Professor Neil Runcie’s speech to Community Forum

Neil Runcie

Myths, Assumptions and Illusions – Some Inconvenient Truths about the City and South East Light Rail Project

New/Old Toys for New Politicians or Public Participation in Planning? By Neil Runcie

An Address to a Public Forum at Randwick Boys’ High School 6/11/14)

Preamble 11 Myths, 7 Assumptions and 4 Illusions are identified in the claims for this project but there are many more misleading statements being made to support this project. As a result of our representations the NSW Auditor General and the Sydney University Institute of Transport and Logistics have agreed to undertake an examination of This Light Rail project.

By way of introduction I present two statements that capture current concerns. The first is from a local resident Greg Lenthen that captures succinctly resident concerns:

“As a resident of Centennial Park, my immediate concern is the adverse impact of the planned CBD and SE Light Rail. It will cut public transport passenger capacity, eliminate stops, reduce safety, lessen frequency, shrink seating by up to 60 per cent, wipe out much local parking, limit access to Prince of Wales, Sydney Children’s and Royal Women’s hospitals, and destroy hundred of trees — while increasing journey times and traffic congestion. And all at a cost of $1.6 billion to the public purse! Please leave our excellent bus service as it is for the time being and develop a plan for the south east’s future public transport based on heavy rail via an extension of the Eastern Suburbs line. 

And I would add there is an overwhelming case on grounds of efficiency, amenity, comfort and safety for an extension of the rapid bus transport system already partially developed in the area.

In a second quote from a notice sent by the Transport Department in November 2014 to Residents and Businesses I add the qualifications that should have been made:

“The CBD and south East Light rail (CSERLR ) is a major project that will transform Sydney [for better or worse]. It will provide a fast, reliable public transport service from Circular Quay through the CBD, to Kingsford and Randwick via Surry Hills, Moore Park and Kensington[ but not as fast, or convenient as the present available bus services]. [The third sentence reads:] The light rail project is part of an integrated transport solution that will improve public transport in the south east, manage future growth, plan for urban renewal and reduce congestion in the CBD [providing it is confirmed by a credible cost benefit analysis, and providing there is an approved plan for redevelopment of the present urban areas and providing we have a carless city!].  I think the Department is making extraordinary claims that I think are built round myths, assumptions and illusions.

Let me turn first to my 11Myths.



Sydney has developed enormously since trams were taken off the streets in Sydney. We would not have the Opera House today if it was still the Bennelong tram sheds. This is not to say that trams are not appropriate in some areas (eg along a disused heavy rail line that goes out to Dulwich Hill). Technological advances with articulated buses overseas may not be fully understood here. Strangely there has been little attempt to appreciate the environmental gains from the removal of the old tram system in the City and SE area.

So Myth No 1 is that trams are essential for the proper development of the CBD and one must add the Eastern Suburbs.

Trams were taken off in Sydney precisely to improve development, safety and efficiency in public and private transport. Andparadoxically because of this growth, they want to put them back. It could be forcefully argued that once trams are reintroduced in the CBD and buses are excluded in the way proposed redevelopment in the CBD will be stifled and will only be possible with greater disruption to the public and private transport system.

Myth No2 is that CBD congestion is caused by buses. Buses are a very small part of the CBD traffic flow (perhaps as low as 5% depending on the time of day). Furthermore the argument does not hold because clearly other traffic will fill any voids from bus removalBroadcaster Alan Jones has been quick to point out that speed of transport in the CBD is important, and that the proliferation of cycleways is an important contributor to congestion. For example the College Street cycleway shunts some north south traffic on to Elizabeth Street. Sydney is not Amsterdam and there are other ways of providing cycle access that are not as disruptive.

It is important to note that there are many other causes of congestion that could be addressed. For example underground pedestrian crossings of intersections (eg in Elizabeth Street going into St James Station). I expect Professor David Hensher, Australia’s leading Transport economist, will address some of these issues in a follow up meeting that he has agreed to address in February.

Myth No3 is that the CSELR will make congestion less. The reverse is the case on any objective standard. This myth is beyond comprehension if you are narrowing and closing streets and lowering intersection capacity as is planned. All of the experts that I have consulted believe that the current proposals will considerably increase traffic congestion unless the surreptitious pipedream is to have a carless city:  and that pipedream seems to underlie much of Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s thinking. Clover’s present  plan is to close central George Street to all vehicular traffic, but trams, from Town Hall to Hunter Street. Frankly cars are an important part of our standard of living and contribute enormously to the productivity of our economy. However, narrowing streets for non tram vehicles and reducing intersection capacity increases inner city traffic congestion in the CBD and beyond, and especially along the whole of the LR route.

