Nov 23, 2011

Port Botany and Rail - Sydney's Traffic chaos is coming

Last week, the New South Wales Government, through its newly created body Infrastructure New South Wales, released its submission to Infrastructure Australia for funding for infrastructure associated with Port Botany. 

In a report of the submission, The Australian Financial Review seemed to suggest that the reason behind the submission for federal funds was an endeavour to increase the amount of money the State Government could expect when it sells the lease of Port Botany.  The State request is, initially, modest -- $28 million for planning the roads and freight hubs.  This is in addition to the $70 million allocated in the last Federal Budget for planning on the establishment of the Moorebank Intermodal, which is to serve increased contained traffic throughPort Botany. 

That’s a lot of money for planning studies.  It’s a pity nothing has been done beyond thinking and asking for planning funds. 

The Chairman of Infrastructure New South Wales, former Liberal Premier Nick Greiner, was at least open when he said: “Clearly people wanting to buy the lease of Port Botany will want to know the intentions of the governments, both federal and state governments.” 

So too, Mr Greiner, would the people of our City.

But our residents are not all that interested in the State Government maximising its sale price for the Port Botany lease.  No, our residents are more interested in their quality of life. 

I am not opposed to a more efficient operating port.  Far from it.  What I am concerned about, though, is planning that does lead to more efficient transport logistics in moving the containers. 

If that is what Mr Greiner is seeking while he maximises a lease sale price then, for totally different reasons, I would support him. 

But, in the absence of an effective container transport policy or strategy I would take a totally different view. 

A week or so before the article inspired by Mr Greiner there was another story and headline in The Australian Financial Review, which trumpeted “Port Botany to drive growth”.  The story below the headline was how Port Botany would be the significant driver of growth in NSW.  So says Paul Broad, the new chief executive of Infrastructure New South Wales. While acknowledging that the Port Botany precinct was, and I quote, “a much-neglected part of the economy”, Mr Broad said there was a need to unclog the links – the M5 and the M4.  The M5 is “a clogged artery”. 

Figures Mr Broad presented show that between 4:00am and 6:00pm each day between 2500 and 3500 cars and trucks travel eastbound on the M5 every hour.  Foreshore Road in the same time periods handles between 300 and 400 trucks every hour. 

Unclogging the artery and the links will boost growth, says Mr Broad. 

He’s right.  But if nothing happens and truck movement of containers doubles then7000 trucks and cars on the M5 every hour and up to 800 trucks an hour downForeshore Road and the situation is horrendous. 

If nothing is done, this generation of planners and bureaucrats, and governments, will strangle Sydney and we will all live under a cloud of car and truck emissions. 

But to unclog the links, as Mr Broad seeks, (and he is right) you need to plan and actually build things. 

What we’re promised now is a series of discussion papers to be released early next year and a 20 year infrastructure plan. 

We have been in touch with Infrastructure New South Wales and will ensure that our views are known to this organisation as it formulates its plans. 

Unfortunately, we’ve seen a few of those plans in the past – and now we’re to see more although this is the first time an infrastructure-focussed state organisation has been established. 

However, even before Mr Broad, a highly capable public servant, made his comments there were some others made to a Legislative Council committee hearing, which have bearing on this City and the port operations. 

Before I go into those comments, let me set the scene. 

There is a saying in the bush – “you shoot your own dog …” which means you face up to your own responsibilities and to reality. 

If there is something to do that’s not very pleasant then you have a responsibility to do it yourself and not flick it off to someone else. 

The NSW Government has done that in relation to Port Botany and the movement of containers – and it is not good news for our residents. 

When Terminal Three at Port Botany was approved there were two realities within the Conditions of Consent. 

One was that the number of containers (or to use the industry term – twenty foot equivalents or TEU’s) was capped at 3.2 million. 

That was a condition of consent and, like all conditions of consent, this Council and its residents would expect it to behonoured. 

The second one was the stated aim that 40% of the containers would be moved to and from the port by rail.

This mythical figure was stated, and restated, by successive ministers for transport and ministers for ports … and even, if I recall correctly, by premiers.  Indeed, I can go back to a report in July 2005, nearly seven years ago, from the Freight Infrastructure Advisory Board under the authorship of L. J. Brereton, someone not unknown to residents of this City. 

Recommendation number one from this report was, and I quote: “The 40 percent rail share target must be met and if possible exceeded …”.
The Freight Infrastructure Advisory Board went the way of so many advisory bodies – into oblivion. So too, now, is the recommendation which was adopted by all parts of government as almost holy writ. 

But what has not been consigned to oblivion is the fact that the 40 per cent figure was one this Council and the people it represents would expect to be honoured. 

The 40 per cent rail movement would mean that about 1.2 million containers would be moved via rail and around two million by road. 

When the 40 per cent figure became holy writ, the percentage of containers moved by rail was around 25 per cent. 

Last year, the rail percentage was around 17 per cent – a significant drop and one which, at the time, caused me great concern. 

A couple of weeks ago, in the estimates hearings held by the NSW Legislative Council, the new Minister for Transport, the Hon Gladys Berejiklian, appeared before the committee, along with her senior bureaucrats. 

This was a hearing that, understandably, focused on public transport – trains, buses and ferries. 

But buried in the midst of the estimates hearings was where Ms Berejiklian shot the Government’s Port Botany dog. 

She actually shot it twice with the same effectiveness on container numbers and rail percentages. 

She revealed the truth, unique itself in a politician, and that truth, although we have long suspected it, does not auger well for our residents and indeed for the entire Sydney metropolitan area. It’s worth quoting a bit of what she said. 

