Rail Inquiry submission released

The PTUA submission to the Victorian upper house Select Committee on Train Services has been released.

PTUA submission (PDF, 449Kb)


The present inquiry has been prompted by an ongoing and widespread pattern of failure in Victoria’s train services, culminating in the near-total shutdown of the metropolitan system in extreme heat conditions in late January 2009. In keeping with the terms of reference, this submission does not aim to catalogue the failures that have occurred in Victorian train services in recent years, but to analyse the underlying factors.

It has frequently been observed that Melbourne scores near the bottom of the world’s large urban rail systems in its fitness for the purpose of transporting people. Yet at the same time, Melbourne is in no way short of rail infrastructure relative to other cities with higher rates of train travel. The conclusion to be drawn is that there are few technical justifications for the poor record of train operations in Victoria, and that the true factors underlying the state of our public transport system must be sought elsewhere.

In 2005, a team of experts from the University of Toronto reviewed the factors that contribute to ‘best practice’ in urban transport and concluded that the most critical requirement is effective governance—more important even than finance, infrastructure and urban land-use planning. When one investigates the management arrangements for public transport in all the cities that have been most successful in growing patronage and mode share in the past two decades, one finds in all cases that there is one body that bears ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the system: from the state of the infrastructure to the frequency and reliability of service, the cleanliness of vehicles and the level of crowding.

In Victoria, a passenger who is dissatisfied with their public transport service must take their complaint to a private operator. They quickly learn that under our franchising system, governments and franchisees are free to avoid any difficult issue by passing the buck, and only when an issue lasts long enough to cause real political damage, as with the train failures in January 2009, is a Minister forced to declare that “the buck stops here”. For the rest of the time, we have a system where passengers complain to the private operators and the operators dismiss the complaints. The litany of train system failures—whether acute as in January 2009, or chronic as in the overcrowding seen every day—is the natural consequence of this hands-off approach.

If we are to have a public transport system that is not set up to fail, there is a need to reform the management arrangements that perpetuate failure. Despite all the promise of ‘innovation’ that accompanied privatisation in 1999 (and re-privatisation in 2004), the only evident result was to perpetuate and entrench the old management practices under private owners. Now that the Minister has admitted that franchising is no cheaper for the taxpayer than simple retention of train and tram services in public ownership, there are no good reasons left for continuing the franchising experiment, and many good reasons to pursue an alternative model.

The timing of this inquiry is fortunate, in that not only is there is an opportunity this year for the government to pursue new management arrangements at minimal cost, but there is also a ready-made candidate in the Public Transport Authority of Western Australia, better known as TransPerth. In relative terms, Perth has in recent years been more successful in growing public transport patronage than any other capital city in Australia, Melbourne included. One of the key lessons from Perth is the need to recruit expertise from successful jurisdictions, including overseas. Given the similarities in legislative framework with WA, a similar Public Transport Authority may readily be established in Victoria. Its first task would be to make a decision on the re-tendering of contracts for Melbourne’s train and tram operations: this may be to re-tender to new private operators (under redrawn contracts) or to return to public ownership.

The specific problems that led to the catastrophic failure of the train system in Summer 2008-09 have a number of immediate causes, leaving aside the general neglect and planning failures for which we have proposed a competent Public Transport Authority as a remedy. These immediate causes relate primarily to track buckling, the fitout of the Comeng train fleet and other maintenance issues. In relation to these immediate issues we have made a number of recommendations, in particular the accelerated rollout of concrete sleepers and an upgrade to the Comeng air-conditioning units.

There are also numerous longer-term issues that affect the train system, in particular overcrowding, inadequate train services both within and outside peak hours, operating practices that waste rail capacity, and the lack of a proper multimodal network. Many of these issues would be tasks for a new Public Transport Authority to address in its initial years of operation. Our recommendations on these issues are intended as guidance, to highlight the actions that will help convert Victoria’s rail systems from failures to world-leading successes.

Note that V/Line and other regional issues are being covered in a separate submission from the PTUA Geelong branch.