager of infrastructure investment for Leighton Contractors. They began presenting their case for a privately financed rail line linking Sydney's far west with the city.
“At first blush the Western FastRail was radical, but compelling. For an $8 return toll on top of the normal fare, passengers would ride on single-deck trains barrelling between Penrith and the CBD at 160 kmh, whisking up to 16,000 commuters an hour to the city in 28 minutes. It would take just 11 minutes from Parramatta to the city …”
The assembled experts were unimpressed. The cost estimate was preposterously understated and FastRail’s use of CityRail tracks west of Parramatta would play havoc with the whole system. FastRail users would be paying an extra $40 a week and those who didn’t would have to cop longer travel times. And anyway, there was already a solution – Parra-Chat. Easson’s proposal was a non-starter.
Construction of Parra-Chat had already started when Mick Costa was elevated to the Ministry of Transport Services. In August 2003 he “deferred” the Parramatta to Epping section - at a stroke, the vital role of Parra-Chat as a “relief line” for the overcrowded Western line disappeared, crippling the beneficial effect of the project.
Suddenly, the discredited Western FastRail proposal was back and Easson was spruiking it again at the head of a consortium that has since grown to include ABN Amro, SKM, and infrastructure giant Leightons.
Besser explains: “One month after Western FastRail was formally rejected in 2003, an important appointment was made inside RailCorp. After eight years in the wilderness, and nine months after Costa took over at Transport, Barry Garnham was ushered into the third most powerful position at the rail agency. As group general manager, train services, with a salary of $290,000, he answered only to the new chief executive, the Costa ally Vince Graham.
“Garnham has a penchant for privatisation of railways. …”
Not only that, but Garnham was also the rail bureaucrat who had evolved the Western FastRail concept back in the mid-1990s.
In August 2005, Easson again pitched the Western FastRail to senior bureaucrats. Again they were underwhelmed, particularly by his ridiculously low cost estimate of $2 – $2.5 billion: Iemma rejected it in favour of Watkin’s NW Metro proposal.
Now the NW Metro is out of favour and FastRail is back, in the revised form of the $10 Billion “Western Metro” reportedly favoured by the Rees Government, and maybe also by Federal Infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese. A cynic might conclude the federal purse will end up subsidising Easson’s FastRail, or something very like it.
And there’s another interesting twist. Easson is also executive chairman of EG Property which owns the Allied Mills site (aka Mungo Scott’s) at Summer Hill, right where the Rozelle goods line passes under the Western line. If the Western Metro tunnels went ahead, the old rail sidings at Allied Mills might be the best place to bring out the tunnelling spoil for transport along the goods line to Dulwich Hill. And when it was all over, Easson would be sitting on two hectares of prime inner west real estate worth squillions. It would all be cream on Easson’s bread because, in any case, he’d make a fortune redeveloping the site, even if only the light rail extension went ahead.
So here we are with peak oil upon us and public transport use already at levels expected in 2016. If Costa hadn’t killed off the original Parra-Chat line we’d have had it all in operation by 2010 at a cost of about $4 billion. One vital piece of the solution would have been in place. If we reverted to that plan, it couldn’t now come into operation before 2013. If the Western Metro gets up – in about two years – it’ll be another 10 years before it’s operational. That’s 2020, folks.
Mick Costa’s Parra-Chat “deferral” has cost us a whole decade.
It’ll be interesting to see where Mick pops up next. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s somewhere in the private infrastructure sector.