Connex bites the dust

There are few words that attract negative outbursts of emotions from Melbournians as much as the mere utterance of "Connex".

Synonymous with notorious overcrowding, long delays, hated ticket inspectors, unjust fines and an outright collapse of the train system during Melbourne's heatwave, Connex — the private operator of Melbourne's trains — has finally been given the boot. No doubt many frazzled public transport users will be more than jubilant to hear the news.

On June 25, the Victorian state government announced it would dump Connex, a subsidiary of French company Veolia.

Conez had also faced a public campaign by Palestinian solidarity activists against it over Veolia's agreement to help operate a public transport system for illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

Starting in December, Hong Kong-based company Metro Trains Melbourne (MTM) will be taking over from Connex and French company Keolis will replace Yarra Trams to run the tram network. The new contracts are set for eight years with an extension option of a further seven years.

Melbourne's public transport debacle started in 1999, when the Liberal state government of Jeff Kennett carved up and sold off the transport system to private companies. Since then, subsequent Labor governments have fully supported the privatisation agenda.

Under government agreements with the operators, Yarra Trams has received taxpayer subsidies of $112 million each year over five years and Connex got a hefty $345 million each year.

By 2010, Victoria's privatised public transport system will have cost taxpayers $2.1 billion more than if it had remained state-owned, the 2006 Putting the public interest back into public transport report found.

With reluctance, public transport minister Lynne Kosky said on June 25: "I would like to acknowledge the hard work and commitment of Connex and its parent company Veolia Environment over the past 10 years which has seen a massive growth in patronage."

Pubic transport campaigners don't agree. Victorian Socialist Alliance convenor Sue Bolton said Connex was dumped because public opinion had turned completely against the company.

"Kosky is trying to put a spin on an utter failure but nobody is buying it", Bolton told Green Left Weekly. "Connex has been an outright disaster. The train network has been unable to meet even the most basic demands, such as frequency, reliability, and the need for expansion consistent with increase in public transport usage."

Bolton also said that the public outcry and campaigning against Connex had meant the government did not want to use the private operators' names any more, instead designing a new brand-name for the train network.

Bolton said she was pleased Connex got the sack, but she blames privatisation as the root cause of Melbourne's woeful transport system.

"Unless the government is prepared to nationalise the public transport system, commuters will continue to be taken on a bad and expensive ride so that private companies can make a quid", she said.

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