Light Rail

Oops! Construction of Overbudget, Overdue Light Rail Project Accidentally Destroys Historical Site

Is this the world's sloppiest light rail project?


Bundit Minramun/

Sydney's light rail line is millions of dollars overbudget and a year behind schedule. It has ruined small businesses in its path. It accidently tore up a valuable public art installation. And now it has managed to destroy a piece of Australian history too.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the people building the line, which is supposed to carry passengers on a 7.5-mile route from the city's central business district to its eastern suburbs, managed to dig up and destroy a tool-making site once used by the indigenous peoples of the area. The site served as an "epicenter" of trade between aboriginal people's and early British colonists, historical consultant Scott Franks tells the Morning Herald.

Some 22,000 stone and glass artifacts were discovered at a site along the planned route back in 2016, prompting Aboriginal groups to call for construction pause until the historical significance of what was found could be determined. The New South Wales (NSW) government ignored the request. A study of the initial findings, first reported by the Morning Herald yesterday, suggests that decision has come at the cost of a valuable historical resource.

The revelation is just the latest is the series of black eyes for the project.

In October 2018, Australia's ABC News reported that construction work on the light rail line had managed to destroy a AU$500,000 public art installation.

In August of that year, 60 small businesses filed in a class action lawsuit against the Transport for NSW—the state transportation ministry—claiming $40 million in damages and lost business as a result of light rail construction-induced road closures, noise, and other disruption. An additional 50 businesses have since signed on to the suit.

This, mind you, is just the collateral damage from a project that should never have gone through in the first place.

In 2012, staff at Transport for NSW produced an analysis of 26 different possible light rail routes, finding that at most, a project would produce $880 million in value compared to $1.1 billion in costs.

The 2012 report was buried, and a new one released in early 2013 concluded that the benefits of light rail did exceed the costs once "non-conventional benefits" (such as the joy people will get from knowing future generations will have access to light rail) were included.

Since then, costs have only escalated. The project is now said to cost $2.1 billion. The full line will not be operational until March 2020, a full year behind schedule.

Acciona, the contractor tasked with building the light rail line, is now locked in a vicious legal battle with the NSW government, with Acciona claiming crucial information about the project's scope was hidden until after the papers had all been signed. NSW officials have said the delays and cost overruns are the result of Acciona's incompetence, although that has not stopped the state government from giving the company millions in new contracts.

There are a lot of good reasons to be wary even of light rail projects that are based on realistic assumptions and managed impeccably. But Sydney's light rail has benefitted from neither decent management nor plausible assumptions about its costs and benefits. The results of that sloppiness are still being felt.

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  1. Call me soulless, but I honestly don’t give a shit about the spiritual significance of places and things. I think this and most lightrails nowadays are absurd wastes of money that accomplish absolutely nothing, but why should we treat aboriginal and Native America supernatural beliefs any differently than other religions? There is a huge overlap between people who scream bloody murder about building telescopes on Hawaii’s sacred mountains are people who mock and ridicule Christian and Jewish beliefs and would gladly see churches turned into drug-filled nightclubs.

    Culture is overrated to begin with.

    1. If the project was being run by a private company then people who did care about the cultural significance of the historical site would at least have an opportunity to pay to have the site protected or to delay the project while the site is investigated. Since government was involved, their only hope was to play one part of the bureaucracy against another and that apparently failed. One thing is always certain about bureaucracy: No matter how far behind schedule or how far over cost, it will not actually stop trudging along unless forced to by a higher level of bureaucracy.

      1. Exactly. It’s why here’ in NJ it costs like 1 million dollars to build a dollar of road. Contractors who go over budget or over time are never punished, they just get more jobs.

    2. Historical buildings, landmarks, archaeological sites, you name it — if the people who claim to want it preserved actually did care about it, they’d pony up the money themselves instead of forcing unlucky owners to deal with expensive preservation.

      Something like 1/3 of NYC buildings are historical landmarks, I read. I bet every single one of them was built on the site of some older building that was even more historical.

    3. I didn’t see much about the site being “spiritual”, but there likely is some interesting historic or archeological interest there. Archiving local history is reasonable thing for a government to do.

      Let them get in for a month or two, quickly document what’s there, and move on.

      Yes, cost is an issue. The government should bear part of the cost of the delay on a government project.

    4. Its not a spiritually significant place. Its an anthropologically significant place – history.

    5. “Whenever I hear the word “culture” I unsafe my Browning”

      Indigenous spiritual beliefs aside, a contact period archaeological site where the same people were making native-stone tools and working newly introduced glass is a significant site with a hell of a lot of research potential.

  2. Has any public light rail system ever finished on time and on budget? I think it’s physically impossible. Politicians pretend to care about cost and schedule during planning so they won’t piss off the voters, so contractors chronically underbid and overpromise. Then the bureaucracy gets ahold of things and costs expand rapidly to consume all available resources.

    1. I’ll again recommend Romance of the Rails as an excellent $6 Kindle read, full of fascinating histories of government fuckups of urban and interstate rail and bus transit, from horse cars to Amtrak.

  3. “It accidently tore up a valuable public art installation.”

    And people say there’s no benefit to light rail.

    1. It was a man yelling at a crocodile who just drank his last stubby. It was the essence of Australia given form.

      1. Fearless Bogan?

        1. I have NO idea what you two knuckleheads are talking about.

    2. Where are the details on that?

  4. If you’re gonna waste lots of money, build a subway and keep it out of the way of traffic.

    1. The NYC subway system has improved this year. Now, the subways switch to express lines when I get on them for my trip out of the city. Once people get to know me, they become so eager to help me finish my errands and get back home.

  5. Light rail only makes sense in a tourist district where you expect to host many foreigners who would get confused by the local bus system.

    1. And where your tourist district is the size of a city. And even then it doesn’t make sense, just put signs on the bus.

  6. The 2012 report was buried, and a new one released in early 2013 concluded that the benefits of light rail did exceed the costs once “non-conventional benefits” (such as the joy people will get from knowing future generations will have access to light rail) were included.
    Will it have a restroom? I can’t tell how much it is worth knowing some future person could take a shit without getting off the train.

  7. I studied archaeology as an undergrad (the emphasis on my major) and I can echo that there is a distinction between a site of spiritual significance and one of historical significance. I dug a site once, in Miami, where a private land owner was told to stop development of a hotel (I think) due to the discovery of a culturally significant site (the Brickell Point site/Miami Circle). While a fascinating experience for me, to this day I’m not sure what actually happened to the land (I dug there 19 years ago) though I suspect it was taken over by eminent domain.
    Spiritual significance, on the other hand – in my somewhat-informed opinion – is purely subjective to the native culture. At the dig site, we were met by native descendants who wished to “cleanse” my class through smudging with sage smoke, before we began. They saw it as sacred, though, archaeologically speaking, it was a settlement with no discernible spiritual relevance. The so-called natives simply declared it so, not knowing anything about the site or its purpose.

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  9. But you have to have public transit, so the government can choose where you want to go.

    1. “It’s not about X, it’s about control.”

      X = guns, transit, education, health care, etc.

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