Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Going underground

The State Government last week sought a bit of a fanfare about the possible construction of a new underground heavy rail line below the Brisbane CBD with a new underground station at Albert Street. The infrastructure commitment should be welcomed but before we get too excited, maybe we should first ask ourselves a few questions about the economics of it all?

The idea of new underground heavy rail lines to connect with the commuter rail system of south east Queensland isn’t new. I can even recall some 15 years ago proposing just that in a policy paper for the Property Council, which identified new stations in the CBD as a critical element in making use of rail transit more user friendly. The existing CBD stations, we argued, were barely CBD at all. Roma Street station is well off-centre, and ‘Central’ station is inappropriately named because it is far from ‘central’ to the core of CBD workers, students or regular visitors in modern Brisbane.

The ‘modern’ Brisbane has concentrated its CBD workforce largely on the south eastern side of Queen Street, toward to the river. This large concentration of office and retail workers are prime candidates for public transport. They typically have regular work hours (great for service scheduling) and being concentrated in a CBD location, it works for the ‘hub and spoke’ nature of public transport systems. But the location of the nearest rail station – Central – is just that bit of a stretch in hot or wet weather if it means walking 300 or more metres, up-hill, to get to your train.

So logically a new underground station (or even two) which brings the convenience of commuter rail closer to the office should encourage more people to make use public transport. In terms of improved workplace amenity, the idea has plenty going for it. If you owned office buildings anywhere along the river edge of the Golden Triangle, you’d welcome this initiative with open arms and beg the Government to fast track the proposal.

So it could indeed be a great idea. But there are few unanswered questions about the economics of heavy rail commuter transport which should deserve equally enthusiastic investigation of the evidence.

For starters, we don’t seem to have much of a plan when it comes to the real cost of public transport – especially the City Train network. The latest Government figures show that every trip, by each and every commuter on the City Train network, is now subsidized to the tune of $10. That’s per trip, so for every daily return trip, the taxpayer is forking over $20 per commuter. And that’s after commuters have paid their fare – remember it’s only the subsidy. Worse news is that the numbers of patrons are falling – from 60.7 million to 57 million in a year. (Worth reading the articleTaxpayers' share of rail fares increases, while CityTrain passengers continue to decline” in The Courier Mail, June 15, 2010).

The concern here would be that unless some of the fundamental economics of this failed pricing model are sorted, more commuters may only mean more subsidies and more taxes for the taxpayer. In short, there doesn’t seem to be an economy of scale: if more people caught the train under the present system, it could cost us more in subsidies, not less.

Ironically, an online poll taken in connection with the above story revealed that 79% of respondents (out of 824) claim that train fares are already too high. This is especially ironic for two reasons: commuters with jobs in the CBD market are, on average, paid more than their suburban counterparts; and commuters who use the rail service are increasingly drawn from more affluent inner city and middle ring suburbs. The proportion of public transport users who begin their journey in low income, outer suburbs, is small compared to the increasing proportion of those who find it a handy (as opposed to necessary or low cost) way to get to work.

The evidence for this is found in studies by people such as Dr Paul Rees, School of Global Studies, Social Science & Planning at RMIT, and others. Various studies increasingly point to a rising correlation between rail (and tram in the case of Melbourne) use and proximity to central city workplaces. Put crudely, big chunks of that $10 each way subsidy are being paid for by low and middle income taxpayers with jobs in the suburbs (far from convenient train stations) so higher paid central city workers can have access to a convenient form of transport from their inner city or middle ring home, to work.

As for the mooted new underground rail network, according to the Premier, it is going to service “Toowong, West End, the city, Newstead, Bowen Hills, Bulimba and Hamilton North Shore.” These are hardly what you’d describe as working class neighbourhoods.

A further question needs to be raised about the potential growth in commuter rail traffic, notwithstanding the convenience of a new CBD station. With the exception of the new line to Springfield, there are no new lines being laid and no new stations proposed. The catchment populations around the various train stations that form the City Train network are variously touted as ‘TOD’ (transit friendly development) zones but other than this new denomination, there’s been precious little development activity to show for a decade of discussion.

Even with the best will in the world, simply building more housing around train stations won’t mean more commuters to the CBD because most of the jobs are in the suburbs in the first place. I am unaware of any State Planning Policy which aims to concentrate more office and retail workers in the CBD (indeed the pressure is on to decentralize). And without more workers in the CBD, there are simply not going to be more commuters wanting to go there. So you can have more housing around train stations throughout the metropolitan area but this won’t mean more people working in the city – unless there’s also going to be more jobs in the city (or the mode share rises).

An additional handbrake on increasing patronage of the heavy rail network is that even getting to a suburban train station in order to catch the train isn’t easy. If you live more than a kilometre from a train station (which means the overwhelmingly majority of all residents) you would need to drive your car to a station. But stations have precious little in the way of parking for these commuters, and nearby residents justifiably object to having their streets turned into kerbside carparks for daily rail commuters. This is one of many practical realities holding back increases in mode share of rail as a percentage of all commuter trips. That proportion has remained stubbornly fixed at under 10% of all trips for Brisbane (rail and bus and ferry combined) while for the CBD the mode share sits at some 45% of all commuter trips (bus, rail and ferry combined).

[Finding impartial rail commuter statistics isn’t easy. There are a host of rail proponents and rail agencies and various transport studies designed to promote public transport who in turn churn out all sorts of figures to support their case. Independent, non partisan material is less easy to source].

So while the notion of a new underground rail line with a new CBD station sounds like a terrific idea, you’d hope that those who are responsible for spending our money will be doing some hard numbers on the feasibility. This cross river rail project is mooted to cost something like $8.2 billion dollars in today’s terms. By the time they get around to building it, it will no doubt cost more.

Even if the cross river rail and new station managed to achieve the optimistic result of 100,000 new rail commuters, that still works out to $82,000 per extra commuter. And if those commuters are to continue to be further subsidised to the tune of $10 per trip, each way, every day, this could be the sort of infrastructure initiative which ends up costing the community a great deal.

You’d hope the numbers are being rationally, dispassionately and independently done, and the questions being asked. For example:

  • How many extra rail commuters will the new line and CBD station realistically generate?

  • What extra workforce would be required in the CBD to support a rise in new rail commuters? (100,000 extra rail commuters to the CBD could require, at 15 sq.m per person, 1.5 million square metres of office space, or another 25 Waterfront Place towers. Is this realistic?)

  • What public transport alternatives are available, and how do those costs compare? (The bus system relies on a lower passenger subsidy than rail, plus largely uses existing road infrastructure and routes can be expanded largely without the sort of investment required of rail. What would even a $1billion investment in the bus system do, by comparison?)

Food for thought.