Myth No4 is that the published Business Plan is a proper substitute for an honest  professionally constructed cost benefit analysis. In my cross examination of a delegation of 3 officials sent to me by the Minister not one of my 25 questions was answered and particularly relating to externalities –these are the consequences apart from the actual construction cost.. For example it was revealed that no costing had been done for the use of public space in parks and roads. For example even though the Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust has valued its land on an opportunity cost basis as well as the trees and landscaping, no compensation was built into the project cost modelling. That is our parks, even historic Parks such as the Centennial Parklands are being treated asfree goods for public and private developers. I believe this violates the principles of cost benefit analysis to the community. My deep concern is about what is happening in Moore Park at present, and in the Centennial Parklands generally, that has led me recently to again accept the role of President of the Save the Parks Campaign  that I founded in the 1970s with the support of Resident Action Groups in the City and Eastern Suburbs to fight (successfully) the Moore Park/Centennial Park Olympics Complex brought forward by the NSW Government at the time in a massive two volume study with the support of members of the City Council and the Olympics Committee. These proposals were shelved in favour of HomebushBay after a proper government town planning report by Walter Bunning who confirmed our recommendations. The present proposals also need the scrutiny of an independent town planning study with similar public input.

           The price of parks is eternal vigilance. In respect to recent developments in Moore Park are we dragging our feet?

In answer to my questions about congestion costs, amenity and business losses, the officials meekly replied: there will be winners and losers. But what if the losers outnumber the winners? The promised letter setting out their defence – whatever it is –never came.

Myth No5 is that the Commonwealth is helping to finance this project.  This is not so based on advice I have recently received from the Deputy PM and Minister for Infrastructure ( Warren Truss). I know that LM  Clover Moore as a leading instigator of this project who confessed in a National Press Club Address that she has asked for Commonwealth financial aid for this project. But she did not get it!  And no doubt the State has made approaches too. I deduce that the project does not meet the Commonwealth test of “productivity enhancing infrastructure”. You may well ask:  “Who is paying for all this?” It is you and at the cost of our schools and hospitals!

Myth No6 is that this City and South East Light Rail will cost the mere sum of $1.6bn. The first indication of faulty costing wasthat one of the three preferred contractors, on a short list, dropped out citing potential cost overruns. A second prior indication was the other major transport infrastructure projects in Sydneywere grievously underestimated. And the third indication of faulty costing came from MP Ron Hoenig who placed the cost at $2B. And the fourth came from the Minister herself in a very recent press release (23/10/14). Of course this raises the question whether the funds being locked in to this project would be better spent on improving our schools and hospitals. I expect Dr Jarvie will have something to say about this.


Myth No7 is that the proposed expenditure of $1.6bn plus will add to transport capacity, and  public transport capacity in particular. It demonstrably does not do this. It replaces the present efficient bus services  with another more costly hybrid system that does not have the same capacity or flexibility or potential for growth such as a bus rapid transport system that is already underway. The proposed hybrid system of directing buses to light rail stops and terminals strangles the existing bus services to make sure that light rail is used. In fact the proposed hybrid system falls well below the existing capacity and there has been a flurry of attempts to cover this up. See the Minister’s latest Press Statement (23/10/14) indicating a preferred bidder to do the construction and the operation and who wants bigger trams.

Myth No8 is that the current tram proposal has been endorsed by the official infrastructure watchdog bodies. It has not. Former Premier and former chairman of Infrastructure NSW Nick Greiner met with the Director of the Centennial Parklands, at our invitation, to indicate the current failings of the project and the conspicuous absence of a proper cost benefit analysis.


Myth No9 is that the CP&MPT is protecting the Centennial Parklands. It is very clear that the present Trust is failing in many directions to protect our Parklands. The Trust should have insisted that the light rail, if it is to go ahead should proceed along the old tram tracks starting at Moore Park Road. This would solve theDevonshire Street, Olivia Gardens, and Moore Park West problems. I can personally attest to the dwindling nature of the parklands in the Centennial Parklands environment.( Raleigh Park Oval, The Supacenta, The Eastern Distributor, The Fred Miller Stadium, The Sports Ground, Cricket Ground No2, The Proposed South Paddington Park and Community Centre and the Moore Park Bus Station that is being extended. In all cases there were viable and better options.

Interference with the tree canopy was given by the delegates for a new parallel track in Moore Park East, again taking a slice of the Parklands. But the canopy is even higher now than when trams operated along this very route. In any case why are unsightly overhead wires not being eliminated when the technology to do so exists? More up-to-date tram technology exists overseas and this alone should call a halt.

Myth No10 is that costs will not rise because of the Opal System. This assertion is beyond belief for the level of expenditure proposed involves an enormous escalation of costs. Who pays? The proposed operators?! , It is the rate payers and taxpayers and especially the users both directly and indirectly. Incidentally this myth ignores travel time change-over costs when transferring from one mode to another.


