Do people remember the Eighties? Specifically 1983? Austen Tayshus’ Australiana was big, as was Bop Girl by Pat Wilson and Reckless by Australian Crawl. It was also when the NSW Wran Government built the section of the M4 between Mays Hill and Parramatta Rd at Strathfield. I was living in Greystanes, 10 minutes west of Mays Hill, when that part of the freeway was completed. Our home was near the land bought for the M4 “missing link”, which ended up needing the Greiner Liberal Government to get built, with a toll.
The problem in 1983 was that the number of cars on the roads in the west was considerably lower than we have these days. That’s why the wizards at the Department of Main Roads designed one of the biggest pinch points in the country – where 3 lanes become 2, heading over James Ruse Drive at Granville. That’s why, even at the 4 lane part west of Parramatta, this is the daily sight for drivers, whether in the rain or the dry.
Whenever people hear about “transport in Western Sydney”, it’s this particular pinch point that you will likely hear about first. Or the other spectacularly bad piece of road development, the two lane tunnel that makes up the bulk of the M5 East. The designers of that, building it in the late 1990s, have much less excuse than the Aussie Crawl fans of the 80s.
It is little wonder, therefore, that both major parties in this Federal Election are falling over themselves to fund the WestConnex, a road that promises to end the pinch points and deliver drivers into various places east of Strathfield – as well as duplicate the M5 tunnel. Both seem keen to add a tunnel into the city – here’s Abbott, recalling his one year of living in Emu Plains and Gillard’s more recent promise.
It’s not the first time residents of Western Sydney have seen promises to build this magical road – there’s been talk about it since the 1960s. The main problem with this promised road is the danger that it will end up being the only piece of funded infrastructure for transport in Western Sydney. And it’s not needed in its entirety – really all that is needed is the widening of the M4 at James Ruse Drive and the duplication of the M5 tunnel, which would have much less cost and environmental impact. If governments are so concerned about getting people into the city, it wouldn’t take much to increase train volumes or schemes where workers could park at Olympic Park and catch trains direct to the city from there.
Sydney isn’t all just about getting people into the city on roads – as even the one year Emu Plains resident Mr. Abbott said to the Telegraph. Sydney’s train network is vast, expensive, and has been allowed to get gradually worse in terms of rolling stock and running times over the years – it’s telling that the most comfortable trains for commuters were built by Comeng in the 1970s – the interurban trains used to get to the Blue Mountains, Newcastle and Wollongong. For a lot of people coming into the city from the west, the only option is train – and it’s often standing room only for commuters on suburban trains from Penrith, as well as the interurbans. For governments since the 1980s, the heavy rail network has been problematic for short term thinking governments.
The North West region – the Hills District, as long term Liberal voters, missed out on heavy rail for decades and when, after many years, a Liberal Government was elected in 1988, that government decided that instead of a heavy rail, the area should have a 2 lane each way motorway, the M2. The result is probably the worst carpark in Sydney. The Labor Government promised one of the loopier solutions to the Hills District, a Metro designed for small distances in places like Singapore or Europe. The result would have been passengers standing for 50 minutes from Rouse Hill, and the predicted travel times weren’t particularly reliable. The state Government wasted many millions of dollars on a scheme that really wasn’t much good from the start.
The first promise of the O’Farrell Government, aside from widening roads, was to deliver a heavy rail to the North West. Actually, not a heavy rail link that links with the rest of the network. A standalone single deck train route that plonks people either at Epping Station or Chatswood Station, leaving commuters to pack onto already crowded trains into the city.
Hopefully, you will have noticed something in all this – a continuing desire with getting people into the city. Also, a commitment to making dazzling product launches that are actually just cheaper ways of doing them, rather than doing the dull thing of just expanding on the already present CityRail network.
In Sydney, not everyone works in the city. These plans, especially in terms of getting people from the west and south west, seem to not show an understanding of this concept. Many people in Sydney work in regional hubs, such as Parramatta, Norwest, Macquarie Park, Campbelltown, Penrith. A number of years ago, the Labor state government spent not a lot of money – but intelligently targeted – on a line between Merrylands and Parramatta, making sure a Cumberland line went from Campbelltown to Blacktown, making travel times shorter for commuters going in that direction. Cumberland Line trains barely exist now. One of the other bright ideas in terms of transport in Western Sydney was to build a heavy rail link between Parramatta and Epping. It was bright because it acknowledged that a number of people from the west work north of the city and points in between. The rail line would also take pressure off the very busy western line between Granville and Central. It was an idea so bright, NSW Transport Minister Michael Costa canned it. Many questioned why the Gillard Government offered to partially fund it in 2010 – I would have said because it’s a great idea. For more on this line, read this comprehensive blog about transport. Since 2011, however, we have had the O’Farrell Government putting its hands over its ears, saying “la la la, not listening”, refusing to accept Federal money for a train line that would help commuters enormously.
Another problem for western Sydney is the reliance of the private car to get places due to the lack of public transport options. Areas west of Parramatta don’t see the regular State Transit buses that those east of Parramatta take for granted. Routes driven on by private bus companies are chosen chiefly on the basis of economic return (as is probably reasonable for a private business), rather than there as a service for the community. This is why you see the three cars parked in and around houses. Buses are a cheap, band aid solution that governments have rolled out for many years – though there was a more efficient bus solution provided by the Labor Government, in their State Transit TWay busways, where dedicated roads ensure swift transport, in getting passengers from the Hills District and Liverpool area to Parramatta.
As for solutions to the mess that we see with transport, there will continue to be various solutions offered, glossy brochures produced. The WestConnex will not deliver the clarity and service that it promises to bring. Truck drivers will like it, as will the percentage of people who drive into the city. Such a project, though, will suck money out of the possibility for sensible transport ideas, like the Parramatta Light Rail project, which seeks to develop Parramatta as a viable second CBD and ensure a reliable, standalone system for getting people around that area. It may also run the risk that any company willing to enter into the Private Public Partnership may well go the same way as other PPP partners – such as the ones that built the Lane Cove Tunnel - not to mention the environmental and community damage the WestConnex construction will cause. The WestConnex will also be almost entirely meaningless to people in the outer suburbs who only go to the city to see sport or go shopping. Maybe this driver’s life will be made happier with it – but this car is part of the cliche of the “westie” going into the city for a hens or bucks night. Like the other cliches about the Western Sydney, it’s not the reality for most people.
Preston Towers is the nickname given to an apartment building on Preston St, South Penrith. It’s also the pseudonym of a teacher who used to live in that apartment building. He tweets under the name @prestontowers, has a blog called The Preston Institute, which is a tribute to the King of Institutes, Gerard Henderson.