Melbourne: existing City Loop operation and train loadings for Northern and Caulfield loop lines showing lopsided loadings and potential for greater efficiency (Source: PTV Network Development Plan)

I’ve noted in recent weeks that the main parties in the current Victorian election campaign are guilty of making promises they very likely can’t keep; they’re either under-costed, under-funded, under-researched, or the timing is overly ambitious.

Strategic misrepresentation is bad for our political culture and should be called out, not ignored. But my purpose wasn’t to insist a party abides by all its promises if it wins government.

In fact I’d like to see it made easier for parties to walk away from stupid promises. The key problem with promises isn’t playing fast and loose with the truth about the cost or the timing in the lead up to an election; it’s that they’re often poor policy.

Their primary design criterion is winning an election, not maximising the benefits to the community or ensuring the benefits are distributed equitably. Even if the promising party seeks to be as upfront as it can on matters like cost, election undertakings almost always lack in-depth analysis.

An extreme example is then opposition leader Ted Baillieu’s promise to build a rail line to Avalon Airport during the 2010 election campaign. He said it would cost $250 million, but neglected to mention that the airport only hosted nine flights a day at the time (see Are Melburnians mad about trains?). (1)

The more usual case though is that the idea is good in concept but is lacking in execution. For example, Labor’s circa $8 billion promise to remove 50 level crossings over 8 years addresses a real problem (e.g. see Labor’s promise on level crossings: what are the issues?).

There’s little doubt there’re some crossings that should be removed, but the target of 50 was plucked from the air. The program isn’t based on an in-depth and arms-length analysis.

Neither Labor nor the public know if the benefits from (say) the last 10 or even the last 25 crossing removals are worth it or, for that matter, if they’d exceed the cost. It’s possible, perhaps probable, that there are better ways a lot of that $8 Billion could be spent.

If Labor wins Saturday’s election as expected, it’ll doubtless be reminded frequently that this is a rock solid promise. That’s unfortunate; I’d like to see it review the program and be prepared to amend it in accordance with the evidence. Since it’s unlikely it can deliver on the promise anyway, perhaps there’s hope (see Could an Andrews government really deliver on this promise?),

Labor has also promised to build the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel to the same design it left on the table when it was last in government. The purpose of the project is to increase capacity and improve reliability across the metropolitan network.

Like many other projects, the benefit-cost analysis for Metro wasn’t released to the public. It might still be the best option and it’s unusual in that a lot of work has already been done that Labor’s privy to.

It’s possible though that the extra work the Coalition put into its alternative approach, Melbourne Rail Link, brings some new information to the table that would produce a better solution.

Also, both the Greens and the Public Transport Users Association reckon that priority should be given to upgrading signalling on the network before building Metro. While signalling is also expensive, they say it would provide additional capacity at considerably lower cost than a tunnel and should be done first. (2)

Another approach proposed by reader Smith John is to extend some station platforms to accommodate nine car trains and use the city loop more efficiently by connecting the Northern and Caulfield loop lines via short tunnels. Public Transport Victoria proposes in its Network Development Plan that the latter be done in Stage 4 i.e. “within 20 years”.

Labor could also improve a lot on its $100 million promise to improve suburban bus services if it wins government. Some of what’s proposed is good and the rhetoric’s there, but mostly it’s responding to a long list of local complaints. It’s missing the opportunity to think harder about buses as a strategic part of a network providing accessibility to more destinations (e.g. see How can public transport work better in cities?).

Of course it would be much better if politicians didn’t make hard and fast promises on the basis of limited evidence or what’s easiest to package for television. Serious thought needs to be given to how to address this problem; the Commonwealth’s Parliamentary Budget Office, while not perfect, is one way it could be done better.

Boys will be boys so the promises will doubtless keep coming. The media and the public could help though by being less censorious of governments that “break” promises with the intent of providing a better outcome. The naughty boys need some positive feedback.

To its credit, Labor has been upfront about the timing of its major promises, at least in the fine print. Also, a Labor government won’t be burdened by promises, explicit or implicit, to build unjustified projects like rail lines to Doncaster, Rowville and Melbourne Airport.

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  1. There’re only five flights today.
  2. Public Transport Victoria says: “The existing system typically operates at around 15 trains per hour and could operate at up to 24 trains per hour in an ideal operating environment… With high capacity signalling systems in place, it becomes possible to operate up to or beyond 30 trains per hour (where train capacity is not otherwise constrained by junctions or platform dwell times)”.