Fixed seats on new inter-city trains should have been revealed earlier

A mock-up of the new carriages to run on the Newcastle to Sydney line.
A mock-up of the new carriages to run on the Newcastle to Sydney line.

WHEN plans for a new fleet of double-decker trains for the Newcastle-to-Sydney and other regional lines were first unveiled, the emphasis, from the state government’s point of view, was on passenger comfort.

Transport for NSW was promising wider seats with arm rests, charging stations for digital devices, and built-in digital screens. The carriages would, of course, be air-conditioned, with dedicated space for luggage, prams, bicycles and wheelchairs, as well as accessible toilets. Everything a modern train should boast, in other words.

But right through the planning stages, and beyond the letting of the manufacturing contract in 2016, there have been concerns that the seats might not be of the reversible type that have been more or less the norm over the years for NSW trains. Now, after a freedom-of-information push, it has been revealed that the seats on the South Korean-built trains are indeed fixed, leading to complaints by a commuter group, Action for Public Transport, and the NSW Labor opposition. The internal government documentation that has now come to light reveals bureaucrats opted for fixed seats despite a clear passenger preference for the reversible types. The documents say that no “proven design solution meets safety requirements”, an observation that would seem to call into question the “safety requirements” for existing carriages. Cost also seems to have been a factor.

 But rather than acknowledge these factors as an issue at the design stage, the government appears to have decided to bluff its way through. But to what end? 

Knowing that NSW passengers have become accustomed to a particular mode of seating, the government would have always known that this would blow up as an issue sooner or later. On this basis, coming clean early on, and explaining  a fairly major departure from expected standards – even if the rest of the train is world class – would probably have avoided the present angst.

Instead, the government finds itself in another situation where it appears to have ignored the preferences of its public. The length of this contract means that two transport ministers – Gladys Berejiklian and Andrew Constance – have had time to address the issue.

It’s not quite another Ferry McFerryface, but it doesn’t win the government any brownie points, either.

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