Kennett's public transport cuts denounced


By Garry Walters
and Alex Cooper

MELBOURNE — Sweeping cuts to Victoria's public transport system are being denounced as socially and environmentally irresponsible. Of 14 suburban rail lines, only four appear to have escaped severe cutbacks announced by the Kennett government on January 7.

Fares were raised from January 1, and plans are also afoot to replace all tram conductors with ticket machines and eliminate guards from trains. Some 8500 out of 18,500 public transport workers are expected to be made redundant.

The Williamstown and Upfield lines are being closed, while nine country rail services are to be replaced with private bus services. Seven other suburban lines will shut down after 8 p.m. every night and be replaced by buses.

The Alamein rail line, which happens to run through Premier Jeff Kennett's electorate, will not be closed as previously mooted but will be reduced to a peak hour service. Some tram services will also be replaced by buses after 8 p.m.

Victorian Trades Hall secretary John Halfpenny told the January 15 Age that he had information that some Liberal ministers have shares in private bus companies which stand to gain from the system. (On January 9 the Sydney Morning Herald exposed former NSW premier Nick Greiner's directorship in one of the private companies profiting from Sydney's newly privatised tollways).

Unions have reacted angrily to the cuts, with the Tramways Union holding stop-works at every tram and bus depot. A resolution passed by a January 14 combined public transport unions delegates' meeting called on public transport unions to continue to fight the cuts by working with community groups and through industrial action.

The resolution called for mass delegates' rallies throughout the campaign and requested the ACTU-VTHC campaign committee to assist unions in power, maritime, communications and public transport to use such rallies to plan and strengthen action and solidarity against the Kennett onslaught.

The first gathering of delegates from these strategic areas with traditionally militant unions is to take place before the January 27 mass shop stewards and delegates' rally called by the ACTU-VTHC for Dallas Brookes Hall.

One possible proposal to be considered on January 27 is a general strike and mass mobilisation on the scale of November 10, to be organised on March 1, the date when Kennett's Employee Relations Act comes into force.

The VTHC's coordinator of public transport unions, John Andrews, says blic transport is not only between the Kennett government and unions. "We are faced with the choice: we can move towards ecologically sustainable development by expanding public transport and reducing car and truck usage, or we can drastically curtail public transport and the rail system and move over to road transport, generally acknowledged to be far less environmentally friendly."

The Kennett government has written to the federal government to cancel plans to give Victoria $10 million to upgrade railways and $10 million to remove road bottlenecks. Instead it wants $20 million to begin work on an extension of the Eastern Freeway, rejected by an independent review panel under the previous government.

A host of community groups have also responded. Public Transport Users Association president Paul Mees said the cuts would further reduce patronage of public transport, make Melbourne's air "as unbreathable as possible" and increase the production of greenhouse gases. Melbourne comes second only to Sydney in air pollution levels, and the Environmental Protection Authority estimates that cars contribute 60% of the city's air pollution.

Mees said that Melbourne was heading towards the urban decay that plagues many cities in the United States. Even Los Angeles, the freeway capital of the world, was now beginning to restore its public transport system, but Kennett was taking Melbourne in the opposite direction.

Environmental Youth Alliance activist Francesca Davidson, who is heading a Green Alliance Victorian Senate ticket in the coming federal elections, said that Kennett's attack on public transport made him an "environmental criminal".

Groups along the Upfield railway line, originally set up in 1989 to oppose the Labor government's plans to replace the Upfield train with light rail (tram), now have the support of Brunswick Council as well as groups representing a wide range of people. A similar group has been set up in Williamstown.

Several of these community groups formed a coalition to defend public transport late last year when it became obvious that the Liberals planned massive cuts.

Rural councils around the state have expressed anger at the closure of their local railway lines. These include Warrnambool, where a public meeting on January 13 resolved to ask the minister for a six-month stay so they could have the Public Transport Corporation's figures on operating costs and losses independently reviewed, and the Bairnsdale community, which is looking at alternatives to the line closure.

A number of National Party officials have expressed opposition to the cuts and their effect on country freight services.

Perhaps the most cruelly hit by the changes will be people with disabilities who currently rely on public transport. This includes people in wheelchairs who cannot use trams now. The government has be able to use special purpose taxis for the price of a tram ticket. However, there are so few of these taxis that anyone wishing to use one must book at least a day in advance.