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What’s stopping the light rail? An old piece of paper

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"The current contract is convoluted and opaque" ... Gavin Gatenby, EcoTransit. Photo: Quentin Jones
“The current contract is convoluted and opaque” … Gavin Gatenby, EcoTransit. Photo: Quentin Jones

SMH: What’s stopping the light rail? An old piece of paper Jacob Saulwick September 17, 2011

Commuters are feeling the impact of another poorly designed public private partnership, as a stand-off between the NSW government and the operator of the light-rail line delays construction of the 5.7-kilometre extension through the inner west.

Since it was signed in 1994, the deal struck between the Pyrmont Light Rail Company and the state government has avoided much of the opprobrium attached to many other of the state’s PPPs.

But the latest delay to what appears to be a strikingly simple extension – fitting out 5.7 kilometres for service, on tracks already laid and refurbished – has shone a light on an awkward deal which the state is stuck with for at least another decade.

Under what was then called a Boot Model – ”Build, Own, Operate and Transfer” – the company paid $66 million of the $87.5 million needed to set up and run the first segment of the line, from Central to Wentworth Park.

The original deal specified peak-hour services to run every 5.5 minutes when the line was first running. After it was established, peak services were meant to run every 3.3 minutes.

But those ”service requirements” needing high frequency were dropped when the line eventually started in 1997.

Other parts of the deal remain more relevant. Unlike contracts with private bus operators, the light-rail company was given the right to set its own fares. It wasn’t until the election of the O’Farrell government that a deal was finally brokered allowing pensioner and MyMulti public transport passes to be used on the line.

And the company was also given exclusive rights to add to the Central to Lilyfield light-rail line for the next 30 years.

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, confirmed this week that this meant the company was paying for the extension to Dulwich Hill.

”As part of the current agreement with Metro Transport Sydney, MTS will finance the costs associated with the design, construction and operation of the inner-west extension, including the procurement of the required rolling stock,” Ms Berejiklian said.

She said the company’s costs would be repaid by the government over the term of the contract. That contract goes for at least another 13 years.

It remains unclear then why, if MTS is responsible for procuring the extension from Lilyfield to Dulwich Hill, the government is asserting it cannot be finished until 2014.

The chief executive of MTS, Kevin Warrell, would not comment on the delays. But multiple sources have told the Herald Mr Warrell has expressed the view that the extension could easily be built within a year, and for a lot less than the $170 million the government says it will take.

The government insists the job is not as simple as assumed.

In the meantime, negotiations continue between MTS and the state government.

Gavin Gatenby, the convener of EcoTransit, which has campaigned for the extension to Dulwich Hill on the disused freight corridor, said it need not be so difficult.

”The current contract is convoluted and opaque,” Mr Gatenby said. ”It’s a barrier to the further extension of light rail. The government should have bought Metro Transport under the same contractual arrangements as Sydney’s private bus operators, or preferably, have run the service itself.