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Going Nowhere

Public transportation is a complicated business. Liam examines Melbourne’s much-maligned network, stepping past the anger and obfuscation to think clearly about the shape of the problem.

Going Nowhere

A lot of things have been said about Melbourne’s public transport. Whether you think it’s good or atrocious depends on what you compare it to and what sort of criteria of quality you want to apply. It is, in a lot of ways, good. A lot of people have also gone to great pains to diagnose and describe problems with the network. The main newspapers in Melbourne, The Age and The Herald Sun, have run a lot of articles highlighting the notable service failures, the mistreatment of commuters by ticket inspectors and the minimal government response.

The tone of the discussion reminds me of a cheap perfume bought on sale — sharp, shallow and repugnant whilst ostensibly respectable. This is a fact that is in many ways more interesting than the object of the outrage. It’s the shape of the problem that I’m interested in discussing here, rather than the ‘substance’ of horserace-like commentary. I’ll do that by setting out a few aspects of the state of affairs and then attempting to formulate some questions with which to ask what can be done about it.

My view on Melbourne’s public transport, for the record, is that it is merely OK – it is far from great, it is not (often) a failure, it is nothing more than serviceable. A certain kind of risk-averse management is designed to prevent catastrophe, which it does. What it assures in its place, as Barry Schwartz points out, is mediocrity. It is, as Hannah Arendt has observed, a bureaucracy which is the ‘rule by nobody’. The problem with this mediocrity is that there is actually a lot at stake in the public transport network – its very point is to serve a multitude of purposes for its city. Melbourne’s reply comes across as awkwardly limp. More to the point, it’s unclear whether this offering is the product of well-formed planning, or whether improvements are on the way. It seems that the state of the network is, despite what I know would be the ongoing hard work of many people, a consequence of past mistakes rather than any design or clear intentionality.

90% on your metrics, consistently? Seems good, but think about the small picture because that’s what people actually experience.

Melbourne’s public transport network connects a lot of the city together. The train operator, Metro, publishes statistics which seem to suggest that almost all services run and aren’t more than five minutes late – although I’d guess most people who actually use the service would have some reservations about that. Yarra Trams publishes similar statistics suggesting it is ‘on time’. I might dispute that, but I would also note that both network operators state that ‘no compensation can be claimed’ if they meet their permissive performance standard. The network of those three providers covers the inner city fairly well. There are express services during peak hours which skip low-traffic train stations, which move passengers through and out of the network faster. So, allegations of cooking the stats aside, we can say that the trains run more or less on time.

However, the train network’s ‘hub and spoke’ design means that there are wedge-shaped sections of the city, getting wider the further out you go, which have no direct train access. The tram network is inner-city only, so these outer suburbs are serviced by buses, or bus connections to train stations. Those connections also decrease, along with frequency of service, the further out you go. Notably, the network is rarely extended and the government moves the urban boundary further out regularly. The new suburbs being constructed on the fringe have little public transport access ‘built in’ to their design during constructions. This means a whole group of people have diminished access and have further to travel on their own before they can connect with their transport network. Breadth and ease of access is the foundation of any public transport network, because access is the absolute minimum standard. If the network cannot be easily accessed by the people who need to use it, then whether the trains run on time is almost secondary. On this measure, it seems that the Victorians who need access the most – those with the longest to drive, their only alternative – have the least access of all. This issue won’t solve itself, and will arguably become worse with every new person moving into the outer ring of suburbs, which is the affordable part of Melbourne for the vast majority of people trying to buy a house.

Melbourne's train network (click to enlarge)

Melbourne’s train network (click to enlarge)

There are another group of Victorians with diminished access to the network. Most tram services are accessible by disabled passengers, although not all. Whether a tram service can be accessed by the disabled depends on the model of tram used on your route – tram routes through the wealthy inner city suburbs of Port Melbourne, Albert Park, Carlton and St Kilda, use flat-bottom trams for wheelchairs or prams. Running through much of the northern suburbs are older ‘filing cabinet’ trams that are inaccessible to wheelchairs entirely, and are difficult for the elderly. For accessibility, the network isn’t doing too well, firstly because it is not expanding to meet the needs of the city. Secondly, because the hardware that is being used excludes access by certain groups of people. The network is two-speed, in two ways — access and pricing. Inner city users have better access, although not always if you are disabled or elderly – but their fares are cheaper. Outer suburbs users pay more and receive less access for the privilege, if they have access at all. This means that people who may live in the outer suburbs because it’s cheaper there, have to pay more to travel. Infrastructure issues aside, I don’t understand why the ‘top-shelf’ (such as it is) level of access is cheaper than the rest. Financial access is just as important as physical access, and like with physical access, financial impediments will affect the people with the least capacity to overcome them and most requirements for the service more than other users. At stake is public transport’s ability to work for the whole of the public – any argument in defence of those difficulties for certain segments of the community seems capricious and arbitrary.

