Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Monday, November 07, 2005

Bracks Dupes The Age

The Age ran a multi-page spread over the weekend papers highlighting the very many deficiencies of Melbourne's public transport system and how Bracks has invested essentially nothing in the train network since coming to office. It didn't say much more than we already knew (capacity constraints, poor reliability, "privatisation" not doing very much, poor linkage between services, huge disparity between road and public transport funding), but it was good to see it all laid out in one place. Today, The Age leads with a front page story triumphantly proclaiming that its stories have prompted Bracks into action:
Stung by criticism of its record on public transport in an Age series, the Government has revealed it has been working for months on a "transport and liveability" policy statement, expected to involve the investment of hundreds of millions of extra dollars.

Two problems with this. One is that this policy statement contains little new information. The first two proposals involve minor tinkering around with the current system (improved signalling in the City Loop and revamping a connecting station) and the third one, a significant improvement in the capacity of the Dandenong line, was announced at last election with a 10 year timeline which hasn't been changed. There's very little new there.

But I'm surprised that Paul Austin (the paper's normally savvy State Politics writer) or anyone else at the paper hasn't seen that they're being played, beautifully, by Bracks. The catalyst for the original story was the release of a scathing report on the state of Victoria's public transport system. Who released the report?
A major report, to be launched by Transport Minister Peter Batchelor on Monday, finds the city's transport system compares poorly with the other top 14 cities in the annual liveability rankings.

This isn't journalism, this is the government carefully feeding information to manipulate the paper. The Age is falling right for it with favourable news coverage and favourable accompaning opinion.

Public transport is the government's biggest weak spot. It's record has been an unmitigated disappointment, especially compared to its large road building agenda. No new level crossing overpasses, no extension of lines (Craigeburn, Cranbourne), the scrapping of the Airport line plans (possibly because of protest from the taxi industry), no new lines (Ringwood, Doncaster), no extension of capacity, no regaining public control over some of the system with the private operator went bust... overall, practically nothing. To try and ward off criticism, the government has "leaked" a damning report to the Paper, let them run their bad news story then rushed in to save the day with a phony new plan. Like I said, it's actually possible I'll vote for a Liberal government if Doyle comes up with a good plan and Bracks keeps sitting on his hands, and I'm really not looking forward to that prospect.


  • I'd tend to add to that litany of governmental public transport failures some mention of the cost- and time-related blowouts in the regional "fast" train system as well. And despite all this, and their focus on the road network at the expense of public transport, they've also managed to stuff the road planning up too. Now if only the Liberals could display some sort of competence regarding, well, anything, there might be some sort of chance of holding Bracks and his mates accountable. As it stands... seems unlikely.

    By Blogger John Provis, at 12:14 PM  

  • There actually has been investment in public transport over the past five years, all the shiny brand new trains and trams that the operators were forced to buy as part of the privatisation deals put through in the late years of the Kennett government. If not for those upgrades of rolling stock, we would have a third world public transport system without the low prices and almost universal reach that third world public transport systems have.

    It is also important to note the silent party in this debate, the unions. I am not aware of the pay scales that Connex and Yarra Trams are on, but it is interesting that when M Train looked like it was on the verge of bankruptcy a few years back, no one even questioned whether or not efficiencies in labour costs (either through staff cuts or finding cheaper staff) could be found. Instead, the State Government just turned up with a truckload of cash (that could have been invested in new infrastructure instead) and bailed out the operators, teaching them that there is no need to make hard decisions about keeping costs down when Bracks is willing to bail you out instead.

    By Blogger JP, at 12:46 PM  

  • @Joel
    Given that the largest problem causing train unreliability is a chronic shortage of drivers I think the problem is the opposite of what you describe - not good enough pay and poor conditions. If the workers were paid less the reliability problem would be worse.

    As for the new trains, it's phoney for you to class that as private investment. The government gives huge subsidies to the transport companies to run the networks and forces them to do a whole bunch of things like maintain non-peak services and buy new trains. The whole system isn't privatised, it's outsourced. Really, really badly. If we wanted a private network we'd make it really private and we'd end up with a really good peak hour weekday service and one-vehicle/hour services the rest of the time. And a whole lot of stations would be skipped, bus routes scrapped. Prices would also go through the roof.

