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SIX-AND-A-HALF years ago, when the Kennett government broke up
Melbourne's inefficient public transport network and sold it to
foreign private operators, Melburnians were repeatedly promised a
system that would rival the best in the world.
Remember Jeff Kennett's words? "Within the next five years,
you're going to see the most wonderful change to the quality of
public transport in this state that we will have experienced in our
This week I tried to board a train on Melbourne's world-class
system — at 8.15am, at Hawksburn station, three stops from the
city — but it was so crowded I couldn't get on. Nor could
about 80 other people who were left standing on the platform. Those
already on the train couldn't move into the carriages. Jammed
against the doors they looked out helplessly at those on the
This is just one incident. Melburnians everywhere have countless
train and tram horror stories of cancellations and delays, massive
overcrowding, broken ticket machines, lack of maintenance,
insufficient services, half-length trains, unstaffed stations,
non-functioning electronic signs, aggressive ticket inspectors,
trains with too few doors and, worst of all, no service at all.
Since the 1999 privatisation, inspired by the Tories' flogging
off the British public transport system, it is clear barely nothing
has gone right. Predicted patronage increases (up to 80 per cent)
were wildly optimistic.
Four years after privatisation, train patronage had gone up an
annual average of just 2.1 per cent. Now, rising petrol prices
appear to be having a greater impact on public transport patronage
than anything else.
Fare evasion is rampant. A year after privatisation it was
estimated to be costing about $16 million a year. It's now thought
to be running at a whopping $50 million a year. The latest
advertising campaign to shame people into paying for tickets has
about as much bite as a dog with marshmallow teeth.
Since privatisation, revenue allocations between the private
operators have been disputed and expected labour force efficiencies
have never materialised. Over the years the private operators have
listed some of the most ludicrous excuses for late and delayed
trams and trains: hot weather, traffic congestion and the formula
one Grand Prix.
More recently they have blamed a shortage of drivers,
redevelopments at Spencer Street and Flinders Street stations and
the regional fast rail project.
But industry experts have told us too many carriages are sitting
in maintenance sheds and transport union members say maintenance
facilities are stretched to the absolute limit. On top of that,
proper investment in tracks has been stagnant for about 20
The franchise system has comprehensively failed in Britain and
Australia. The biggest sign of the failure in Victoria came in 2002
when National Express, which operated the lion's share of the
train, tram and bus network, simply abandoned its contract,
plunging the public transport system into crisis.
The company had only been about three years into its contracts
of 10 to 15 years and had wanted, but not received, more taxpayer
subsidies for its loss-making service.
Even before the walk-out, the Bracks Government used more than
$100 million of taxpayers' money in a futile attempt to prop up the
privatised transport system.
The Government also changed benchmarks, making it easier for
tram operators to earn punctuality bonuses by changing the
definition of on-time service. Services once called late were
deemed to be on time.
The Bracks Government has argued that its hands are tied by
contracts signed in the the Kennett era and that the system is too
expensive to buy back. But when National Express walked out, the
Government squandered a chance to regain control of part of the
system, preferring instead to continue with the privatisation
experiment that Transport Minister Peter Batchelor, in opposition,
once said was based on "voodoo economics".
Well, this voodoo economics continues. Last year the reported
cost of paying private companies to run the trains and trams for
the next five years had almost doubled to $2.3 billion under the
Government's new public transport deals. (Remember, privatisation
was originally supposed to save taxpayers $1.8 billion.)
The privatisation experiment has been a complete failure under
successive state governments. Yes, you can argue that the network
is better than it was under the PTC, but are Melburnians supposed
to be grateful for that? Grateful for eating dirt when before we
had only dust?
Melburnians are being taken for a massive ride, while a 19th
century rail system is creaking under 21st century patronage
pressure. How long does it take to provide an efficient, safe,
integrated transport system?
Without leadership and a genuine respect for fellow citizens,
small governments cannot create big changes. But short-sighted
governments often spend more time and energy creating egotistical
icons to themselves.
Indeed, the wavy roof over Spencer Street Station may be
stunning, innovative, even awesome. But what is the point when it
sits above creaking tracks, rotten sidings and a railway system
that doesn't work properly?
Sushi Das is a
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