Never the rail deal

Sydney's monorail, which runs in a 3.6-kilometre loop around the fringe of the city and through Darling Harbour, which has carriages that might have travelled to the moon and back five times, which has inspired mockery and derision from adults and thrills from children and which has left tourists befuddled as to the point of it all, will ride for the last time on Sunday, June 30. It will be 25 years old.

The story of the monorail - ''one of many autocratic farces perpetuated by the powerful on our citizens,'' in the words of Nobel laureate Patrick White - is the story of the ability of NSW politicians to come up with transport ideas that annoy and bemuse people. It is the story of a small loop that has punctuated a day out for a generation of children. But it is also the story of a something novel.

In this it was both of its time and not. It was not of its time because it was built. But it was also symptomatic of what now seems like a golden age of crazy transport ideas, when not only the Cleaning sydney, but also the bus and train and the tram seemed like yesterday's newspapers.

Soon after the monorail opened in 1988, reports emerged of a detailed plan by a Professor Rolf Jensen, of Adelaide, to stretch monorails right across greater Sydney, to raise them above the Hume Highway, Victoria Road, Barrenjoey Road and Military Road in the north, and along Parramatta Road to the west.

In 1989 the business community became involved. A lobby group called the Parramatta Connection came up with the idea of a freight-only monorail network to get trucks off Sydney's roads. ''It might be possible to run a spur line from the new airport at Badgerys Creek,'' the head of the Parramatta Connection, Fred Symes, said optimistically. There was a plan for a monorail to run over the arch of the Harbour Bridge.

But the pinnacle of outlandish transport notions must be that of Hawke government's transport minister John Brown, who in 1987 proposed a monorail in the middle of the country. Brown's monorail would cut out the drive from Uluru to the Olgas.

Now, the Sydney monorail, the only one of the mid-1980s flurry of proposals that was ever built, will be torn down. Nobody wants to pay to maintain it. The carriages need replacing and the pylons need work. And the space it occupies could be better used. Taking the monorail pylons off Pitt Street will open another lane to traffic. Removing it from Pyrmont Bridge opens up the chance for a cycle path. And if it was not there it would be easier to build larger buildings in the place of the old large buildings around Darling Harbour, which is how the O'Farrell government is determined to repeat history.

Born in 1988, the monorail was conceived four years earlier out of two bully-boy fathers.

In May 1984, the Labor premier Neville Wran announced Darling Harbour, then a rundown goods yard, would be redeveloped in time for the bicentenary. Something would be done to improve transport to the site, Wran said. The minister for public works, Laurie Brereton, set to finding a solution. So did Sir Peter Abeles, the country's dominant Labor-friendly business tycoon.

Two proposals emerged as serious contenders as transport options for Darling Harbour. The race was on to pick one and build it before the royal family arrived for the 1988 party.

Abeles' TNT company, a logistics giant, put forward the monorail. It would be built above street level. It would run without drivers and cost $1 a ride. For the Wran government it had the great advantage of being offered at no cost. TNT would build it for free.

The other proposal was a light rail line, put forward by firms Transfield and Comeng. The light rail would be two lanes to extend from Pyrmont and across Pyrmont Bridge. The lanes would then head down Sussex Street and Hickson Road to Circular Quay in one direction. In the other direction they would run to a transport interchange at Central.

But Brereton backed the monorail. Almost immediately after calling for proposals, he began rubbishing the light rail in public. It would be a return to the street-clogging trams of the 1960s, he said. And in private the light rail line was never given a fair go, according to Richard Smythe, then the director of Carr's department.

Smythe recalls a meeting of a cabinet subcommittee including Brereton as minister for public works, Carr as planning minister and Barrie Unsworth as transport minister to discuss the competing proposals, with their department heads and advisers in the room.

''As I recall at that first meeting we were discussing ways each proposal might be evaluated and compared but the matter went no further as it all ended when Laurie Brereton came into the meeting and announced that the decision had been made to go with the monorail, essentially to the proponent with the most clout or influence, led by TNT,'' Smythe said.

Asked about this episode last year, and whether he had supported the tram line, Carr said he had only a slight memory of it.

''Of course the route it took would not have got people directly from the middle of the CBD into the new retail activity planned for Darling Harbour but linked the Quay with DH, which I guess would have been seen as a bit circuitous,'' the Foreign Minister said of the light rail in an email.

''The challenge was a link that would move people in useful numbers from the heart of the CBD into the new precinct,'' Carr said. ''It certainly would have been more popular than the monorail which became a vote-loser for an embattled 12-year-old government.''

Vote loser or not, Brereton pushed on. TNT's proposal won formal cabinet selection in October 1985, with - in another version of history repeating - Brereton relying on a report by the then fledgling Macquarie Bank to justify the End of lease cleaning sydney.

People hit the streets. There was Patrick White, Ita Buttrose, actor Ruth Cracknell, the unionist and activist Jack Mundey. Even Liberal opposition leader Nick Greiner turned out to protest against the monorail before and during construction.

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