21/07/2011 - 00:00

Libs’ public transport opportunity

21/07/2011 - 00:00


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The government has a chance to prove the claim that the Liberals don’t really care about public transport is a myth.

THE $4.1 billion public transport blueprint for the metropolitan area will remain just that, a blueprint, unless someone in government is prepared to map out an implementation plan – and stick to it.

And that person could be Transport Minister Troy Buswell. No-one doubts his ability and drive, but his past indiscretions appear to have ruled him out from again being Liberal leader, and premier; for the time being at least.

So just as Sir Charles Court made a name for himself during his 12-year term (1959-71) as minister for industrial development, Mr Buswell should commit himself to the transport portfolio for a further four-year term, if the Liberals remain in power after the 2013 election.

That would give him the rare opportunity of making a lasting contribution to public transport in Western Australia. It could also help thwart the oft-repeated Labor claim that the Liberals have no commitment to public transport. And the finger is pointed at not only the failure of Liberal governments to build extra suburban railway lines, but the monumental mistake in closing the Perth-Fremantle line.

Coincidentally, that decision was made before Sir Charles retired as premier in 1982.

The case for proceeding with the new plan is laid out clearly in the projections, which state that the use of public transport will more than double during the next 20 years.

According to the report, by 2031 public transport will account for:

• one in eight of all motorists trips (currently one in 14);

• one in five motorised trips in the morning peak (now one in eight);

• more than 30 per cent of peak hour distance travelled (now about 20 per cent): and

• nearly 70 per cent of all trips to the CBD (now about 47 per cent).

The proposal is for an integrated system of road, rail and light rail. It should come as no surprise that a light rail service for inland northern suburbs around Mirrabooka has been singled out for special attention.

In fact the peak hour traffic through the City of Vincent is already a nightmare. Major connecting roads such as Fitzgerald and Beaufort streets are bumper-to-bumper and only likely to get worse as more cars stream in along Alexander Drive, Walter Road and Beaufort Street. Unless action is taken quickly, that is.

That the wheels of government can turn slowly is illustrated by the fact that the challenge in the suburbs north of Perth was spelt out in the visionary 1955 Stephenson-Hepburn Plan for the metropolitan area.

The report not only covered a potential railway service for the northern beaches to Whitfords – a plan that was later dropped by a Liberal government – but was subsequently revisited using the Mitchell Freeway route under Labor.

The Stephenson-Hepburn Report noted the potential for growth in the north-east of the city, taking in Morley, Beechboro and Bayswater, with an ultimate population of about 80,000. The proposed railway would have left the existing Midland line at Bayswater and run through Morley towards Wanneroo Road.

“The locality traversed would be inhabited predominantly by industrial workers and their families, so it would not be unreasonable to assume a potential train-using proportion of two persons per acre, which is 7,000 passengers per day, or 14,000 passenger journeys,” the report said.

But, of course, nothing happened.

It’s fair to say that much investment in Australian rail passenger services has been piecemeal, based largely on political imperatives. Two of which I have some personal knowledge – in NSW and WA – bear that out.

Approaching the NSW election in 1981, the word went out within the Labor government of the day that some visionary project was needed to encourage voters that the government was on the right track and should get another term.

The then transport minister, Peter Cox, told me later he reached into his drawer and pulled out a submission for the introduction of XPT express passenger trains for regional routes, based on trains that were already operating in Britain.

The plan was greeted with great enthusiasm and adopted as a central feature of Labor’s re-election campaign. Within the government, Peter Cox was considered a genius.

But there was much more to it than that. Mr Cox was a former railway officer. He had his department work on the proposal long before the election was called, but kept the project under his hat.

“If I had put the proposal for the XPTs up to cabinet mid term, my colleagues almost certainly would have knocked it on the head, claiming it was too costly,” Mr Cox told me with a smile. “But presenting it in an election campaign climate was different. They thought it was fantastic.”

So did the voters. Labor won another term and the XPTs arrived. But they weren’t able to operate full throttle on many of the lines because of the terrain or that sections of the track weren’t up to standard.

The commitment of Peter Dowding’s government in 1989 to build the northern suburbs line in Perth was also part of a piecemeal approach to public transport.

I’m told that Labor’s strategy team was meeting at what is now the Governor Stirling Tower, racking its collective brain for winning policies. Dealing as it was with the lead weight of ‘WA Inc’ issues, this was a formidable challenge.

Coincidentally, sitting quietly in the background while this discussion was taking place was Neville Wran, who had been NSW premier when the XPT decision was taken. He’d been providing some legal advice on how to deal with some of the WA government’s business-related problems.

He stopped doodling on his pad, looked up and said: “Give ‘em a train. They love trains.”

And that’s what happened. Sadly for Peter Dowding he didn’t get to open the new northern line. That honour fell to Carmen Lawrence, who ousted him 12 months after the election.

Extending the existing suburban rail network is a relatively easy option if the land has been earmarked for new lines. The light rail will be more challenging. But this system is making a comeback in other cities, including Jerusalem, where I witnessed smart new rolling stock being given a trial run in May.

One factor that will continue to increase commuter demand will be rising petrol prices. And congestion adds time to journeys, which adds to costs, both in terms of fuel and time, which could be more productively used. And then there is the pollution issue.

Troy Buswell operated a bus service out of Busselton before becoming an MP. Now he has the opportunity to prove the claim that the Liberals don’t really care about public transport is a myth. Over to you, Troy.



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