The State Government announced earlier this month that it would tender out the operation of Adelaide Metro tram and train services in the same way as public bus services have operated since 2000.
At the time, Knoll claimed he wanted to seek out the best operators of public transport from around the world, with a full transition to private operations expected by mid-2021.
Fronting a parliamentary committee hearing this morning, Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure chief executive Tony Braxton-Smith said he had urged Knoll to travel to Newcastle earlier in the year to meet with Keolis Downer, which runs the Yarra Trams operation in Melbourne and the Southlink and Link SA bus networks in Adelaide.
He said the meeting lasted for about two and a half hours and included a site inspection of the Newcastle tram network, as well as an “extensive conversation” with the Newcastle mayor.
“That site inspection was at my urging of the Minister and the principle purpose of actually going there was to examine the urban uplift and the transformation to the urban environment that’s happened in Newcastle by virtue of the construction of new light rail,” Braxton-Smith told the committee.
“If you look at light rail in Newcastle it has stimulated a tremendous building boom and this Government has been prevailed upon to think about light rail and it is making commitments to furthering light rail in the CBD.”
But the committee chair and Labor MP Kyam Maher questioned the timing and advice given to Knoll ahead of the meeting, asking Braxton-Smith to confirm if the Newcastle trip occurred before or after the decision had been made to tender out the tram and train operations.
“The (tender) process was underway when the Minister and I went to Newcastle,” Braxton-Smith said.
“I’ll have to go back and get the dates for you.”
Braxton-Smith said he couldn’t recall any probity advice being sought prior to the meeting, despite being aware that Keolis Downer was likely to be in contention for the tender.
“There was no probity officer at the meeting,” he said.
“It was just myself and the Minister because there was nothing discussed.”
Asked if he thought it was wise that the trip occurred without any probity advice being sought, the department boss replied: “I think it is patently obvious that no conversation could take place in relation to any matter to do with procurement processes either planned or prospective or on foot”.
“I think we need to conduct ourselves with due caution during any of those conversations, but again, I would highlight, the purpose of the trip was for a different matter.”
Braxton-Smith said Knoll had also met with bus operator Transdev “earlier this year”, but he said he couldn’t recall if the meeting occurred before or after the Government announced a tender for the state’s bus network.
He said he was unable to answer whether probity advice was sought prior to the meeting, but it was normal for the Minister to have meetings with transport operators.
“Again, the general practice… is when there is a meeting with a senior executive from one of the operators we are scrupulous in ensuring we do not discuss any matters that might influence procurement processes,” he said.
Maher asked if Knoll had sought probity advice before meeting with any other potential tender applicants, but Braxton-Smith said he couldn’t recall.
Earlier this month, Knoll defended his trip to Newcastle to speak to Keolis Downer operators, saying the meeting allowed him and Braxton-Smith to see how the town’s trams, buses and ferries operated under one company.
“What’s interesting is that Keolis Downer aren’t some bogeyman from the other side of the world: they operate our bus network currently,” he told Parliament.
“The logical inconsistency here is that it is okay to allow them to run buses in South Australia, but it is not okay to talk to them about other ways in which we could innovate our network.
“It is okay to sign over to them contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is not okay to talk to them about how they can improve services for South Australians.”
Keolis Downer chief executive David Franks told the Australian Financial Review earlier this month that the company was interested in bidding for Adelaide’s rail networks.
“We’ll certainly have a very good look at it,” he told the newspaper.
Braxton-Smith told this morning’s committee hearing that no rail lines would be cut under an outsourced model, but he did not rule out whether fares would be increased.
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