Railing against train move

AS the State Budget fast approaches there are some in business who question the wisdom of one of the biggest capital expenditures ever planned by a State Government. WA Business News’ Mark Pownall and Catie Low report.

AS the WA Government basks in the glow of a retained AAA rating, already it is talking of higher taxes and charges to maintain its fiscal record.

Against a backdrop of tight budgets, where a mere $12 million in proposed extra property taxes created a massive voter backlash last year, plans to spend somewhere near $1.2 billion on a rail line to Mandurah are looming large on the State’s balance sheet.

The cost of this project, created by the Court Government but adopted with a new route by Labor, has raised concerns among local business people who believe the public are not being told the true cost.

Every day it seems to get more expensive as debate has switched from the main rail route to how and where it will arrive in the CBD.

Harold Clough, whose family construction company built the original Narrows Bridge over which the proposed Southern Railway would cross the Swan River, is one vocal critic of the whole concept.

For some time, Mr Clough has been telling anyone who will listen that the rail line to Mandurah will be a white elephant, an expensive piece of infrastructure at least 20 years ahead of its time.

Though his now-listed company would love to be involved in the second biggest construction project planned this decade for WA after the North West Shelf expansion, he thinks it is a waste on money when a dedicated bus link is so fresh you can still smell the newly laid tarmac.

This argument which did the rounds last year to the point where some advocated that the savings in ditching the train arrangement and buying new buses to service Mandurah would easily allow metropolitan public transport to be free for all.

Certainly the State Government’s own figures show it is not cheap to pay for a new rail line.

While it is less than the $10,000 a year per passenger Mr Clough had estimated, it is not far off the range he suggests where it “you could put them (commuters) in a luxury coach and serve them champagne”.

Royal Australian Institute of Architects WA chapter president Warren Kerr said that all alternatives should be considered before any major decision is made.

“We’ve been told the Government has made a decision to do rail and run it up the freeway, what is negotiable is how it comes into the city,” Mr Kerr said.

“Our response to buses versus rail is that we would expect someone to do a study that looks at the costs and issues like the environmental impact.”

“There was a perception pre to Christmas that the Government was considering a lot of things and not making a lot of decisions.”

“I think they didn’t want to be seen to be vacillating on this and the trouble is they made a shoot from the hip decision.”

Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief economist Nicky Cusworth said the CCI had demanded a proper cost-benefit analysis from the previous government and the figures had been “line-ball” when environmental and social factors had been included in the cost.

“Given the fact that there is inevitably a degree of wooliness, it was within the margin,” Ms Cusworth said.

“Alternatives such as having a dedicated bus lane did stack up more clearly.”

But Ms Cusworth said that she had not seen a cost-benefit analysis for two to three years, well before the change of route, and the CCI considered the railway inevitable and was focusing on ensuring the best options for Perth were obtained.

Engineering consultancy Sinclair Knight Merz principal Carol Jelley said buses were better when dealing with a low, dispersed patronage but fell down as a mass transport means.

“In the developing years when you are building up the patronage the buses are a cheaper way of running the system,” Ms Jelley said.

“Once patronage levels get high buses become quite an expensive way to run a transport network.”

“The question is do you take a long term or a short term view.”

Southern Coast Transit general manager Ray Cochrane said his business, which runs buses out of Mandurah, had never been consulted over the potential for buses to offer an alternative to rail.

However, the Government believes the economic arguments al-ways come from those who have a basic aversion to public transport.

In fact, insiders say even within government itself there is a battle between the two schools of thought, right down to department level, with the proposed line via Kenwick resulting from a compromise between the two under the Liberals.

Inside Government, the belief is that with the Mandurah-Rockingham region one of the fastest growing corridors in Australia, the State Government must put the infrastructure in place to service an area that has missed out.

Another big factor is pollution.

While buses will soon have clean fuel-cell technology available, the public has shown a preference for trains.

A spokeperson for Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan said many of the same arguments about the cost of trains were raised at the time the rail link to Joondalup was proposed.

“Now its choc-a-block,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesman said the bus option was rejected years ago be-cause it was uneconomic.

p See Editorial page 8.

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