Why Sydney Found Itself Looking Up At A Monorail

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday April 29, 1988


WHEN Laurie Brereton emerged from a Cabinet-sub-committee meeting on July 12 1985, officially there were two main contenders in the race for Sydney’s”people-mover” to Darling Harbour. But, in reality, the decision already had been made.

It mattered little that debate raged within Labor Government ranks for another three months over whether transport monorail or transport light rail was the better option. Argument was useless. Sydney was destined to get a monorail.

Extensive Government departmental and Cabinet documents, obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald, reveal for the first time the inside story of the monorail decision.

They include an environmental report on the monorail which Neville Wran and, later, Barrie Unsworth refused to reveal for fear it would create such controversy that the Government would have to bow to public pressure to scrap it.

They also reveal that the monorail’s greatest asset over its rival, being built and operated at no cost to the public purse, was only arrived at by a Government concession on its route.

This raises serious doubts about the ability of the new Government to reroute the monorail, due to the cost of having to subsidise TNT for its continued operation.

The documents show that the Government, in particular the Public Works Department, under the control of Brereton, appears to have thrown up obstacles to the light-rail (or tram) idea.

The full story of the monorail is a battle between two Government departments – Planning and Environment in one corner, Public Works in the other.

At a higher level, it is battle between two old friends, Laurie Brereton and Bob Carr.

Like the decision on the Sydney Harbour tunnel, there is no doubt who won. Brereton, with the backing of Wran, bulldozed all opposition. The argument over which system would be chosen was over even before the fight had been called.

Just weeks before the monorail is due to open, there still is no clear reason why it was selected over other systems. The documents reveal that examination of other systems, particularly the light-rail proposal, was cosmetic and never given what one former minister called “a fair go”. The monorail was always a fait accompli.

In May, 1984, Wran announced his plans for redeveloping Darling Harbour in time for our 200th-birthday party, and made vague mention of a transport system. The Government engaged consultants Pak-Poy and Kneebone Ltd, and the company’s first report the following month said a “people-mover” was unnecessary. The newly-established Darling Harbour Authority (DHA)nevertheless invited expressions of interest after identifying Kent Street as its “primary” route.

Five potential developers responded and were ranked on technical grounds by Pak-Poy – which again criticised the “people-mover” in its second report in January 1985 – while the Premier’s Department engaged consultants to assess the financial implications of each option. The DHA added the light-rail proposal which, Brereton maintained this week, was at his insistence.

Insiders say the first submission from Transfield/Comeng for its light rail connecting Central Station, the back of Darling Harbour and Wynyard Station was so poor the consortium was asked to develop its idea. In the end – when it had fine-tuned the proposal and offered to connect it to Circular Quay at no cost to the Government – light rail had become a viable and popular system. But it did not stand a chance.

Supporters of light rail in the Labor Government first resigned themselves to the inevitability of a monorail when the “people-mover” was taken out of the hands of two non-ministerial committees early in 1985 and put into the hands of a special Cabinet sub-committee, under the spell of Laurie Brereton.

The Inter-Departmental Committee, comprising the then director of Public Works, Wal Pilz, the then secretary of the Department of Transport, Gordon Messiter, the then general-manager of the DHA, Hank Laan, and and the director of the Department of Planning and Environment, Dick Smyth, was not given the chance of a second meeting.

Arguments between Pilz and Smyth over the monorail meant the”people-mover” became immediately the domain of the sub-committee, comprising Carr, the present Leader of the Opposition, the then Minister for Transport, Barrie Unsworth, and Brereton.

At the same time, responsibility for the “people-mover” was taken from the Quality Review Committee of the Darling Harbour Authority which included Professor Neville Quarry of the NSW Institute of Technology, Andrew Andersons, the assistant State Government architect, and Ken Woolley, a noted Sydney architect. Quarry said this week the official reason was that transport was a metropolitan matter and, therefore, was out of the the jurisdiction of the committee.

“We did not favour the light-rail proposal but we made sure we gave it every opportunity for a hearing. It began as a hopeless option but the notion was certainly workable towards the end,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the review committee questioned the advisability of a monorail.”

Quarry, who still is chairman of that committee, said that while his own view of the monorail was not so harsh these days, he certainly was against the system while it remained with the committee.

Following the transfers, negotiations with TNT did not proceed smoothly. The Government was concerned at the need for supplementary buses and trains to Darling Harbour on special-event days. It knew the system never had been proved in a comparable urban situation, and worried over the monorail’s environmental difficulties.

A financial assessment by the Macquarie Hill Samuel Corporate Services received a month before the monorail was announced, was used by Brereton in his attempts to persuade Cabinet.

However, in her report to Cabinet on the assessment, a senior public servant with the DEP, Helen Reid, complained that the monorail was “not as clearly defined as the report indicates and could also involve delays to the project or concessions by the Government”. Reid’s report said light rail offered “the best long-term solution” for Sydney.