The trains, trams and train stations themselves are aged. Many trains and trams are scratched, dented or somehow broken. This can take many forms. It can mean that the internal announcement speakers emit a low, constant whine, or that the air conditioners fail in summer, at least when the train tracks themselves don’t warp and bend in the heat, rendering them unusable. Tram windows will rattle in their frame and trams will sometimes roll down a city street with metal-on-metal squealing as they move. Many of the train stations are poorly laid out and do not have the facilities to handle the large crowds that use them. Most guilty in this category is Melbourne Central — one of the most trafficked stations on the city loop — which has one elevator granting access to the station, and two elevators in a distant part of the station inside it, to give wheelchair access to the platforms. Moreover, the station is serviced by three escalators that empty people into three other crowds: those checking the train timetable displays, those trying to buy tickets or those lining up to use a gate to get into the station. Poor layouts are repeated in other ways at the other city loop stations – the chokepoints near the escalators at Southern Cross or the too-thin platforms at Flinders Street, which overfill during peak hour while meat pie stands take up large volumes of space. Outside the city, train stations can have shelter and lighting, but are sometimes not more than an asphalt rectangle in-between two train tracks with a concrete hut near the exit – such as Huntingdale, Sandown Park or Pascoe Vale. This, too, is a problem. The quality of the facilities matters for two reasons. Firstly, because it directly impacts just how well people can use them, the above being an example of how not to do it. Secondly, because the stations run-down state sets the tone for people’s relationship with their network.

If you’ve ever lived in Melbourne, you’ve probably caught a train or a tram during the evening on a Friday or Saturday. You’ve probably also seen it on a Sunday morning. They are, in a word, filthy. There are newspapers – a few complete, but most scattered or even torn up, strewn through the train. Paper bags with half-eaten take away food are stuffed under chairs, and beer bottles will roll down the aisle, gently emptying as they go. This is something I wouldn’t blame on Metro, when the culprit is so obvious they’re sometimes right in front of you. It would also be almost impossible to keep the trains clean when there is such a well resourced and well co-ordinated effort from the people of Melbourne to keep it disgusting. This obviously isn’t the work of everyone, but it’s enough people to get the job done. So while this doesn’t apply to everyone, there is sometimes a reason why people don’t get to have nice things. I would recommend that people intervene when they see this kind of behaviour in action, but knowing Melbourne there’s a not insignificant chance you’d get stabbed with a screwdriver for the pleasure.

The network operators have taken few steps to include new technology in the network. The information displays at stations are bare bones and are often incorrect. They are not placed conveniently and they sometimes don’t show up-to-date information. The displays within trains, announcing upcoming stations, will often declare that a train is about to arrive at a station on a different line. It might just display a scrolling error code. There are iPhone and Android apps with timetables, and an SMS facility for seeking service updates. However, these apps require updates often, and have received a lot of criticism for their usability. It seems to me that this aspect of the network receives less care than most. Moreover, the technology infrastructure meant to support the network is present, but in most cases is dated and in disrepair. The real-time arrival information provided by Yarra Trams is a good start, but this needs to be adopted across the entire transport network for it to meet its potential. The issue here is that there could be up-to-date information, there could be Wi-Fi on trains and trams – in short, the information could be accurate, personalized, timely and relevant.. At this stage, it isn’t. This problem ranges from being a serious shortcoming, when information is incorrect or absent, to being a failure to strive for excellence. This problem won’t resolve itself, and it will become worse just with the passing of time.

Let’s take stock. The picture isn’t of something fully unworkable, but the public transport network seems disjointed, confused and problematic. The problems described above arise because the relationship between the government, operator and public seems pretty broken. It’s broken because there is a relationship, but I don’t know how it works. It’s unclear to me, as a member of the public, who is responsible for what and who would be able to fix the problems above. Some parts of it are probably simple – the government buys the new trains, Metro runs them, the government provides police security, Metro provides the ticket inspectors. Those individual elements have their own issues, each deserving attention. But, they are not the whole. Which organisation, and whom within it, is responsible for the success of this public transport network? Who writes plans to address the problems I described, and who executes them?

