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How the light rail extension really got off the ground

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SMH: How the light rail extension really got off the ground Gavin Gatenby (March 27, 2014)

The way Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian tells it, Thursday’s opening of the Dulwich Hill light rail extension is entirely the achievement of the O’Farrell Government.

“This is a brand new piece of public transport infrastructure with nine new stops and was a key election commitment of the NSW Liberals and Nationals Government,” she said.

“Labor spent 16 years making empty promises, and the only thing they delivered for the inner west was a $500 million bill for the failed CBD metro project.”

The truth is more interesting and instructive than the spin.

The extension didn’t result from some manichean tussle between Labor and the Coalition (the Greens were always strong supporters), but from a community struggle against an anti-light rail mindset that infected politicians, the bureaucracy, and sections of the media. It was a fight against the Transport Ministry, the Roads and Traffic Authority and Treasury, and light rail’s supporters were drawn from across the political spectrum.

It is true that Nathan Rees blew half a billion on Rodd Staples’ CBD metro adventure, but in fact the Dulwich Hill extension was decided on, planned, and approved under the Keneally Government with the addition of the complementary GreenWay cycling and walking path, unfortunately abandoned by O’Farrell.

The extension would never have happened if it hadn’t been for a relentless political campaign by EcoTransit Sydney, which began in May 2008. At the time, the second extension of the line – to Lilyfield – had been running for eight years but the final leg, to Dulwich Hill, had been stymied by powerful political and bureaucratic opposition. Over the years, local governments had commissioned expert studies urging the line’s completion. These generated a headline or two, after which the push, predictably, died.

EcoTransit then turned the issue into a running political sore. We made it a community campaign, and had an enthusiastic response across party lines.

Thousands of people signed form letters to the premier. Local Labor MPs gave unofficial support, but Transport Minister John Watkins, bookended by senior bureaucrats, raised a raft of objections. And our reception by the premier’s so-called Infrastructure czar, Professor David Richmond, was positively strangelovian. “We know who you’ve been talking to”, he muttered darkly. Light rail was “not for Sydney”, the future was “all metro, and all underground”.

Richmond disappeared and David Campbell succeeded Watkins as transport minister. Our first meeting with Campbell was a breath of fresh air. Gone were Watkins’ attendant bureaucrats. “You don’t have to convince me,” Campbell said, and told us he’d visited France and had been favourably impressed by recent light rail projects. In Campbell, light rail found a minister prepared to buck political and bureaucratic opposition. He wrung a pro-extension decision from Cabinet’s transport sub-group although with the condition that it must survive an expensive feasibility study half-funded by local government. If this proviso was intended as a spoiler, it didn’t work. City of Sydney, Leichhardt and Marrickville immediately ponied up the money.

In the event, they didn’t have to pay a cent. Rees resigned in December 2009 and his replacement, Kristina Keneally, ordered a go-ahead on the extension early in 2010. With no planning approval required for replacement of the former goods line’s track, work started in August along the 5.6 km route while detailed planning for light rail stops went ahead.

When O’Farrell came to office in March 2011, the project already had planning approval. Trams were said to start running in 2012, but the incoming Liberal Government first deferred the opening until 2014 then awarded the contract to Leighton’s subsidiary, John Holland. Work on the nine tram stops, signalling system and power supply was delayed for months and then proceeded at a high price and slow pace. I don’t expect EcoTransit will be invited to the opening, nor Keneally or Campbell.

History will show that Berejiklian was a genuine light rail champion – as her fight for the CBD-South-East projects attests – but the Dulwich Hill decision broke the entrenched opposition to light rail and she played no role in that.

Gavin Gatenby is co-convener of EcoTransit Sydney, a not-for-profit public and active transport lobby group.