This week, Brereton stuck by the Macquarie assessment.

“I was not aware of any complaint by the Department of Environment and Planning about the financial aspect of TNT’s proposal. The fact is that the financial aspects of both the light rail and the monorail proposal were the subject of a specific independent assessment by the Macquarie Bank which recommended the monorail.”

However, Reid’s report shows there were a number of risks to the Government in approving the monorail. These included no control on fares paid by patrons, and its impact on existing transport systems. It shows the legislation enacted for the monorail was, in part, to preclude compensation claims and court challenges associated with the transport system and that the Labor Government expected “large and prolonged opposition to the project”.

“Perceptions of the structure as ‘intrusive’, ‘ugly’, ‘exciting’ or’innovative’ will tend to be very subjective but the size of opposition on environmental grounds will certainly be very significant,” the report says.

By September 30, just three weeks before Cabinet took its controversial decision, a confidential DEP minute paper identified the light-rail proposal in glowing terms. It was the “best long-term solution as it ties together Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and the two transport modes of Central and Wynyard.” Such advice went unheeded.

When Brereton and his 19 colleagues met in the cloistered Cabinet room the next month, there was no fight. This was a different meeting to that which considered the Sydney Harbour Tunnel six months later. There, Ron Mulock and Peter Cox had waged war against Laurie Brereton and Barrie Unsworth over the$425-million tunnel.

But not so with the monorail.

Ministers knew which transport option Wran favoured and Brereton, his main numbers man, had been working long and hard to ensure what decision would be made. When the monorail minute arrived, there was no discussion, no opposition. Although Carr this week denied the vote had been that smooth, another former minister recalled there was not even a whimper.

Ministerial correspondence and reports suggest that Brereton exaggerated the faults of the light rail. When Carr wrote to Brereton just days before the Cabinet meeting, he urged him to take more time to examine all the implications of the monorail over the light-rail proposal.

“From the evidence to date, it does not seem as if the light rail proposal to serve Darling Harbour has been positively examined in all quarters,” Carr wrote. “Instead, all sorts of obstacles appear to have been raised without any attempt to get all the parties together to solve the problems.

“It seems to me that there is ample evidence available in this country that light-rail transit can be installed at relatively low cost and without the large-scale disruptions to services envisaged by the Director of Public Works

“In view of the potential controversy this project could create, it is essential, in my view, that our Cabinet colleagues have a full appreciation of the implications of proceeding with it.”

This week, Carr said he did not recall the letter: “I would need to look at the files. In the whole process of discussing any matter, there is a lot of toing and froing of correspondence and my answer really depends on what stage of the debate the letter was sent.” Told his letter was dated three days before the Cabinet meeting, he said: “I would really need to look at the files.”

There is no doubt that Carr was the monorail’s main opponent within Cabinet. Months before Brereton announced the monorail, Carr’s director, Smyth, had told him that a government would one day win an election by campaigning to reroute the monorail. Carr knew there would be stiff opposition to the plan, yet sources say the crucial Cabinet meeting passed without comment from Carr. Ironically, it was Carr’s department that recommended legislating for the monorail. One of his former advisers said: “Any EIS(Environmental Impact Statement) would have crucified it. There was no way it could remain within the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.”

Asked this week whether Brereton had bulldozed the monorail through, he said: “No, I don’t think so. I think today it’s getting harder to know what the fuss was all about.”

While Carr complained that Brereton had been unfair with the light-rail proposal, the DEP found that TNT’s favoured monorail route was unacceptable. A departmental minute dated three weeks before the Cabinet meeting found that as”TNT nominated route is not acceptable, the favoured financial package fails. TNT can now withdraw or propose an alternative route. For the people-mover project to proceed it is most likely that the Government will need to bear some underwriting risk or level of cost”.

Days later, Brereton acknowledged to Transfield by letter that he accepted that the light-rail consortium “would amend its previous position so as not to require the Government to bear the cost of movement of utilities”. However, there was no mention of this amendment in the crucial Cabinet minute.

This week, Brereton claimed that the fact the monorail could be built at no cost to the Government was an important consideration but was no means main factor.

“There were a number of advantages the monorail had over the tram proposal, including the fact that it was elevated and avoided traffic conflict in an already congested city; it connected with the key public transport facilities at Town Hall and the centre of the City; that it was a modern, quiet, fast and pollution-free form of transport.”

With the Cabinet meeting drawing closer, there still were serious and substantial reservations regarding the monorail. Increasingly, the financial considerations which Brereton insisted were in TNT’s favour did not add up.

“TNT will not supply any financial details of the people-mover system because as owner/operators they are taking all the commercial risks at no cost to Government,” Reid said in her minute.

“Without any financial details, there are a number of risks to (the)Government. What happens to the system if TNT walks away? No control on fares paid by patrols. Impact on existing transport system.”

