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Issue #1781      June 14, 2017

“Don’t sell our buses”

Higher fares Fewer services

Many Sydneysiders depend on public transport bus services, and a great many depend on the public transport system as a whole in Australia’s largest city. Two weeks ago the NSW coalition government announced its intention to privatise operation of public bus services in the city’s inner west and south.

The government claimed privatisation was necessary because of the large number of complaints about public bus services. It has offered no analysis of the nature of the complaints, and no evidence that private operation would be superior.

Most problems with Sydney buses concern punctuality, which has always been dependent on Sydney’s narrow, twisting roads, notoriously prone to traffic jams and congestion.

And now the government has announced it will eliminate many bus stops on privatised routes. That’s obviously intended to increase profits for the private firm that will operate the buses, but in parliament the minister for Transport, Andrew Constance, refused to discuss the matter.

Jo Haylen, Labor member for Summer Hill, commented: “The government needs to come clean; they’ve had their eyes on the inner-west bus service for some time.”

The NSW coalition government is poised to sell off the massive new $16.8 billion WestConnex motorway that will run from the city centre westwards to the Blue Mountains. The government has already announced plans to sell of “at least 51 percent” of the motorway by June next year, in order to fund construction of the next stage of the project which involves extending the tollway to link up with the existing M5 motorway running south-west from the city.

The WestConnex project has already resulted in the destruction of hundreds of houses in the heritage suburbs of Haberfield and St Peters. The next stage would involve more devastation in the historic inner suburbs.

Moreover, a Treasury official recently said that “all options are on the table” regarding WestConnex, including sale of 100 percent of the tollway before its completion.

The project’s first stage was funded largely by sale of the state’s electricity grid. In its current privatisation strategy the government sells off one area of public services in order to upgrade another, which is then sold to fund the upgrade of yet another service, and so on.

Selling off the entire WestConnex motorway would therefore be the next logical step. The leap-frog process of upgrade and sale could be continued until most of the state’s public services are privatised.

Standing up all the way

Large parts of Sydney’s public transport system have already been privatised. The operation of Sydney Ferries was sold off last year to transport corporations Viola Transdev and Transfield Services.

The operation of Sydney’s airport railway stations was privatised several years ago. Passengers travelling from Central Station now pay about five times as much to exit at the international airport station as it costs them to travel an equivalent number of stops and exit at a government-operated station elsewhere in the city.

The new Northwest rail line is currently under construction. The overseas-built single deck Metro trains were originally supposed to run on this line from the outer northwest suburbs to Chatswood, some ten kilometres north of the city.

However, the government then announced the line was to be extended to the central business district. The government has now declared that the existing line running from the city about eight kilometres southwest to Bankstown is to be converted to accommodate the Metro trains. These trains are slower and would deliver fewer passengers per peak hour to the city than the existing “state-of-the-art” locally-made double-decker Waratah trains under similar operating conditions.

In Metro trains the majority of commuters have to stand during peak hours. A recent study concluded that in order for Metro trains to carry the same number of passengers as the double-deckers, during peak hours five standing passengers would have to be crushed into every square metre of floor space, possibly for an hour. Extremely claustrophobic, and potentially very dangerous.

With cat-like tread ...

The government is well aware the NSW public has in the past risen up against moves by coalition governments to interfere maliciously with Sydney’s transport services.

It has therefore chosen to privatise only certain parts of the transport network at first. Last week Sophie Cotsis, Labor MP for Canterbury, said the government has been “working to privatise the bus system by stealth”.

She commented: “This government should have been upfront with the community; they didn’t ask because they knew what answer they’d get. People are fed up with the privatisation of public services and are drawing a line at losing our buses”.

The government has also taken a stealthy approach to privatisation of Sydney’s extensive rail network.

The new Northwest Line was chosen as the first major privatisation initiative, because northwest residents who currently commute to the city by bus were desperate for a better service, and were therefore unlikely to complain about private operation of the trains.

Current Sydney commuters, who place high value on their public transport as their public service, were also less likely to rebel against private operation because the new line would be seen as a private “add-on” to the existing lines they already use, which would remain under government operation.

The government’s choice of single deck Metro trains was also tactical. The privately-operated trains on the new line were visibly very different from the existing government-owned double deckers, and would therefore not be interpreted by current commuters as “theirs”.

Battle lines

That all changed with the announcement that the Bankstown line was to be converted to accommodate Metro trains. That decision immediately set a precedent for the government to convert the entire rail network to a private Metro service.

The proposed sale of the WestConnex network also demonstrated that on the false pretext of providing superior services the government will sell off as much as it can of publicly-owned government-operated infrastructure.

Battle lines must now be drawn over conversion of the Bankstown Line to a cut-down Metro service, privatisation of the inner west bus services, extension of the appalling and destructive WestConnex tollway and the sale of the tollway itself.

Unless mass action is taken now, the people of Sydney will end up with inferior public transport services that are more expensive, less reliable, less frequent, less safe and less comfortable than the present services, as well as the never-ending construction of new tollways and the conversion of existing freeways to customer-pays tollway operation.

Next article – Editorial – No one is illegal

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