Opinion piece: That slow train is still

Opinion piece by Anthony Morton, Secretary, PTUA, published in the Herald Sun, 11 December 2007

That slow train is still

HOW do you revive an ailing public transport system?

Who do you blame when your train doesn’t show up because it has broken down somewhere?

Or when it does show up, it’s so crowded you can’t get on?

Who do you blame when you have to wait 30 lonely minutes at night for a bus to pick you up from the station?

The Victorian Government doesn’t run transport services so the Transport Minister doesn’t want to hear your complaints.

The transport services are run by private operators but the private operator that runs the trains doesn’t run the buses.

There is no single body in Victoria that has the responsibility to deliver a world-class, integrated and effective public transport system and that means there is no one whose job it is to fix it.

Twenty years ago, Vancouver and Perth had public transport systems that were uncoordinated, underfunded and struggling to attract passengers.

But those cities turned their systems around in just a few years: they built new train lines to the suburbs, put in faster, more frequent services and co-ordinated their train and bus timetables.

Most importantly, they set up new planning agencies to oversee the transformation and hired the best people they could find worldwide to run them. This was important because it brought a new positive, passenger-focused culture to public transport, replacing a defeatist, self-serving bureaucratic culture.

The change worked. Over 10 years, Perth doubled its rail patronage and Vancouver overtook Melbourne public transport usage.

In Melbourne, the Kennett government had been sold an idea by exiles from Thatcher’s Britain. They would hand public transport over to private operators.

And, rather than order these operators to co-ordinate their timetables or add new services, they would write some clever contracts with bonuses for increasing patronage.

They would let the free market bring more passengers. Private operators would grow patronage by up to 70 per cent in 10 years, just like in Perth.

That was the theory. Five years later, patronage had grown by just 7 per cent and one of the private operators had called it quits.

Instead of calling a halt to the experiment, the Bracks government re-let the contracts without the patronage bonuses. It also allowed an above-inflation fare rise and increased subsidies by $200 million a year.

When it seemed everyone had given up on getting more people to use public transport, travel increased. Train patronage went up 20 per cent from 2005 and took government and private operators completely by surprise.

The increase was unplanned as well as unexpected. Our trains and trams are late and overcrowded. They are dirty, slow, expensive and intimidating places after dark.

So what does government do?

It says our franchised system is just fine and wants to re-tender it in 2009.

To cope with the increase in patronage, seats will be removed to cram more people aboard.

And if passengers are willing to sacrifice two hours of sleep and leave for work before sunrise they can travel free.

Passengers could be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic.

The tragedy of all this is that we have so much infrastructure to work with.

Compared with Perth or Vancouver, we have a dozen train lines and 300km of tram tracks. Much of the overcrowding is because older trains were retired or scrapped five years ago.

The problem is that there is no single person or body you can blame for this mess. A defensive corporate culture passed from VicRail to The Met and still hangs around government and operators today.

It is a culture that devotes itself to finding excuses for failure rather than striving for success. So we get expensive marketing spin to minimise bad news.

We get patronising stunts telling us how to behave as passengers to cover up inadequate services that cram us in like sardines.

Jeff Kennett must have thought privatisation would change the old culture but privatisation merely allowed government to wash its hands of responsibility.

This has attracted lazy transport ministers to this day. The culture has not changed.

All that happened was that a veil of commercial secrecy was drawn across what was hidden by bureaucracy. But there is a light at the end of this tunnel and it may be a train running on time.

The opportunity still exists to do what Perth and Vancouver did, to replace creaking bureaucratic machinery with a dynamic new agency to plan public transport properly.

An accountable public body would ensure services are there when we need them.

Instead of leaving planning to the market, which means leaving it to no one, we could hire world experts to devise new timetables and new ways of running services.

We could ensure there is plenty of room for more passengers.

There are experts out there ready to change our culture, but only if the right environment exists for them to do their work.

This means replacing those 400-page franchise contracts with new arrangements, using Perth, Hamburg, Madrid, Vancouver, London or any number of other cities as a model.

Anna Bligh, Queensland’s new Premier, has already announced the creation of just such a planning agency for Brisbane.

Melbourne needs to move before Queensland headhunts the best people.

We will also need to find something useful for the 400 bureaucrats employed to watch the private operators run things so badly.

Perhaps some of them would make good tram conductors.

ANTHONY MORTON is secretary of the Public Transport Users Association of Victoria