Newcastle Public Transport

10th November 2015

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [5.40 p.m.]: I speak today about Transport for Newcastle, the new regional authority announced by the transport Minister last week. First, I point out that the idea of a regional transport authority for Newcastle and the Hunter is not new. Regional leaders and forward-thinking people in our community have supported the principle for many years. I have long been of the belief that local autonomy in public transport planning and delivery could only be beneficial. Indeed, the Hunter Independent Public Transport Inquiry called for it in 2011 after having consulted broadly with the community, transport and urban planners, and specific industry bodies. Local Labor colleagues in this place took a similar policy into the last election.

It has been patently obvious for many years that the public transport system does not serve its Lower Hunter customers well, which is one of the reasons only 4 per cent of the region's population opts for public transport over other forms of transportation. No-one—and I think I can speak generally here—is averse to the idea of a transport authority that operates in the region for the commuters of the region. What had never come into reckoning in the past, however, was the idea that this transport authority would be privately operated. A private authority would not be my starting point for such a solution, but I am willing to keep an open mind on these things.

I realise there are other places in the world where private authorities manage integrated public transport systems very well and there is no reason from a logistics point of view that it could not work in the Lower Hunter. It will take time to consider all the ramifications of this proposal, but the immediately obvious one is the likely significant impact on jobs. I understand that the Rail, Tram and Bus Union is very concerned—as, no doubt, are its members and families—particularly as I understand that they will be excluded from being able to put forward an expression of interest or a tender. State Transit in any guise will be specifically excluded, thus ruling out the recommendation from the Hunter Independent Public Transport Inquiry for an independent but public authority.

Another issue that will be of concern to the local community is the likelihood of intense pressure to minimise investment in, or even withdraw from, more costly routes. Let us face it, none of the transport options—be it bus, rail or ferry—is a money earner, but some routes, despite being costly, are extremely valuable, particularly for those who are heavily reliant on public transport. Students, pensioners and people of low income frequently have little choice but to use public transport, and any reduction in functionality of the system will disproportionately impact on them.

Public transport needs to be a real option and appeal to everyone. To do that it needs to be timely, comfortable, safe and functional to encourage people away from their cars. This was certainly the goal of those who participated in the Hunter Independent Public Transport Inquiry and I am sure that no-one would argue against those principles. Governments struggle with the recurrent operational costs of running our public transport system, let alone the constant need for new infrastructure, so I understand why the Government might want to look "outside the box", as the Minister stated. A system that could deliver public transport more cheaply and effectively would also allow for its expansion. That would be a good thing.

However, the Minister's announcement last week was yet another example from this Government of policy by decree. I understand that the Government has no electorates within the Lower Hunter, but that is not a reason to dump announcements of such magnitude on the local community without any consultation with them. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the Government to change the paradigm and engage with local members regardless of party. This would also require affected non-government members to step up and participate at least in the early discussions in a non-partisan way. The community has a lot of questions about this proposal for a privatised transport authority and it deserves to know the answers. People want to know who will represent their interests to this new body, what controls will be placed on fare prices, who the privatised authority will be answerable to, and how the bus, ferry and light rail routes will be integrated with other services such as inter-regional rail.

Understandably, this Government likes to talk about its spend on infrastructure. Whether or not individuals support the projects, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the significant amount of infrastructure planned and underway in New South Wales. However, by making announcements such as this before having undertaken public consultation or even testing the concept in the private market, the Government has created a climate of uncertainty and concern. It would do better to honour its claim to being a government of the people by making genuine efforts to involve the Hunter community in such important decisions before they become a foregone conclusion. I trust that it is not too late for the Minister to do that.

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