THE RELEASE in September of an interim report from the inquiry into sustainable transport in New South Wales poses the threat of a substantial reduction in the current level of subsidy for Sydney’s CityRail commuter trains, and perhaps even more so for Countrylink’s skeletal passenger services. Together, the trains consume most of the A$2·1bn/year that underpins all forms of public transport in the state, including concessionary fares.

October 10 was the deadline for responses, and Professor Tom Parry of the Independent & Regulatory Tribunal - appointed by NSW Transport Services Minister Michael Costa to chair the inquiry - will present politicians with tough decisions on the fares structure and withdrawing country passenger trains when he issues his final report next month.

Meanwhile, NSW’s obsessively reorganised railway is coming to terms with yet another upheaval announced by Costa on August 21. In place of State Rail Authority, which runs CityRail and Countrylink on track leased from NSW Rail Infrastructure Corp, a new organisation will package CityRail with that part of RIC responsible for the infrastructure that its trains use.

After resisting pressure for several years from the federal government in Canberra to hand control of interstate routes in NSW to Australian Rail Track Corp, Costa finally agreed with the Commonwealth Transport Minister John Anderson in August that ARTC could lease all lines in NSW except those used by CityRail. The deal includes freight tracks in the Sydney area that give access to the ports, and the Hunter Valley heavy haul coal corridor to Newcastle.

However, critical details such as who provides signallers and train crew are yet to be agreed with the unions, and safety standards will continue to be set by the NSW Transport Safety & Reliability Regulator. Despite completion of the long-sought link to Darwin, Australia remains some way short of a national network of interstate lines on which private operators can move freight economically to common technical and safety standards.