Thinking again about the common wealth


It seems that in recent weeks politicians and the media have discovered something that has been evident for some time: so little attention has been paid to building and maintaining the nation’s infrastructure that we are on the point of turning into a third world country. We are running out of water, we are running out of port capacity, we are running out of room on our rail system. Successive governments have somehow assumed that things can just keep on going much as they always have – even though our population has doubled in the past fifty years.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

The foundations for Australia’s twentieth century prosperity were built brick on brick in the nineteenth century and during the early years of Federation. But modern governments have barely managed to repair the mortar. Since the 1960s politicians of most persuasions have shown a distinct lack of interest in that unfashionable thing – nation building. I mean nation-building as in building the nation’s physical assets. Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating were good at making us think differently about ourselves, good at changing social and economic structures. But the only things that most governments appear interested in building are roads and airports, and those are increasingly left to private enterprise.

And in any case, can anyone seriously argue that roads are good for us? Clogging our cities with cars, destroying air quality, creating unbearable noise, they erode any sense of the city, the polis, as a place of communal gathering.

Peter Hartcher, writing recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, said that keeping the machinery of government going, keeping things running as usual, was the job of bureaucrats. We elected politicians, he said, to make the hard decisions about our future directions and future needs, and they were failing us. How true it is.

So what can we do about it?

On Sunday I was at a public meeting in my local town of Bundanoon. The Soldiers’ Memorial Hall (one of those solid, half-handsome, half-ugly community buildings that used to be built back in the days when it was still thought okay to spend money on something as economically unviable as a place for public gatherings) was filled to capacity. People had given up a glorious Sunday afternoon to discuss how to stop the State Government’s latest round of rail cuts. Yes, yes, we’ve heard it all before; what place hasn’t had its train service cut; what’s the point of arguing; who gives a damn; it’s too late, it’s all been decided etc etc. As a populace we’ve become an apathetic lot, barely bothering to moan when one more thing is taken away from us.

But in Bundanoon they are angry. I was reminded of that famous line: ‘We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more’. To fill you in, Bundanoon’s rail service is already a mere shadow of what it was a decade ago. From September it will almost cease to exist. Apart from one or two trains the service will be replaced by buses, and those infrequently. A trip to Sydney that takes two hours by train (if the driver has turned up at work and the trains are on time) will take more than three hours and require three changes of transport. It will take longer to get to Sydney by public transport than it did nearly a hundred years ago. This is progress?

The reasons given: The Bundanoon signal box is being upgraded, so trains won’t be able to start and stop from there any more (They call this upgrading!) And the nineteenth century Melbourne-to-Sydney rail line is busy with freight and there’s not room for the passenger trains on the track. These two reasons put up by the State Government are an admission of failure. Here is a Government that cannot equip the State with technology that allows a train to move from one track to another. Here is a Government (or two, if you include the Victoria Government) that has failed to build the capacity of the busiest rail corridor in the country.

The way in which governments have essentially handed over our rail lines to private corporations is, I believe, one of the gravest, most scandalous and least reported aspects of the ‘privatisation industry’ of recent years. We are still called the Commonwealth of Australia, but what will be left of our common wealth?

The third reason given by the Government for taking away our trains was that not enough people were using them. That is probably true, but given the complete mess that the passenger train system in NSW is in – cancelled trains, chronic lateness, filthy carriages, reduced services – is it any wonder that people who can drive will do so rather than risk being stranded on State Rail for five hours? (This happens quite often). The trip by car to Sydney can now take as little as 90 minutes, in part because of the privately built M5 tollway. But it costs – in ever-more-expensive fuel and in tolls. The end result is that people who can afford to, drive. Those who can’t, get stuck with public transport. It is an iniquitous situation and becoming more so.

One woman at the meeting on Sunday told how she moved from the South Coast up here to the Southern Highlands because she needed to be near a rail line and the State Government at the time was talking about electrifying the line to Moss Vale. Ho, ho, ho! Those were the days – when governments talked about investing in public infrastructure, in providing services.

Meanwhile, the M5 highway – opened only a couple of years ago – is already up to its maximum capacity, which it wasn’t meant to reach until 2011.

The buses we are to be provided with instead of our trains will take us to Moss Vale, where we will change to a train to Campbelltown, where we will change to another train into the Sydney CBD. I wonder how many people will use this excellent service? One would hardly use it by choice. I expect that in another five years, if we let the State Government get away with this, we will be told no one is using the buses so they will be cut, too. Where will that leave the old, the frail and the poor? They won’t even be able to get to Moss Vale to do their shopping or go to the dentist.

But the people of Bundanoon are angry. They believe that as citizens who pay their taxes they have as much right to a public transport service as do people in Sydney or Melbourne. They are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it any more.

Watch this space.

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