Myth No11 is that the Light Rail is environmentally friendly. However it relies on electricity power generation from coal stations, not solar! It involves the destruction and damage to dedicated Parkland. It involves a tangle of overhead wiring. It involves the destruction of mature and well developed trees. It involves the destruction of median strip beautification. It involves noise especially in the construction phase. It involves lower visual amenity. Tree Destruction has commenced.


If these myths are not bad enough let me now turn to 7 assumptions


Assumption No1 is that Sydney is not now a Multicentre Metropolis that is in urgent need of infrastructure in the western suburbs where the bulk of the population now lives and where the new rapidly growing centres need town planning help. The most quoted example of blinkered planning is State procrastination over the development of Sydney’s second airportat Badgery’s Creek. The State government has procrastinated for years. But in respect to the second airport, where the Commonwealth is at last commencing construction in 2016, there ismuch prior infrastructure needed  in roads, rail, hospitals, schools, sporting facilities and university colleges beforeBadgery’s Creek is “up and running” and flying. A second example is the procrastination over the proper development of HomebushBay as an international standard sporting and expo site. And I should add here that the Eastern Suburbs  heavy rail should be completed to better link the Eastern Suburbs to the other metropolitan centres and not just the CBD as it does now.

Assumption No1 is nonsense and reflects 19th century thinking that underlies a lot about this Light Rail project. It is proposing expenditure that should be made in the western suburbs which is infrastructure poor by comparison and where unemployment is higher.


Assumption No2 is that the 19th century radial road and rail system fanning from the present CBD should be reinforced.This is demonstrably an out of date view of Metropolitan needs. Should  LR only lead to the Town Hall in George St which is what the present system proposes? I note that the Minister has hurriedly produced further light rail plans for the western suburbs just recently. Again these plans were not properly costed nor subject to proper town planning scrutiny.

Assumption No3 is that this Light rail project should have priority over completion of the Eastern Suburbs heavy rail line linking the east with the growing centres to the west. This could accommodate many UNSW students coming from the west who go to central now to alight for buses as the plan was to have a UNSW stop.


Assumption No4 is that the SCG pedestrian Bridge over Anzac Parade should have priority over the upgrading of the Anzac Parade /Alison Road intersection. This is a ludicrous assumption about what is important and what is not. I must say here that LMClover Moore made an excellent submission calling for a cost benefit study of this SCG bridge. It is being paid for by NSW taxpayers, not the SCG, and becoming a reality as we speak tonight. But Clover does not demand a cost benefit analysis for the This LR project. It seems that the Roads Minister does not appreciate the high cost of the Alison Road morning peak traffic jam that extends for a kilometre or more.

Assumption No5 is that there is a plan for urban renewal in the Eastern Suburbs. There is no such published plan. Urban renewal is occurring spontaneously at present independently of light rail.


Assumption No6 is that there is an integrated transport solution. If so, why have new unplanned uncosted light rail proposals in the western suburbs only emerge in the last week or so as the next State election approaches. Again the underlying town planning has not been done.


Assumption No7 is that there are no other measures, other than light rail  to reduce any unnecessary congestion. other than the current light rail proposals. Paradoxically these proposals include the closure of much of George Street which will frustrate much vehicular traffic, as the Pitt Street Mall does now. Other great cities such as London have a congestion tax on vehicles entering the City at certain times. Underground concourses reduce surface pedestrian needs as developed in many great cities. Just take one example, surface pedestrian traffic going from David Jones to St James Station adversely affects Elizabeth Street traffic. More detailed planning is necessary to eliminate or reduce congestion.



Myths, Assumptions and now 4 Implicit Illusions

Firstly, the most widespread illusion is here in the Eastern Suburbs where many residents do not realise the resulting congestion and increased rates, taxes, rents and fares that are implicit in the current proposals and that will be higher than they otherwise would be. It is an illusion to think that the proposed LR does not involve higher costs and that a multiplier bundle of restrictions will follow. Restrictions as planned will lead to more restrictions to deal with the restrictions. There is a restrictions multiplier.


The second illusion is CBD centric myopia that has lead to a failure and /or slow recognition that the bulk of Sydney’s population lives west. This myopia has led to a failure to complete the Eastern Suburbs rail system linking Bondi Junction in an orbital network with the other growing centres in metropolitan Sydney. And the same myopia has delayed the start to Sydney’s second airport at Badgery’s Creek. Surely completion of heavy rail orbital links is part of an integrated public transport system?

The third illusion is that public parks are not important to the health and well being of the community. They are being treated as free goods for public and private developers. Our parklands are not free goods to developers and politicians making their careers. I commend the tree preservation group that has been attempting to gather support to prevent the destruction of some hundreds of trees but argue that the only way to stop the tree carnage is Stop This Light Rail.


