Some commuter advice for 'The Infrastructure PM'

The contradictions at the heart of Tony Abbott's infrastructure push can come into stark relief when sitting at the station waiting for the train.

Tony Abbott told us he wanted to be remembered as the "infrastructure prime minister". In the election campaign Abbott announced this aspiration as he fronted up at photo opportunities in Sydney and Melbourne to announce funding commitments for the WestConnex and the East-West link road projects.

Yet the independent body for evaluating Australia’s infrastructure needs and priorities has suggested in a submission that Abbott may instead be setting himself up to be the prime minister for pork barrelling, rather than infrastructure.

The submission opens up with a none-too-subtle reference to Abbott’s election antics:

With rising infrastructure expectations and limited budgets, there is an air of unreality about our infrastructure planning….
This is a particular problem during election periods where commitments are often made although robust business cases have not been prepared, let alone independently reviewed. Recent examples include the WestConnex road project in Sydney and the East West Road link in Melbourne.

When Abbott announced funding commitments to these two projects neither had released detailed cost-benefit analyses.  Meanwhile a range of other infrastructure projects – such as the Melbourne Metro train project – had provided strong, detailed evidence for why their construction would provide benefits that significantly outweighed their costs. These had passed the scrutiny of Infrastructure Australia and received the tick of approval. Incidentally, during the election Abbott suggested that Infrastructure Australia had somehow indicated approval for funding for the East West link, but this submission seems to call that claim seriously into question.

At the same time Abbott said the federal government wasn’t in the business of funding public transport and should “stick to its knitting”. This ‘stick to its knitting argument’ makes little sense because it's state governments that roll out roads like WestConnex and the East-West link, as well as public transport.

Because Abbott probably hasn’t travelled on public transport for a decade or two, given the provision of a Comcar limousine whenever he requires it, I thought I might share a personal story about public transport to illustrate how investments in it could save commuter time, too.

Last Friday a voice came over the loudspeaker at the station:

             “The 7.40 train will be delayed by several minutes because of a signal fault.”

The large number of people at the station then waited another 10 minutes by which time a separate train came along. It was an old rattler from a long distant train station that was already near full and stops at every station while travelling about 30km an hour slower than the express train I’d normally catch.

Voice over loudspeaker: “Passengers are advised to take this train to Melbourne, delays with 7.40 service still to be resolved.”

Myself and a number of others nearby decide to take our luck on another train and give the old rattler a miss, knowing it will be extremely crowded and uncomfortable.

Voice over loudspeaker a few minutes later: “The 7.40 service has now been cancelled, the 8 o’clock service is five minutes from arrival.”

The person next to me wryly observed: “In China they’d have the person responsible for this shot.”

Then another chimed in: “In Japan the person responsible would shoot himself.”

After the laughter, the first guy explained he’d just been to China and was completely blown away at how well their trains ran. The other guy noted he’d just been to Japan and found the same thing. All of us shook our heads at how our own trains suffered repeated problems (such as bizarrely common signal faults which remain unexplained) due to a range of reliability faults with the infrastructure.

Yet we all continue to use the service – why?

Because usually it is faster and cheaper than the car, plus the time spent on the train can be usefully employed getting work done instead of looking out for traffic. The same goes for hundreds of thousands of commuters around Australia’s major cities who tolerate services far less frequent and reliable than cities overseas.  

The cost of this is wasted time for the commuters concerned, but also less liveable and enjoyable cities with higher pollution levels. And a less efficient freight system because more people elect to use cars which clog our roads for trucks.  

This isn’t about prioritising trains over cars – upgraded roads undoubtedly provide significant benefits as well. Rather this is about properly valuing people’s time and amenity irrespective of whether they live in a marginal, safe or Nationals party seat. 

The establishment of Infrastructure Australia was an excellent idea because it was about economically evaluating all government-funded infrastructure on an equal footing, independent of the politics. Yet in spite of this government’s rhetoric about strengthening the body, its proposed amendments to Infrastructure Australia’s legislation undermine it. 

They would allow the Nationals' Transport Minister Warren Truss to direct it to ignore particular classes of infrastructure, such as public transport. They would also mean that the transport minister could withhold the release of project evaluations he/she didn’t like; say, because they might suggest that the Melbourne Metro train project should be prioritised over the East-West Link because more people would benefit.

The bill also removes a requirement for the body to take climate change into account. This is something the IA submission suggests makes little sense given the long-lived and sometimes highly polluting nature of some infrastructure. 

If Abbott genuinely wants to be known as the Infrastructure Prime Minister rather than the Prime Minister for Pork Barrelling, he could start by amending the proposed bill to remove the power for the Nationals-held ministry to dictate Infrastructure Australia’s activities.