Friday, April 21, 2006

Public Transport Split

Splitting Melbourne's railways and tramways into two competing companies and then privatising them was a rather odd idea. Chickens seemed to come home to roost when one company who owned the operating lease for half of the trams and half of the trains bolted back to the land of fog and rain.

The government subsidy for the singly owned trains and trams has continued to rise massively. Well before privatisation of our fixed rail public transport, my mind had huge problems with the subsidy that went toward private buses. It was cheaper than the government providing the service, 'they' argued.

I am unsure why it has not really occurred to me before, but think of the huge duplication of providers when say the trains were split in two. Two payroll companies, two or more train maintenance companies, two lots of head office staff, two complaint handling offices. The full list would be very long, and yet it was supposed to be more efficient, provide better service and save money. If I have learnt something in life, a square peg does not fit into a round hole and nor do two square pegs fit into a round hole.

Competition was another reason given. Haha, it is almost laughable. One tram company having east west routes and the other north south routes. Ha, I don't like that tram company, I will use the other one. I will have to drive to other companies tram route to use it though. The spin doctors worked hard on this one, but there was a basic truth. As a customer, you did not have an option. Ditto trains.

Pre privatisation, trams and trains seem to be designed with the user in mind along with efficiency. The last government bought train, the Comeng is brilliant for passengers and I expect so for drivers. Extra nice after their renovations. The last government bought tram, the artic B class is great too. Smooth, quiet, comfortable and air conditioned. The same company supplied Sydney with disabled friendly trams. I have ridden in them and they are very good.

Instead the companies, probably at the then government's behest, bought cheap and nasty European trams and while the trains aren't bad, there are issues.

I am probably wasting my time here and preaching to the converted. Pause here while I blast away ex premier Kennet with a Kalishnikov.

But here is the real point. We are promised effiency by the private sector. The privatised public transport system shows that it it is not necessarily so. There is no inherent reason why government owned and managed public transport can not be efficiently run. I think in parts it was was pretty poor in the past, but that is not a reason why it can not be done now. Good management equals a good business, private or public.


  1. The real shame of all this is that on top of all this, there is supposed to be a profit involved as I very much doubt these companies took on the risk with the greater good in mind! Some other additions to the list - change of uniforms and labelling, which across half the system would have been a huge expense. I think the real reason behind this is that the government is able to pay them for political protection - if things go pear-shaped, they can be blamed at an arm's length. If things go well, the "partnership" works! For all the fuss, we've ended up with private companies negotiating with the government to get things done that the government could easily do without the added processes.
    I personally support the system returning to public ownership in the interests of efficiency and cost. If they can bring back conductors too, that would be an added bonus!

  2. Check back later for a considered post on conductors.

  3. I can't really see any reason why public transport can't be well managed and efficient in public ownership, but it doesn't seem to work that way in practice. I think the privatisation in Melbourne was largely to break the hold of the unions over the system, and I think thats why governments fail at managing a lot of things well. They get either captured by unions keen to defend entrenched practices and conditions that were irrelevant years ago (in the case of Labor) or get into a confrontational standoff (with the Libs). Either way it is difficult to change anything for the better. The management gets caught up in this, and can't do anything to rock the boat. Good managers get the shits with this situation and leave, and you're left with a poorly managed service run by the leftovers, and yes men. I think its fair comment to say that under government control, most public transport systems in Australia have been run more for the benefit of their employees than for the good of their customers.

    It needn't be like this, but unfortunately is.

    The Melbourne system is odd though. Hard to argue competition exists when what has really been set up is parallel monopolies.

  4. Appreciate your angle and I feel it is partially correct. The worst time for passengers and staff alike so far as Melbourne's trams went, was went the union was broken. Actually the union executive went on regardless. The staff were scared, received no comfort from any quarter and still a decade later, that experience for those who are still there affect their attitude to management and the union executive. When the tramway management gets staff on side, and that won't come from staff handling courses or human resources management classes, when they inspire staff to perform, when the requested input into sevice problems is acted upon, then there will be minimal roles for day to day management and the union executive will be less relevant too.

    Many years ago when Melbourne's public transport was run by a very independant statuory authority, with chairpeople answerable only to parliament........well, I could give a long list of people who would say how much better it was.

    So yes, it is now very political, but it doesn't have to be.