The question matters. I haven’t described a network which hums with purpose – and they exist. Singapore is an example. I have described something which betrays the signs of difficult-to-resolve disorganization. I have described an organisation which appears to work in functional silos. These silos are among the best mechanisms for diffusing efficacy known to bureaucracy. The experience of using Melbourne’s public transport network day to day just is the experience of this disorganization. I hardly need to explain the purposes of public transport, or the services it provides to the public. It seems to me that those purposes aren’t all being met, or even properly considered. But there is one thing I’d like to mention – on a ‘big picture’ scale, where you can only really understand the network through statistics, everything might sound pretty great. 90% on your metrics, consistently? Seems good, but think about the small picture because that’s what people actually experience. The network isn’t great – it’s just ‘OK’. The discussion around it is vapid and the excuses made for it, lame. It’ll get you from Oakleigh to Flinders Street, but arrive at the station early to make sure you don’t miss the train, mind the seat with the weird stain and don’t try to squeeze a wheelchair on during peak hour.

More to the point, what can I do about it? I can vote in the next election, and try to influence the government. That may help, but Metro has survived a change of government unhindered. I can’t participate in the process whereby Victoria tenders its network to private organisation. I definitely can’t interfere with the goings-on of a private ‘person’, such as Metro the corporation. Although the network applies the logic of business to the supply side, it doesn’t really work that way with demand. As a user, I can use it – or not. That’s it. We’ve arrived at the core problem – people are being provided with and asked to pay for a public transport network. Just so. However, it is so lame, so inconsiderately flopped on the table – not unlike a meal tossed at you by surly waitstaff – that one would question whether they should use it again. If only hundreds of thousands of Victorians were able to choose not to. That so many don’t have this choice brings into question the sense of thinking of public transport as a business.

It’s important to note that this problem is intimately tied to the privatisation of Melbourne’s public transport network in 1999. The public transport network was initially ‘franchised’, in the words of the then-premier Jeff Kennett, for a 15-year lease. The government was to maintain ownership, but franchise out operation to another organisation. This is part of a broader trend of neoliberal political moves in the 1980s and 1990s which Rob Watts has, on this site, previously described as taking a shelf full of books to explain. I couldn’t agree more. This strikes me as the highest level of the problem: one would either need to convince the government that ‘franchising’ should be undone even though the ‘outcome-focussed economics’ climate arguably persists or somehow engineer a situation whereby quality could be introduced and discussed within the current framework.

At the time, the sale was reported to yield the government quite a large sum of millions and save it $400 million (in 1999 dollars) in operating costs. Under that initial arrangement, as it does now, the government subsidises but doesn’t fully fund the public transport network. This means that, to resume operation of the network, the government would have to wait until a lease had expired (or pay hefty compensation to terminate a franchise) and then find room in the state budget to operate the train network. In short, it would be expensive for the government to take control itself. That would make success with this move (at least) harder, if increased cost did not form a decisive rebuttal for some politicians. Some say in Melbourne that public transport should be free, or that it’s not meant to generate a profit. This doesn’t mean it runs for free, and cost is a legitimate concern on the government’s behalf that needs to be addressed, even while I agree in principle that public transport shouldn’t be concerned with profit. That is, briefly, the issue with resuming control of the network.

Discussing quality is another question. There seems to be two problems with quality, the first one being how you make it a requirement. The answer to that could be to make quality a condition of any franchise, but because the government retains ownership the most well-meaning franchisee would not be able to perform large-scale upgrades to the network. A quality-focussed franchise agreement and upgrades outside its scope would require government action and, accordingly, political will to do so. I am not sure this exists to the extent required, quite possibly because of conflicting government priorities and the problem described above – money. Even if that were not an issue, the willpower would need to be sustained for several years, and possibly across a change of government. This could happen, but it would not without sustained pressure on the government.

It would be remiss of me to ‘blame’ the public for not demanding a better rail network. The responsibility properly lies with those who own and operate it, however circumstances being what they are it may only be the public who can hold them accountable to a standard. Because this does not happen as much as might be required, the network is ‘merely good’. It is not bad enough to cause anyone in particular too much of a problem, it is not good enough to be too expensive. Consequently, it is just OK. In order to make a difference, there would need to be well-informed, demanding, persistent action and pressure on the government and operators to improve their service. If that doesn’t happen there is, of course, the other option: we can keep drawing deep breaths of that cheap perfume which passes for ‘action’, even though it doesn’t cover the stench of an un-airconditioned train in summer. ◾

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