AT a Property Council of Australia lunch in Newcastle on Friday, a hall full of business types were gathered to hear Laurent Offroy, the head of Keolis Downer’s bid to build the city’s light rail project, expound on the virtues of light rail and his company’s vision for the city.
Offroy did this, but he also questioned the validity of light rail in a city the size of Newcastle. His comments were so surprising that Newcastle Herald reporter Michael McGowan went up to him afterwards seeking clarification. Offroy happily spoke at length, on tape, to McGowan, who then reported the executive’s doubts, setting off the public relations version of an improvised explosive device inside both Keolis Downer and the Baird government.
Talk about derailing a plan!
A few scenarios ran through my head at the time, but five days later I am as confused about things now as I was last week. My initial suspicion was that Offroy was saying these things with the government’s tacit permission, because Macquarie Street was getting cold feet over light rail and was using Keolis Downer to help start the process of softening up public opinion.
But within minutes of McGowan ringing the government to get a response on Offroy’s unexpected utterances, the company began running a million miles from the comments, saying it remained wedded to light rail, and that Keolis had built light rail in Newcastle-sized cities across its home country of France. And to back it up, Transport Minister Andrew Constance was similarly gung-ho, saying it was light rail all the way, no ifs, no buts.
Given that reaction, I wondered if the government had still known what Offroy was going to say, but for some reason it developed cold feet on the idea and effectively hung Keolis Downer out to dry.
Part of me believes that something like this must have been the case, because I don’t believe in surprises when it comes to this level of politics and business. People in Offroy’s position don’t make the sort of potentially catastrophic mistake that he appears to have made if we are to believe that this is some sort of accidental pile up.
As it happens, the reason I initially suspected government approval for Offroy’s comments was that managers from Keolis Downer and another likely bidder for the project had both told me, conversationally, that they believed the Newcastle project was too small to be useful, and too expensive to justify when you calculate how many buses you could buy for the cost of one light rail. Indeed, armed with this off-the-record information I asked Premier Mike Baird about this when he visited in December. His answer, which I reported at the time, was that light rail was a certainty, and he would be on the first carriage into town.
Me, I’m not sure, especially given that Wickham was first announced as a bus option and light rail was a surprise announcement a year later. In this light, the idea of a high-patronage light rail running beside a bus system that sends hundreds of buses up and down Hunter Street each day looks like overkill.
This is, as the Chinese saying goes, an interesting time. Perhaps Keolis Downer’s unexpected admission – regardless of its background – will lead to the government into building a real light rail system, joining Newcastle University and John Hunter Hospital, at least.
Otherwise, we have two less than ideal options: a light rail to nowhere, or a truncated heavy rail system with nothing to replace it. Gloomy, huh?