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THE lobby group representing big transport and construction companies is pushing for a slice of the NSW rail budget, which is worth more than $3 billion.
Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, which lobbies for public-private partnerships on big projects, is angling for a role in running the publicly owned suburban network.
In a submission to the NSW Government's 2031 transport blueprint, the organisation argues for ''contestability in public transport service delivery''. The lobby's chief, Brendan Lyon, confirmed to the Herald that the submission refers to CityRail.
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He said the corporate sector would not be deterred by the patchy, sometimes disastrous, record of public-private partnerships in NSW in the past decade.
''Rail operation is different,'' Mr Lyon said. ''The patronage is known, the assets are known, you're not talking about a greenfield project. It represents a good option for businesses. I think we'll see well-credentialled private operators turning up to bid.''
Public interest advocates warn that public-private partnerships have downsides for the public.
Bob Walker, a professor of accounting at the University of Sydney and the former chairman of the State Government's Council of the Cost of Government, said railways were a ''public good'', like schools and hospitals, and as such were subsidised by taxpayers. About 70 per cent of CityRail operations are funded by general revenue, with passengers paying the remaining 30 per cent.
''A public-private partnership on railways would involve transferring a benevolent monopoly into the hands of a profit-driven private monopoly,'' he said.
The Victorian Government has terminated the contract of the multinational transport firm Connex, which had run Melbourne's rail system, after fines for poor performance. In NSW, public-private partnerships on the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove Tunnel ended badly.
But Mr Lyon said ''the way NSW operates public transport demands reform'' and the Victorian experience shows franchising can work because when Connex failed as an operator, the Government replaced it with MTR, which runs Hong Kong's trains. ''Melbourne and Brisbane have introduced contestability,'' he said. ''There were challenges in Melbourne [but] it's all about the contracts. A bad contract will deliver a bad outcome.''
Private operators would probably seek to break up CityRail, with franchises over particular lines, such as the Eastern Suburbs-Illawarra line, the easiest part of the network to run. The private sector is already involved in CityRail, operating stations at Mascot, Green Square and the domestic and international air terminals, although patronage is low because of steep ticket prices.
Infrastructure Partnerships Australia also urges the completion of big projects in which its members could win contracts, including the M4 East motorway, the duplication of the M5 East and ''an integrated metro network for Sydney''. Last week the Government unveiled the names of two consortiums to operate the City Metro, which included several companies associated with IPA, such as Laing O'Rourke, Downer EDI, Serco, Bovis Lend Lease and McConnell Dowell.
While endorsing a metro system, the IPA submission says: ''This investment must not come at the expense of major augmentations and expansions to Sydney's heavy rail and motorway networks.''
Sydney Morning Herald
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