The fourth illusion is that urban consolidation will improve living standards by involving the unplanned replacement of single dwellings by high rise housing structures along the light rail route. The holy grail of urban consolidation is an illusion. It doesnot mean higher living standards and especially when developers can put up high rise without adequate car parking.


Conclusion: Where are we going?

The Circumlocution Office of the Transport Department does not know and will not tell.  There is no town plan; it is being left to higgledy-piggledy market forces with scant regard for our parks, existing facilities and existing town plans. Sydney is a hilly city that does not lend itself to light rail as proposed in this project. The proposed trams are very heavy (35-55+ tons) and much heavier than the old trams and inflexible compared to  the modern buses that are available. The many reasons for taking off trams previously are being ignored and/or not understood. Further the present plans for this project do not recognise Sydney as a multicentre metropolis.Proper town planning should precede transport planning.

The persistent failure to release a cost benefit analysis for this costly project is scandalous. The real community costs including door to door travel time, inconvenience, congestion and loss amenity are not properly costed. The financing of the project will involve increased fares, rates and taxes with a less efficient public transport system using out of date technology. The project involves increased travel times and inconvenience, less comfort and increased congestion as a result of the restrictions all along the route and with congestion consequences beyond.

There is a restrictions multiplier as more restrictions will be imposed to correct the restrictions. Trams were taken off Sydneystreets to improve safety, traffic flow, for environmental reasons and better town planning. Do you really want to see the tangle of overhead wiring return?


LM Clover Moore should think of different ways of creating pedestrian plazas apart from closing off George Street from Town Hall to Hunter Street except for trams. And the congestion caused by the rather unlovely Pitt Street Mall should be re-examined.

There is a complete failure to take proper note of the overseas experience that has been critically examined by reputable journals just this year such as The London Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek. Locally Professor David Hensher, Australia’s leading transport economist, who has agreed to speak at our next forum, has criticised the rash of light rail systems here without proper prior examination of all aspects The same comment has been made about a rash of projects by the Federal Infrastructure authority.


The present Transport Forums are Dickensian being conducted by the Circumlocution Office of the Department of Transport that obviously has no expertise or conscience about the town planning implications. The forums are an elaborate and very expensive attempt to manipulate public opinion and one must add to promote myths and conceal assumptions . These forums do not represent a genuine or sincere attempt at public participation in the planning process so vital to modern democracy. The decision to proceed with this project arises from a rash of misinformed “me too” thinking about light rail in a number of places in Australia and overseas and from party political actions motivated by vested interests that are not in the public interest. The evidence is mounting that many of these projects are difficult to reverse mistakes.

In NSW an election promise made at the time of the last election before the project was properly investigated is now being enacted before the next election in March for political reasons with construction to start after Anzac Day.

Finally we must appeal for outside support.

(i) I acknowledge the original occupiers of these lands and appeal for their support to preserve open spaces in the Eastern Suburbs.

(ii) I appeal to motorist organisations to recognise that motorists will be greatly restricted and inconvenienced by the current proposals.

(iii) I appeal to park lovers, tree lovers, bird lovers and lovers of natural beauty to protest to the Centennial Park & Moore Park Trust and the relevant Minister Robert Stokes. These Parklands are what Patrick White called the green lung of Sydney, our living living room. Parklands are important to our health and wellbeing. Previous Trusts have threatened to resign when threatened with government backed untoward actions by the SCG. The SCG has become a commercial enterprise threatening non-commercial sporting activity in the area to create unnecessary car parks on Historic Public Parkland. So much for the SCG view of the role of Public Transport!

(iv) I acknowledge the excellent bus service which the Eastern Suburbs enjoys and I appeal to the bus employees union for involvement, input and support.

(v) I appeal to the NSW Heritage Council and the National Trust  to stand up for what they stand for.

If Mike Baird wants to be seen as the Infrastructure Premier and not as the Congestion Premier and a Park Pincher I appeal to him to complete the Eastern Suburbs railway and undertake a proper alternative bus plan based on the existing system at a small fraction of the escalating cost now proposed. . This makes more sense than the present half baked and wasteful project that his government will struggle to make viable especially as it does not add to transport capacity in the public and the private sector..

Finally  I think we all have an obligation to demand the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition at Parliament House in Macquarie Street Stop This Light Rail. As a result of complaints and representations that I have made on behalf of the Coalition of Eastern Suburbs Resident Action Groups, the NSW Auditor General and  The Institute of Transport and Logistics at SU is examining the CSELR . A fresh look by Infrastructure NSW with public input is overdue.

Modern democracy depends on informed public opinion and not on the implementation of election promises made before proper investigations are made.


As the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke said:

Evil prevails when good men fail to act”.  So act NOW!