NEWCASTLE light rail's standard fare has increased by four times the amount recommended by the NSW government's price setting tribunal, a Newcastle Herald investigation can reveal.
A corresponding increase has also been applied to the Stockton Ferry and bus journeys of three kilometres or less. On the positive side, a Transport for NSW fact sheet says it has introduced off-peak fares on buses and light rail, and halved the maximum weekend Opal card cost to $8.05.
On Sunday, the NSW government marked the opening of the Newcastle bus interchange at the old Store building, and a new system-wide set of public transport fares took effect from Monday. These included a new fare for the Newcastle light rail, taking it from $2.24 for a single journey to a new price of $3.20, adding 96 cents to the price, an increase of almost 43 per cent.
When the Herald checked with the fare determination published in February by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART), it was clear the tribunal recommended four annual increases of 24 cents for the Newcastle light rail, the short bus journeys and the Stockton Ferry, not 96 cents in one go.
Under IPART's recommendation, Monday's fare rise would have been to $2.48. From July next year the fare would go to $2.72, then $2.96 for 2022-23, with the full increase to $3.20 not kicking in until July 2023.
The 43 per cent increase is despite the government and IPART both saying the new fare schedules were calculated to bring about an average fare increase of 5 per cent a year.
IPART's February determination acknowledged that the 0-3km fares were rising by more than 5 per cent, but this refers to its recommended rise of 24 cents - an increase of just under 11 per cent.
IPART does substantial economic modelling before setting maximum fares, including the impact that price changes are likely to have on passenger movements. Despite this, a key document in the February decision confirms that IPART modelled only three Newcastle bus routes but not the Newcastle light rail or the Stockton ferry.
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Much of the modelling was done last year, and the February publication meant COVID-19 - which is driving some of the government's fare changes - was not considered by IPART.
Asked about the way the government had introduced the increases, a spokesperson for IPART said the government could not lift fares beyond the maximum determined by IPART, but it could decide not to accept other parts of the tribunal's recommendations.
The spokesperson said that having lifted the fare immediately to the 2024 maximum, the government could not lift the fare again during the four-year period covered by the determination.
A Transport for NSW spokesperson said the new price rises complied with IPART's recommendations.
"The government has decided to increase the 0-3km bus and light rail fares to $3.20 during peak periods to encourage active transport and alleviate crowding on these services during peak times," Transport for NSW said.
The spokesperson said the new maximum fare was accompanied by a 30 per cent discount for off-peak travel, which had been increased to 50 per cent for three months because of COVID-19, cutting the off-peak fare to $1.60, or half the peak-hour fare. It would become $2.24 (the old full fare) in September.
A Transport for NSW fact sheet from June 19 said IPART had "considered the planned changes and found they did not exceed" its determined maximum fares.
A sample of light rail travellers who spoke with the Herald yesterday were generally unhappy with the way the prices had been increased, although some said the 96 cents a trip would not bother them financially.
A number of people said, though, that it was unfair for the light rail to charge the same price for a single stop as for a full journey, and that a time-based fare would be a fairer, especially if the government wanted people to use the light rail to go to and from shops along the route.
Brad Reeves, a painter between jobs from Newcastle East, was one such passenger yesterday. He noticed the price increase when he swiped his OPAL card on Monday. He said he used the light rail to shop at Marketown a couple of days a week, and the extra costs would soon add up.
"It's not right," he said.
Jade Mifsud, of Gwandalan, was on the tram with her younger son, seven-year-old Brody.
"I'm a single mother and I have to watch my spending very closely," Ms Mifsud said.
"A time-based fare, say for up to two hours, would be much better than this. If you were getting on and off it would cost you a fortune. We're only here for a school holiday day out but it's the sort of increase that would make you stop and think twice about using it."
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Newcastle Labor MP Tim Crakanthorp said it was an outrage that the government took the IPART decision and "twisted it" in the way that it acknowledged it had.
"The government can't honestly believe it is 'complying' with the determination when IPART said that price should not start for another four years," Mr Crakanthorp said.
"That means, in theory, that the government will collect far more revenue than the determination intended. We don't know what the actual impact on patronage will be, but the IPART decision was based around needing to manage a congested Sydney CBD public transport system.
"You can't turn around and apply the same reasoning to the Newcastle light rail, especially, because congestion is not an issue here. We need to encourage more people to use public transport, and increasing prices like this is not the way to do it.
"Passengers accept that modest fare increases are inevitable, but a massive increase of almost 43 per cent in one hit is pushing the friendship. It's irresponsible to be slugging workers with this exorbitant hike in the middle of a recession while the region is experiencing increasing unemployment.
"This week we've learned that this out-of-touch Liberal Government has awarded one of its ministers a $17,000 pay rise, while workers travelling between Wickham and Newcastle on the light rail or Stockton and Newcastle on ferry will be slugged an extra $400 each year in Opal fares."
Mr Crakanthorp was referring to reports the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, had re-designated Finance Minister Damien Tudehope as a "senior minister", taking his pay from $309,621 to $326,541.
IPART was founded in 1992 by the government of Liberal premier Nick Greiner, to "depoliticise" the setting of fares and charges including council rates, water rates and electricity charges, as well as public transport fares.
Although the February determination sets maximum fares for Newcastle, the document makes its Sydney focus clear.
"Sydney's public transport network is expanding with new metro and light rail services, as well as additional bus and rail services," the introduction says.
"Both passengers and the broader community will benefit as services become more convenient, comfortable and faster, and the city functions more efficiently. But costs are also rising.
"We want to ensure that fares are affordable to encourage people to use public transport - which also benefits the broader community - while also ensuring that the public transport network is sustainable over the long term."
The determination says single fares have risen by an average of 0.9 per cent a year for 10 years, against an inflation rate of 2.1 per cent, meaning the average single fare was now 12 per cent lower than if fares had increased in line with inflation. The full increases - introduced this week for the light rail, Stockton ferry and 0-3km bus trips - were designed to bring the average fare "back in line with inflation" by 2024.
The determination says expanding the public transport network has meant operating costs rising by about 7 per cent a year. Costs were outstripping any increase in revenue from greater patronage, meaning "fares continue to only recover around a quarter of the costs of public transport". Taxpayers paid the rest, equating to $4900 per NSW household, the third highest tax allocation after health and education.
IPART says 12 per cent of journeys in Sydney are made on public transport. No figure is given for Sydney but Newcastle City Council says the 2016 census showed that 3.8 per cent travelled to work that day by public transport, with 73.6 per cent travelling by private vehicle, 5.8 per cent cycling or walking and 3.5 working from home.
Passenger Lee Gardener of East Maitland said he was shielded as a disability pensioner but he had friends who had to pay full fare.
"It's not justified in one hit," Mr Gardener said. "If it's gradual then people are OK with it. But when people are watching every penny they spend, it would be a lot fairer if the government followed the IPART recommendations all round."
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