    The point is that public transport is a public service, which meets public aims (equity, pollution, reducing traffic externalities), and shouldn't be privatised, either properly or in the pseudo-privatised manner that they currently are. It was a stupid idea designed to get a quick cash injection and not a good model for service provision.

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 4:17 PM  

  • ...we'd end up with a really good peak hour weekday service and one-vehicle/hour services the rest of the time.

    Which differs from the current situation in the outer suburbs exactly how? Oh, you mentioned 'really good peak hour service'. Sorry, replace that with 'utterly mediocre peak hour service', hang onto the 'one vehicle an hour the rest of the time' (except on Saturdays and Sundays, when there's zero vehicles per hour), and you have the reason why I spend 2 hours a day in traffic on the Eastern Freeway.

    By Blogger John Provis, at 8:54 AM  

  • I catch the packenham/cranbourne at only non-peak hours during weekdays and on saturday. We have 15 minute services on weekdays and 20 mins on weekends. Catching the frankston line (which was a single one, obviously) it was 20 minutes and 30. It's certainly not 1 hour, except maybe on Sundays when I don't catch it. And it's not unbearably unreliable.

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 7:40 PM  

  • Jeremy,

    Obviously we need drivers. But only a fraction of Connex's employees are drivers. At any point in time, for instance, there seem to be two or three staff sitting in the back of the office at Greensborough station. If you bang loudly enough on the window, they might provide you with service, but more than likely they will tell you to use the ticket machine. What are they doing there? Announcements can be done by recordings transmitted from a central point, the ticket machines run themselves, they only have one window for concession cards and other enquiries that can't be dealt with on a ticket machine. If you could cut down some of the overhead, these people who sit randomly in the back of stations and hardly even show their faces, maybe you could train and employ enough drivers.

    As to investment, I didn't actually say it was "private" investment, so don't accuse me of a "phony" distinction I haven't made. I merely said it was investment. Maybe you jumped to the conclusion because I linked the investment to the Kennett's privatisation plans, I don't know.

    Regardless, two things are obvious. Firstly, for all of the other failures of the attempt to privatise the public transport operators, the requirement that all the operators invest in new rolling stock forced a much needed modernisation of the seats we sit on and carriages we travel in.

    Secondly, this was a real investment in rolling stock. Whoever eventually shouldered the cost (and I agree, taxpayers have shouldered most of the cost through public subsidies), it didn't involve a mere shuffling around of peices of paper, it involved the purchase of new, better quality rolling stock for both the tram and train networks, with features like air conditioning, CCTV cameras and security panels. If we had had no investment at all, then we would still be sitting in the horrible old Hitachi trains without air conditioning and with the ripped and graffittied brown, orange and green seat cushions.

    As someone who spends at least two hours a day, five days a week on public transport, I know that public transport needs improvement. And I agree with you that the Bracks government's performance on this point has been dismal.

    By Blogger JP, at 3:50 PM  

  • About the staff, this must be heavily dependent on the station you're at. Most stations (like the one I go to) don't have any non-peak hour staff. I also find it hard to believe that these workers are both completely useless and non-firable. It sounds like poor management to me if these people really are doing absolutely nothing as you describe and just blaming this on an amorphus "union problem" doesn't absolve management of that failure.

    As to investment, I didn't actually say it was "private" investment, so don't accuse me of a "phony" distinction I haven't made. I merely said it was investment. Maybe you jumped to the conclusion because I linked the investment to the Kennett's privatisation plans, I don't know

    That's exactly what I did, sorry. I thought you were touting that investment as an example of benefits from what I see as a stupid idea - privatisation. I don't deny that this was good investment, I just deny that it was caused by privatisation, and you seem to agree with me. Given that you've conceded this investment was not a benefit of privatisation, can you think of any? I might also have to revise my statements about that the effects of a real privatisation deal would be given american and British experiences (worse services, less maintenance, bankrupt companies).

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 9:51 AM  

  • Jeremy,

    Thanks for your reply. I believe that public transport is viable and can be operated profitably. I think we can leave this debate at that now.

    By Blogger JP, at 9:50 PM  

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