Sydney down under

Metro cross section

Supporters say the CBD Metro is a brave new underground world. Cynics call it a fast train to nowhere. Robert Milliken explores an idea whose time has come

For the man in charge of dragging Sydney's public transport system into the modern age, Les Wielinga has a surprisingly humdrum office. The walls of reception show pictures of ferry wharves at Parramatta and Kissing Point and a rail viaduct somewhere. Nothing very 21st century there. The office itself has just a whiteboard. Yet Wielinga, a tall, serious-looking man grows animated as he unfolds maps of Australia's oldest and biggest city, daubed with spines and cobwebs of future rail and bus networks. "It'll happen mate," he says. "I'm not here to twiddle my thumbs. I'm a civil engineer, and I'm here to get things done."

Wielinga is talking about the metro, a new underground train line the NSW Rees Government plans to start building under Sydney's central business district in 2010. In an age of globalisation, metro transport systems are perhaps the most potent symbols of truly global cities: fast, frequent, state-of-the art means of connecting a city with itself, suggesting confidence and an eye to the future. Almost 50 world cities now have them or are building them.

Nothing like a metro has ever been attempted in Australia. And in what writer Patrick White once called the "cynical streets of Sydney", the metro's turbulent fortunes have generated more cynicism than most issues. For many Sydneysiders, the 14-year-old NSW Labor Government's failures and inefficiencies are wrapped up in a decade of bickering and false hopes about building one. Others see this more as a symbol of Sydney's troubles in handling its status as Australia's global city. The media have taken to lampooning each new metro announcement, almost convinced it will never happen. They could yet be wrong.

A few months before meeting Les Wielinga, I happened to travel through three cities where metros have long been part of the landscape. London invented the metro in 1863 with the Metropolitan Railway, the first line in what has become an extensive Underground system.

The refurbishment of London's public transport under Ken Livingstone, the city's former mayor, is striking: new, clean and more frequent trains and buses with digital screens everywhere, even on street bus stops, announcing next arrivals. New York's subway train system, dating from 1904, and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, planned in the 1950s and opened in the 1970s, are equally impressive.

Back in Sydney, it is easy to see why the cynics have a case. A 1939 map of the city's suburban train system looks remarkably similar to the one 70 years later. Since 1979, only four new train lines have opened, each of them short, piecemeal and none linked to any long-term, integrated vision of the sort that guided John Bradfield, the engineer who oversaw an expansion of Sydney's rail system in the early 20th century. Yet, more than ever, the economic pressures on Sydney to reinvent its transport system are enormous.

Almost one-third of Australians live in NSW and two-thirds of these live in Sydney. The city remains Australia's strongest magnet for immigrants. Wielinga says 80 per cent of NSW's expected population rise will happen in Sydney. (A century ago, when the rural economy ruled, Sydney was home to only about one quarter of the state's people). The Bureau of Statistics projects Sydney's current 4.3-million population will grow by another two million during the next 25 years. With people pouring in, and infrastructure jammed in the mid-20th century, business and civic leaders worry that Sydney's economic under-performance could threaten its global city status. Ken Morrison, NSW executive director of the Property Council of Australia, a lobby group, says some benchmarks have shifted to Melbourne, where investment and housing construction are healthier. "Sydney is a sick city for housing construction," he says. "And one reason is a lack of new transport plans people can believe in."

Clover Moore, Sydney's Lord Mayor, reckons the city's most critical problem is a transport system it has long outgrown. She sees the threat to Sydney's regional standing as a global city coming not from Melbourne or Brisbane but from Singapore or Shanghai, both of which are "pouring billions into new transport". "It's all to do with ease of moving people around," she says. "If you don't look after the goose, you'll kill the golden egg, the city that produces the nation's wealth."

Some say Sydney's rot set in a decade ago. After staging the successful 2000 Olympics (and showing that even an aged transport system can work if it's pushed hard enough), the harbour city drifted into complacency. Others date it even earlier, to the 10-year premiership of Bob Carr from 1995, when debt reduction, not transport investment, was the name of the game.

Under growing public pressure, Carr announced in June 2005, a month before he resigned, a grand Metropolitan Rail Expansion Program. It involved almost 40 kilometres of new heavy rail line, akin to Sydney's existing system, linking the city's south-west and north-west growth regions with the central business district via a new tunnel under Sydney Harbour. The $8-billion plan did not survive the state Treasury's scrutiny.

In March 2008, Carr's successor, Morris Iemma floated the idea of a European and North American-style metro instead, linking the city centre with the north-west. The $12-billion North West Metro plan lasted just six months. Labor Party infighting killed off Iemma's plan, and his own premiership in its wake, to fund it by privatising the NSW electricity system. Nathan Rees, Iemma's successor, formally dumped the North West Metro in last November's mini-budget.

A year later, Rees is pushing ahead with a bare fragment of the earlier plans. The proposed $5-billion CBD Metro will run from Central Station under the city, and the new western harbour development of Barangaroo, only as far as the inner-west suburb of Rozelle. Sydney Metro, the new authority the government has set up to plan it, presents it nonetheless as the core of a "major transformation in the way Sydney moves around".

The plan also includes three longer lines: a western metro to Parramatta and Westmead, another to the north-west and a third linking Malabar in the south-east with the northern beaches. This third line would include the University of NSW, one of Australia's biggest universities and the only one in Sydney not serviced by rail. Despairing students at the Kensington campus still queue for buses decades after Bob Carr graduated.

Aside from the CBD Metro, all the other lines lie somewhere in the future. The NSW Transport Minister, David Campbell, recently told the ABC's Four Corners that he was "confident" future governments would build those lines. Sydneysiders may be entitled to hold their confidence in reserve. At a mere seven kilometres, the CBD Metro covers a fraction of 106 km total distance in Sydney Metro's broader scheme. Yet, beneath the spin, there are signs of momentum building in various powerful quarters to hold the government to account and finally get a metro started.