They were questions which remained unanswered and, without public explanation, Transfield/Comeng withdrew from the race the day before the Cabinet meeting. Another DEP minute said the withdrawal had been announced to Brereton’s office by Transfield but recorded that staff at Comeng were”amazed” by the decision.

A DEP ministerial briefing note, written by Smyth, commented on the withdrawal: “It is noted that following the receipt by Transfield/Comeng of a letter from the Minister for Public Works enclosing estimates of costs for moving utilities, the consortium apparently decided to withdraw.

“It is significant that the advice contained in these letters is at variance with the advice obtained by this Department from the Water Board indicating that all of the utility estimates could have been based on a ‘worst case’ situation. The approach to the utilities appears to have been carried out in isolation and without round table consultation, seeking the best transport solution.”

Smyth warned there still were doubts with the monorail: “If the project should fail during construction or operation, the Government will bear the consequences. The proposal was not subjected to the same detailed investigation as was carried out for the light-rail proposal and was not referred to any of the utilities for comment, on the grounds that TNT would meet all service relocation costs.”

Carr’s letter to Brereton accuses him of using “some exaggerated estimates of the cost of moving facilities”.

The light-rail consortium later contested the Brereton line. In one statement, consortium spokesman, Toby Prentice, said: “Transfield/Comeng did not ask for any subsidy from the Government. They asked that, in the the unlikely event of a certain minimum patronage not being achieved over a two-year period, the Government advance funds to cover the revenue shortfall.

“The amount advanced was to have been repaid with interest after the bank loan funding construction had been repaid. The minimum patronage sought was less than the patronage predicted for the system in an independent (survey)conducted for the consortium by consultants.”

This week, Brereton insisted that the light-rail proposal “could only have be built with massive Government subsidy”.

Transfield declined to comment this week. However, a senior source at the company said that it got to the point where the writing was on the wall.

“I guess when you realise that the decision has been made, that the politicians already have decided on something, there is no point wasting any more time or money over it.”

The task force, too, warned that expert advice indicated that “in no way could the monorail system be made environmentally or aesthetically acceptable, particularly in Pitt and Market streets”.

Monday, October 28 1985, was a quiet day at State Parliament. In Canberra, Malcolm Fraser had chosen to accept the Australian Government post to implement policy on South Africa. Close to 5pm, Parliament House, Macquarie Street, came alive. Brereton emerged to announce the Government had chosen the$40-million TNT monorail.

Subsequent calls for a public inquiry were met with responses from Brereton that there already had been full and exhaustive evaluation over a 10-month period.



May: Neville Wran enacts special legislation to establish a Darling Harbour Authority giving Minister for Public Works final say not Minister for Planning and Environment; People-mover muted; Wran announces $200 million would be spent on Darling Harbour, including an exhibition centre, harbourside park and Chinese landscape garden.

July: Confidential report commissioned by Ministry of Transport, The Darling Harbour Transport Plan, by consultants Pak-Poy and Kneebone Ltd recommends against people-mover.

November: People-mover now being referred to as monorail. Brereton says he is “particularly keen personally” to see the incorporation of a monorail into Darling Harbour.

December: Five transport systems being considered for people-mover. Pak-Poy asked to forget reservations for its, People-Mover Feasibility Study, which contains further criticism of a people-mover.


May: Six companies submit tenders to build people-movers, Government announces; Talks begin over what type of people-mover to have.

June: Eight people-mover proposals shortlisted.

July: Architects, planners and the National Trust express serious concern about impact of the elevated people mover through inner-city. Five proposals submitted to the DHA.

August: Third Pak-Poy report contains numerous criticisms of monorail.

September: Cabinet sub-committee investigates people-mover; Department of Environment and Planning expresses reservations over monorail and requests more detailed analysis; TNT blueprints unveiled; National Trust says it favours light rail.

October: TNT wins people-mover bid. Brereton says special legislation would be passed to guarantee system finished by January 1, 1988.


Cost: Estimated in 1985 at $40 million. Now $60 million.

Route: Loop around Darling Harbour, Liverpool Street, Pitt Street and Market Street. 3.6 kilometres.

Journey time: 12 minutes.

Fare: $1.

Carrying capacity: 5,000 an hour.

Design: Overhead slim trains. Described as whisper quiet.

History: Never before tested in a comparable urban environment.

Construction: Was contracted to be completed by January 1, this year. Is now expected to be completed by late next month.


Cost: Estimated at $20 million cheaper than monorail.

Route: From Central Station to Darling Harbour to Wynyard under Margaret Street. Provision to extend to Circular Quay. 6.9 kilometres.

Fare: 60 cents.

Journey time: 20 minutes.

Carrying capacity: More than 8,000 an hour.

Design: Sleek, space-age trams running on the ground. Described as almost noiseless.

History: The choice for many new urban transport systems in many overseas cities.

Construction: In 1985, was expected by the consortium to be completed by mid-1987.

© 1988 Sydney Morning Herald

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