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The Napthine Government has announced reductions to Melbourne rail fares including capping of zone 1-2 regular rail travel (to zone 1 fare levels) and a Free Tram Fare Zone in Melbourne CBD costing $100 million a year. But are reduced fares fair?
On the good side it's going to be popular; reducing the expenses of voters always is. Indeed this is very likely the aim; 2014 is an election year and the policy won't be implemented until 2015, well after the election. Is this a cynical view? I don't think so.
Reducing fares will increase subsidies and this does not sit well with Liberal ideology. Also despite claims of investment in public transport, this administration has done little to substantively increase public transport. Since 2011 service per head has actually fallen by 3 per cent. Some SmartBus routes were completed and the Regional Rail Link is being implemented but these were previous Labor government projects. At least they were not withdrawn.
The facts are that service levels haven't changed much but our population has been booming and we have been waiting for public transport to keep pace with this.
Reduced zone 1-2 fares will target middle and fringe areas, who typically have lower incomes. Fare decreases are substantial; about 40 per cent. This is very "socially progressive", but is this what fringe-area voters want?
In 2009 I asked a national conference of urban fringe social welfare groups if they would prefer free fares or more public transport services. Ninety-nine per cent answered for more service. This poses the question; could the $100 million be better used to increase service?
More services are certainly needed; average fringe buses run every 40-60 minutes and few operate at night and weekends. Many fringe areas have no service at all. Monash research shows 70 per cent of Melbourne residents get only 20 per cent of the service. They live in middle/fringe Melbourne but pay the same taxes as those living in inner areas. What is the point of cheaper fares if there is no service to travel on?
In addition there is an important implication of cheaper zone 1-2 fare; it should increase peak rail commuting by about 10 per cent. Unfortunately peak trains are currently overcrowded, so this may just act to increase crowding. There have been recent positive commitments to enhancing peak rail capacity on the Dandenong line. However, these are playing catch-up; overloading is still increasing. We are keeping our head above water rather than solving the problem. A further 10 per cent increase in peak travel will strain an already bleak overcrowding future. The solution is the Melbourne Metro project, but implementing this is part of no plan or commitment from any party at present.
Cheaper zone 1-2 fares might help with station parking; 40 per cent of rail commuters access stations by car. However, station car parks are full notably on the zone 1-2 boundary where drivers seek parking at cheaper zone 1 fares. The cheaper zone 1-2 fare policy should encourage parking at zone 2 stations, relieving pressure on zone boundary stations. But most zone 2 station parking is already full, so more parking overflow might be expected around fringe station car parks.
So what of the CBD Free Tram Fare Zone? This will provide much convenience for city shoppers, workers and particularly tourists. The proposal is an expansion of the successful free Melbourne City Circle Tram. It will clearly be a much needed boost to Melbourne tourism infrastructure. Perth and Seattle have free CBD travel zones, which have proved popular.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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