The business world is crying out for it. Ken Morrison of the Property Council says commercial, retail and industrial property need a well-functioning city to work properly. His body has lobbied the government to produce a long-term transport plan, which would attract investors to growth areas. "But the private sector isn't doing that now, because there's been a slow loss of confidence in the government's ability to plan infrastructure," he says.

Morrison sees potential in the Rees Government's new approach to transport planning. It has set up a new Department of Transport and Infrastructure, one of 13 new "super departments", with Les Wielinga as its director-general. Wielinga once headed the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) before taking over as inaugural head of Sydney Metro early this year. His first job at the new department is to produce a blueprint by December on better co-ordinating Sydney's rail, bus, road and ferry transport; Morrison sits on one of the blueprint's reference panels.

Morrison sees this move to bring responsibility for transport planning and infrastructure under one body as a "pleasing change". The old system, where the tasks were separated and powerful bodies such as the RTA and RailCorp battled each other, left the travelling public as casualties. "So the Government has been listening," he says.

While Morrison acknowledges the CBD Metro will help development in Barangaroo and ease commuter congestion in the city, he stresses it must still be part of a Sydney-wide metro system to mean anything. "If a CBD Metro is all the Government is going to build, it's a waste of money," he says. "It's just a roll of the dice to build an arm and a leg." Many others share this misgiving. Asked his response to it, Wielinga says, "There's an element of truth in that."

An even bigger groundswell for change is coming from Sydneysiders themselves. Earlier this year, The Sydney Morning Herald launched a public inquiry into Sydney's long-term transport needs, conducted by Ron Christie, a former head of NSW rail and road bodies and of the 2000 Olympic transport authority. The inquiry's main reference documents are a rail strategy Christie prepared in 2001 (but were not released then), and a 30-year plan drawn up early this year by Gary Glazebrook, an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney. Glazebrook sets targets to double the use of public transport, cycling and walking, achieving efficiencies that could cut overall travel by 10 per cent. "Sydney is still way behind Asian and European cities in building public transport, and even American cities that rely on cars are catching up to us," he says.

Glazebrook spoke at a public meeting on transport in September that filled one of Sydney's biggest theatres, the State. Ken Livingstone, the star speaker, painted his rejuvenation of London's public transport system as the key strategy of an attack on cutting the city's carbon emissions.

For her part, Clover Moore supports the Rees Government's metro plan for similar reasons. She says it will help the City of Sydney council achieve some of its own targets over the next 20 years: getting cars out of the city, turning George Street into a light-rail corridor and creating a new open square opposite Town Hall where one of the metro's underground stations is planned. "We're working with the government to get the best outcome," she says.

Moore also welcomes the Rudd Government's decision to start funding big infrastructure projects in capital cities. She and the seven other members of the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors say Australia's cities produce about four-fifths of the country's carbon emissions, boosting their case for Canberra's help in funding low-carbon solutions such as better train and light rail systems. "We'd made no headway with the Howard government on this," she says. "The fact that most Australians live in the capital cities seemed to be beyond John Howard." Her ideal model is Vancouver in Canada, which has built a partnership of city, state and federal governments to fund city projects of national significance.

Sydneysider and Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Local Government, Anthony Albanese told the State Theatre meeting: "Sydney should be to the Asia-Pacific region what London is to Europe - a great financial hub, a centre of culture and a magnet for people." He said its transport policy should be integrated not just in the CBD but across the suburbs, which now stretched so widely that a taxi ride from one end to the other could cost $150. "That's the view now driving the Commonwealth's efforts."

Albanese offered Sydney no specific promises but he did say a Melbourne rail project received healthy funding from the federal funding agency, Infrastructure Australia, because it was well planned, well integrated with other systems. The Rees Government had hoped Canberra might fully fund the Western Metro to Westmead, the next proposed stage after the CBD Metro.

Canberra though offered only $91 million for a Western-Metro feasibility study because, Albanese explained, it was "not fully planned". Still, this may be enough to allow Rees to make political capital out of the metro as his deeply unpopular Government limps toward the election, due in March 2011. Getting the project underway before then may be his last hope of salvaging any credibility for the Government.

Barry O'Farrell, the Liberal Party Opposition Leader, has vowed to ditch the CBD Metro if he wins, without offering anything in its place. Such a move could well backfire, especially if building has already started. Says Ken Morrison, "The business sector doesn't like to see things canned in the middle of construction. Can you imagine how the people creating Barangaroo would react?"

Other Sydney chiefs agree. Patricia Forsythe, executive director of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, which supports the metro says of O'Farrell's plan: "That is not an option we favour."

Clover Moore hopes O'Farrell's promise will go the same way as a similar one by Nick Greiner, another NSW Liberal leader. Greiner had promised to stop the monorail, a controversial project under Neville Wran's Labor government, to link the city with a revamped Darling Harbour. The monorail was a classic case of shortsighted, non-integrated transport planning. Moore explains that when Greiner became Premier in 1988, he announced, "The contracts were such that he couldn't stop it". Twenty-one years later, the visually ugly monorail still blights Sydney's streets. The City of Sydney council hopes the fruition of both its plan for a city centre light rail loop, and the metro, would offer a chance at last to remove the monorail.

Sydney has made many mistakes with its public transport, not least ripping up its extensive tram system in the 1960s to make way for cars fuelled by cheap petrol and the post-Second World War boom. Until that happened, says Clover Moore, "Sydney had the best tram system in the Commonwealth after London".

Now that climate change and peak oil have forced the world to think afresh, a new era is demanding a new face for Sydney's transport system. Although Sydney is the last global city to realise it, the metro is an idea whose time has come.