In answer to a question on the operation of the Port Botany rail service she said:
“The Government is keenly aware of the nationally significant role that Port Botany and its infrastructure play insupporting an efficient freight network.  Container trade through Port Botany currently stands at around two million twenty-foot equivalent units per annum.  It is forecast to be 3.2 million by the mid 2020s but it is likely to be achieved sooner than that.  The Government is working to increase the proportion of containers in and out of the port by rail to manage the growth in freight trucks on our roads.  Currently around 14 per cent of containers are moved by rail.  Our target is to double that proportion.  The Government is keenly aware of the challenges it is facing.”

Within that paragraph, the Port Botany dog was shot twice. 

Let’s look at the ritual execution.

First. The Minister said: “It (container numbers) is forecast to be 3.2 million by the mid 2020s but it is likely to be achievedsooner than that.”

I’d like to remind the Minister that the 3.2 million TEU figure is not, I repeat not, a forecast.  It is a legally binding condition of consent laid down by the Department of Planning when the NSW Government gave approval for Terminal 3.

Forecasts, to use the Minister’s word, can change.  This, to me, is an indication that this government, like its predecessors and the State Owned Corporation, Sydney Ports Corporation, considers the 3.2 million legally imposed cap is nothing but a hindrance.

We well remember the NSW Department of Transport submission to Infrastructure Australia, which publicly acknowledged that Sydney Ports Corporation and the NSW Government were working towards an annual container throughput at Port Botany of around seven million TEUs.

Indeed, the Greiner-inspired article in last week’s The Australian Financial Review said that the intended number of containers by 2030-31 was 7.5 million.

Only two months ago, I discussed how any sale of Sydney Ports Corporation, which was previewed in the State Budget, must include strict adherence to the conditions of consent that were given for all operations including Terminal 3.

As a State Owned Corporation, Sydney Ports Corporation must adhere to State laws. And that’s what any potential private owner must also do.

My concern has been heightened by a flow of comments and suggestions I have been getting recently that Sydney Ports Corporation may seek a variation to the conditions of consent to increase the 3.2 million TEU cap.

If it does, and given the absence of any effective transport planning, which has been sadly lacking for many years and from many ministers of the Crown, this Council should take every legal step it can tostop a move that could strangle our City and make the life of many of our residents a living hell.

Now, the Minister’s second bullet fired into the dog.  She said: “Currently around 14 per cent of containers are moved by rail.  Our target is to double that proportion.”

She has told two truths.  First, the percentage moved by rail.  What began as 25 per cent dropped to 17 per cent and is now at 14 per cent. Second, her pledge, or aim – “Our target is to double that proportion.”

Doubling means 28 per cent. If we all remember – and we surely do – successive ministers for transport, for ports, even premiers kept up the mantra that 40 per cent was the rail target.

I always knew 40 per cent was farcical. It was an honourable aim, a target.  But that’s all.

As almost a coupe de grace, the Minister added: “… I am also pleased to report that the doubling of the proportion target is due by 2020 and it is part of our New South Wales 2021 Plan.” 

I went to the New South Wales Plan 2021 – the latest edition of one of the more meaningless government documents – and it is there, on page 39 under the target for “Enhance Rail Freight Movement”.  There you find: “Double the proportion of container freight movement by rail through NSW ports by 2020.” 

Rail out of Port Kembla or the Port of Newcastle focus on bulk coal not containers and thus this honourable target from the honourable minister must relate to Port Botany. 

Channelling Marc Antony on the steps of the Roman Senate, the Minister has come not to praise the mythical 40 per cent – but to bury it. 

At least she had the honesty to do that. And, for that I give her credit. 

Let’s do some maths.  At the “forecast” of 3.2 million containers, 14 per cent means 480,000 containers by rail – and 2,720,000 by road. Doubling it, and I’ll give them a bit of leeway, means 960,000 by rail – and 2,240,000 by road. 

That’s a lot of truck movements down Foreshore Road to either the M5East or Southern Cross Drive. 

I have discussed many times the resultant road congestion, the pollution, the noise, the road danger and many other things that will flow from such road numbers. Suffice it to say – it would be disastrous for us and the rest of Sydney. 

But let’s extrapolate – and use the Minister’s forecasts and projections – in the case of a real possibility of an increase in the overall cap. 

Seven million containers through Port Botany.  If the Minister’s illusory State Plan numbers come into reality – 2,100,000 containers by rail and 4,900,000 by road. 

Given State Government infrastructure planning – both what we’ve seen and what we’ve been promised – these sorts of container numbers would strangle Sydney and create a permanent pollution cloud.

But who is to say the Government will meet its State Plan targets – they haven’t been met in the past. 

Say they get to 20 per cent.  That means 1,400,000 containers by rail and 5,600,000 by road. 

And where do the boxes go? The Enfield intermodal is underway but it can’t meet the sort of demand that is projected. 

Moorebank.The Federal Department of Finance is still studying the Moorebank intermodal – as did the Howard Government, the Carr Government, the Iemma Government and those that followed. 

Has one sod been turned at Moorebank?  The answer, after years of studies, plans, strategies, reviews and the like, is a resounding “NO!” 

Is it any wonder there is frustration in this Council and among our residents. 

Everyone talks and plans – but no one actually does anything. 

At least, this current Minister for Transport has, as I’ve acknowledged, told us the truth. 

And, in doing so, she definitely shot her own dog. 

1 comment:

  1. Spot on. See comment

    Lynda Newnam