Sydney Morning Herald - Thursday 18 August 2005 - PAGE 1 - Lead

Railroaded: how train passengers got fed up and fled to the motorways

By Darren Goodsir, Urban Affairs Editor

Thousands of passengers have abandoned trains, their impatience with the shoddy service amounting to six million fewer trips on CityRail in the past year.

And they are voting not with their feet but their wheels: over the same period, traffic on Sydney's congested toll roads has grown apace, by as much as 4 per cent. The corresponding 2.1 per cent fall in train trips is more startling than the figure suggests. It defies the city's growing population and rising fuel costs.

The Transport Minister, John Watkins, has little doubt about why motorists keep pouring onto clogged roads. He believes it is a tide of aggrieved former rail commuters.

Mr Watkins told the Herald last night that restoring public confidence in the rail network remained his top priority, but he conceded it was a case of "once bitten, twice shy" when trying to tempt disgruntled passengers back onto trains.

On the toll roads, the largest growth has been experienced on the M2, up 4 per cent between April and May, compared with the same period last year.

M5 traffic has leapt by 3.1 per cent. This tollway shadows parts of the East Hills railway line, which is CityRail's worst performer for on-time running.

Government officials claim there has been a slight improvement in the number of passengers and in punctuality in recent weeks, with on-time running averaging between 70 and 80 per cent. That is still well short of the Government's target of 92 per cent. It is pinning its hopes on next month's new timetable, which will slash services in non-peak periods and make journey times slower. This will make its target easier to achieve.

But it has set no time frame, or benchmark, for attaining that figure - and has repeatedly stressed the new timetable is not a cure-all.

Mr Watkins said: "I am hoping that, as reliability returns, we can reverse the trend because, as reliability fell apart in 2004, that is when commuters started to leave the system. But we can't fix this overnight, and it is our challenge to deliver that."

The most recent published data show patronage slumped from 273 million train trips in the year ending June 2004 to 267 million trips in the past year. That is 111,000 fewer rail trips every week - one of the worst results in the past decade. Even with the recent improvements,

the complex nature of the rail network means it remains extremely vulnerable to massive failings. Last Friday, for instance, commuters endured serious delays. Only 47 per cent of morning services ran on time, and only 31 per cent of afternoon journeys arrived within five minutes of their schedule.

Mr Watkins said three factors - safety, comfort, and, most importantly, enhanced reliability - held the key to reversing the network's fortunes.

Last weekend, Mr Watkins released the results of a Ministry of Transport survey that compared the costs of motor vehicle use with public transport.

It was the first in a series of measures aimed at persuading commuters to give train travel another chance. A $900,000 television and radio advertising campaign has also been unveiled.

Despite the grim train figures, bus patronage appears to be steady. There have been suggestions that the move last year to make private bus fares cheaper by bringing them into line with State Transit Authority ticket prices might have led to a rise in patronage on some routes.


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