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It should go without saying that public transport is an essential service for our community. Efficient, reliable and affordable public transport is fundamental to our quality of life, and the sustainable movement of people and freight is at the core of the relationship between society, environment and the economy.
Historically, government authorities have operated most mass public transport in Australian states and territories as a single provider, and as a bare minimum the government of the day is accountable to the public at elections.
This is still the case for most urban rail systems and bus networks. In the late 1990s, the Victorian government privatised the Melbourne trams and trains, but other cities have kept their systems public. However, this is now rapidly changing in NSW under the pro-privatisation Coalition government.
The outsourcing and privatising of government services is at the heart of the neoliberal agenda; it’s a test of economic conservatism and “management” to put as many publicly operated services into private hands as possible.
When Premier Mike Baird tells us NSW is “the new state of business”, he means it quite literally – he envisions a state run by business, for business. Public land, disability services, and of course our electricity assets have all been flogged off or contracted out.
But public transport privatisation is the unexamined trajectory of Baird’s overall multi-billion dollar infrastructure strategy – taking our essential transport services out of public hands and into the control of private companies.
For public transport advocates, this is difficult territory. It is undeniable that the Liberals are spending big on our transport network, even though there is vehement disagreement on whether the decisions are good, bad or ugly. But is there any evidence that the privatisation would improve public transport? Not at all.
In Victoria, promises of higher quality and cost-efficient privately run public transport have come to naught. Subsidies to private operators predicted to end by 2010 have increased by 60% to a massive $1bn this year. In 2011, public transport users rated the private Melbourne train network the worst in the country.
Melbourne trains are run by MTR, which is often exemplified for running the supremely efficient Hong Kong Metro. This is the company the government has brought on to run metro trains in Sydney. But MTR is owned by the government of Hong Kong, and when MTR ventured into the world of private contracting for running Melbourne’s public transport the successes of Hong Kong could not be replicated.
The vague myths about private operators reducing costs and increasing efficiency are just that – myths.
So if it isn’t efficient and commuters are dissatisfied, why are they doing it? The Liberals are certainly closely aligned with the corporate world, but that’s not the only reason. Carving up our rail network to multiple operators is a way of breaking down an organised and unionised workforce. Big business also benefits through the “value capture” mechanism now regularly used by private operators, which can facilitate massive overdevelopment around transport nodes.
So, for no good transport policy and planning rationale, we will get expensive, undemocratic services not open to public scrutiny. Contracts are being signed which will lock us into terms and conditions that are unable to be flexible or responsive as needs and priorities change. Private transport companies are notoriously secretive in reporting on service quality and reliability, and Baird wants to put them in charge across all our transport modes.
In NSW, significant transport privatisation started under the previous Liberal government with the private Airport Link stations where commuters are slugged exorbitant fares, resulting in a grossly under-utilised service while traffic congestion escalates around the airport precinct. This trend continued with Labor who ran the Sydney light rail as a private line, and accelerated with the Liberals’ election in 2011. Sydney Ferries was privatised in 2012, leading to a reduction in services and higher fares.
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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