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It's almost a tale of two cities. The state government has shelving its proposed metro projects but Infrastructure Australia is keeping the door ajar for the western metro to proceed, along with a private proposal for a railway line linking the city's north-west with the CBD.
Papers tabled in the NSW Parliament this week made it crystal clear that the CBD Metro, or its most recent transfiguration, Metro stage one - to run from Central to Rozelle and costing $5.3 billion - was a lemon.
To be fair, though, it was always considered just the ''spine'' of a dream metro that would extend from Westmead to the city (Metro stage two), and from Rozelle to Epping (Metro stage three). Its stand-alone economics would always have been poor without extensions west and to the north-west.
But with annual revenues forecast at just $100 million, the CBD Metro was always going to be a very heavy drain on the public purse.
In its latest list of infrastructure projects, released last week, the federal government's Infrastructure Australia said the western metro had potential, even though the state government recently shelved it.
With a headline cost of $10 billion to build, annual passenger numbers of a little more than 100 million and revenue of about $300 million a year, or 10 times that estimated for the CBD Metro, it is clearly the more viable proposition if federal funding for part of the capital cost is on offer.
Key financial information relating to this project has been withheld from public scrutiny, making it difficult to assess fully, but its role in taking pressure off the western rail services into the city ranks it as essential growth infrastructure.
The more fundamental issue yet to be resolved - which was at the heart of the CBD Metro proposal - is how to best upgrade public transport options from the city's north-west, via Ryde or North Sydney, without devouring the entire state budget.
Victoria Road is in effect ''full'' because, on some projections, it is unable to handle more buses in terms of both road capacity and city turnaround at Town Hall. The proposed Metro stage three would have solved this, but with significant construction costs and a continuing (heavy) pressure on the public purse.
Alternately, a route via North Sydney would mean a new harbour crossing. Tunnelling under the harbour would be prohibitively expensive (upwards of $7 billion), which is why the proposal to hang two more railway lines off the Harbour Bridge - as daft as it may sound - won't go away. It is clearly the ''cheapest'' option.
The state government already has spent $2.3 billion on the Epping to Chatswood line, which is limited to just four trains in each direction each hour because of capacity constraints on trains running to the city. Its daily patronage of 11,500 is a far cry from forecasts of 15,000 a day, so any ''return'' from this project resides in using the tunnel for through passengers.
In other words, that $2.3 billion of sunk costs on this line cannot earn anything like its potential without expanding capacity from the north shore into the city, via a new harbour crossing.
An additional cross-harbour rail link also would help to take pressure off the existing train service to the CBD, since it would use the corridor under Pitt Street which RailCorp has been keeping in reserve.
The metro sought to commandeer this space, leaving RailCorp in limbo in trying to resolve worsening capacity problems for getting train passengers to and from the CBD.
Australian Infrastructure Solutions Pty Ltd, run by a long-time infrastructure player, Peter Rochlin, was invited by Infrastructure Australia officials to pitch a rail link from Rouse Hill to the city, which would operate via the Epping to Chatswood line, and with a harbour crossing that uses two additional lines attached to the Harbour Bridge.
Any hopes for a metro for Sydney any time soon died when the plans of the former premier Morris Iemma and his treasurer, Michael Costa, to privatise the state's electricity industry fell over. It was the stubbornness of his replacement, Nathan Rees, in pursuing the metro against the advice of many in cabinet who wanted it shelved, that has cost taxpayers $500 million in unnecessary costs - money that may never be recouped.
Iemma wanted the metro as a means of sidestepping the powerful railway unions to relieve the chronic, and worsening, congestion in getting around the city.
With a commitment to finalise the north-west rail link, with or without private participation, the ball will be in the Coalition's court to sort out the unions, in terms of practices that get more out of the existing network. Let's hope the Coalition has thought through how to tackle these problems when, as the polls indicate, it is elected to state government next year.
Sydney Morning Herald
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