To fix the public transport crisis it must be brought back into public hands

The inner west bus service has been sold off by the NSW LNP government

The transport system in Australia is in crisis. The push by governments and the private roads lobby to build more tollways, sell off our public transport to the big corporations is worsening services, raising costs and creating a transport impasse for the public.

At the centre of this is the current transport disaster in Australia’s biggest city, Sydney.

Gladys Berejiklian’s Coalition government is hell-bent on ramming through its WestConnex tollway nightmare while simultaneously privatising significant sections of the rail and bus network and refusing to spend serious money on upgrading existing systems.

The government estimates the cost in public funding of the 33-kilometre-long WestConnex tollway tunnel monster at $17 billion. Independent experts have calculated that, with the costs of add-on tollway projects and the necessary widening of other streets, the total will approach $45 billion. This will make it the most expensive road project per kilometre in history.

According to EcoTransit spokesperson Gavin Gatenby in the Spring 2017 Gridlock: “WestConnex is an open-ended engineering adventure, sucking limited public and private funds out of public transport, freight rail, regional and rural infrastructure and the social budget, including health and education. Critical, productive, profitable, public enterprises are being sold off to fund this one, gigantic, counterproductive project.

 “What’s critical for Sydney’s future is a realistic, affordable program for the expansion of public transport and rail capacity.”

The January rail system meltdown in Sydney and the threat to strike by exasperated rail workers are more indications of a public transport system on the edge of collapse.

With a rail network reliant on massive, compulsory overtime by overworked and underpaid drivers, the situation is dire. 

Privatisation to blame

The NSW Coalition government’s privatisation program started with Sydney ferries.

As Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said in Sold Off, Sold Out: The Disaster of Privatisation: “After the first year of privatisation, fares were up by 39% on the iconic Manly route. Overall cancellations doubled and delays rose by 36%.”

Newcastle’s buses were the next to be privatised, last July. Now, the government wants to privatise the rail system and Sydney buses.

The privatisation of the rail network has begun with the new North West Link. It will be a single deck Metro-style line. With 378 seats, these trains will have fewer than half the number of seats of the rest of the system’s 896-seat double-deckers.

As Rhiannon points out: “By deliberate design, the more comfortable double deckers used on the rest of the rail network will not be able to use the new Metro line. Incredibly, a similar situation exists with the two privately operated light rail lines; they too are not compatible. If these systems were publicly owned and publicly operated, this incompatibility could have been avoided.”

NSW transport minister Andrew Constance also wants to privatise Sydney’s Inner West buses, arguing that the cost of public transport subsidies will drop with privatisation. But any reduction in costs can only be achieved by reducing services, cutting wages or increasing fares — or by all three.

As Constance put it in March last year, if the NSW Coalition government had its way “[State transport] will all be private”.

“In 10 to 15 years’ time, government will not be in the provision of public transport services”, he said. “It will be all on demand, private sector driven, underpinned by innovation in technology. Already, every new train that we are bringing online now, whether it is the Metro train or light rail, are all private sector partnerships.”

The problem of privatised transport is not confined to NSW. Before privatisation, Victorians were promised high-quality, cost-efficient privately run public transport. Subsidies to private operators were predicted to end by 2010. However, they have increased by 60% to more than $1 billion a year. Public transport users have rated the private Melbourne train network the worst in the country.

Meanwhile, in Britain there is growing support for the Labour Party’s policy to renationalise the privatised public transport system.

Rhiannon argued: “In the recent British elections, the policy of rail renationalisation was a vote-winner for Labour. Renationalisation of public transport must be on the timetable here too.”

Tackling climate change

The publicly-owned alternative to private transportation systems is not only necessary for working people’ welfare, it is essential if we are to tackle climate change.

Transport is responsible for an estimated 18% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport makes up about 90% of that share. To reverse this, public transport must be at the centre of urban development plans.

Urban design and redesign to promote active transport (walking and cycling), and living closer to workplaces, shops and schools can reduce the need for the time, space and energy wasted on road-dominated transport systems.

Public transport and electric cars can provide an energy efficient system for moving people longer distances, as needed.

We need a huge investment in public transport and rail freight to make it a real option for commuters and industry. A successful public transport system will have reliable, free and frequent services within five minutes’ walk of most homes, including in outer metropolitan regions.

Electric cars can fill the inevitable gaps in such a system to provide 100% renewable energy transport. We need a publicly-owned and integrated system of heavy and light rail, and ferry and bus services.

In its Climate Action Plan, the Socialist Alliance urges a transition to free public transport, starting with the elimination of fares for concession holders, and for greatly expanded transportation services.

“Nationalise and upgrade interstate freight, passenger train and ferry services, including high-speed rail from Adelaide and Melbourne to Sydney and Brisbane”, it suggests.

It says there should be a much greater public investment in cycleways and better facilities for cyclists. It also suggests that all new private cars and other road vehicles (other than special-use vehicles) be electric and that petrol stations be replaced with charging stations.

The Socialist Alliance’s policy for sustainable transport policy calls for extensive community consultation on how to improve public transport options. Motorways and tollways must end and businesses must pay the full cost for their road transport by introducing electronic tolling for heavy freight vehicles on all major roads.

The interstate and country rail networks must be upgraded, and more public transport workers must be recruited to ensure safe, comfortable and efficient services.

It calls for the re-nationalisation of all privatised tollways (and the tolls eradicated) and privatised public transport routes.

It says the corporatisation of state-run public transport services and their authorities must be reversed and that boards elected from among public transport workers, commuters and residents public transport be asked to run the public transport system.

To do this, however, we need a concerted union and community campaign to combat the privatisation mania of state and federal governments.

A comprehensive, publicly-owned transport network is essential to meet society’s economic and social needs. It is also a critical part of tackling the climate crisis.