Put the 'public' back into public transport

October 21, 2006

Melbourne's public transport system is in crisis — despite a huge increase in subsidies since privatisation. Delays, cancellations and standing room only — this is the reality for passengers across the system. And on top of the bad service, Melbourne has the most expensive fares of any Australian capital city.

In the age of global warming and catastrophic climate change, continuing to prioritise motor vehicles — which contribute massively to greenhouse gas emissions and seriously degrade our quality of life — and failing to greatly boost public transport is simply criminal.

The Steve Bracks ALP government talks out of both sides of its mouth: it spins its supposed commitment to sustainability but keeps on with its truly insane commitment to roads, roads and yet more roads and private motor vehicles. Public transport should be taken back into public hands and the system massively upgraded.

Furthermore, Melbourne transport should be made completely free. This would boost patronage and free up financial and human resources to actually improve the system. Public transport should be publicly owned and run as a public service — not a profit-generating machine for big business.

The private operation of public transport is hugely expensive. A recently released report by four leading transport experts claims that the privatised public transport system has cost taxpayers $1.2 billion more than if it had remained state-owned. If the contracts with the private operators are renewed, this figure will rise to $2.1 billion by 2010. For Bracks, safeguarding the profits of the private operators is more important than the needs of the system and its users.

Private control means prioritising revenue collection (inspectors) ahead of customer service. Today, transport staff are employed by private contractors and their roles are related to securing revenue collection, with the contractors getting commissions based on the fines imposed!

We call for adequate customer service — including the return of tram conductors and properly staffed stations — not the heavy handed punitive methods we see today of using fines and arrest.

Public ownership would allow big investments in infrastructure, network expansion and rolling stock. The government's Transport and Liveability statement issued in May produces yet more spending on roads and very little on public transport. Of the $4 billion committed over the next four years, only 27% — about $1 billion — will be spent on new public transport infrastructure. Some 42% of the funds will be spent on roads! No new train or tram rolling stock will be purchased over the next four years.

Metropolitan public transport should be free. This is completely feasible. Earlier this year, even the Age newspaper — the voice of corporate Melbourne — was campaigning for this very thing. Coupled with big service improvements this would also lead to a big boost in patronage. Furthermore, all the heavy costs associated with ticketing and enforcement would be saved and could be redeployed into actually making the system better.

In September, Victorian transport minister Peter Batchelor launched the Myki ticketing system to be introduced in 2007 to replace the current system. This system is worth $494 million in a contract with the private operator Kamco. The Myki system requires users to scan the Myki card when they get on and when they get off! — raising issues of passenger safety and punctuality of services. Let's cut through all this crap by making the use of the system free.

Demand for decent public transport has increased, with the escalating cost of petrol and the opening up of new residential areas around Melbourne. The Victorian government's Melbourne 2030 plan recognises the need for better quality public transport, projecting that public transport's share of motorised travel in metropolitan Melbourne will rise to 20% from the current 9%. For this to actually happen there will have to be massive investments in the system.

The existing partnership agreements with the private operators run out in November 2008, and the Bracks government should announce now that the private contracts for our public transport system will not be renewed.

If the government does nothing to renew the contract, public transport reverts to public ownership without compensation being payable to the private contractors.

For Bracks and Batchelor the worst thing in the world would be for the government to run the public transport system. This seeming irrational stand is dictated by their total subservience to big business, which wants to get the chance to milk profits from all public utilities. In his years in power, Jeff Kennett orchestrated a massive sell-off of public assets. Bracks has hardly reversed any of this.

As Kenneth Davidson pointed out in the Age on May 4: "Based on its record, the government's game plan is probably to remain silent about the impending expiry of the franchises in the lead-up to the election so it would be free to renew after the election." Yet apparently the government has not decided what to do with the contract!

In the lead up to the November 25 state elections, let's increase the heat on Bracks and Batchelor. We demand that the state government:

•Publicly announce a commitment to no renewal of the private contracts.

•Begin preparations for state government control of all aspects of public transport (trains, trams, buses).

•Commit to large-scale investment in the public transport system, especially to cope with heavily increased patronage as petrol prices keep rising.

•Make metropolitan public transport completely free.

•Bring back conductors on trams; fully staff all train stations as long as services are running.

•Commit to a major upgrade of the train network (including "blackspot" areas not currently serviced in the Southeast and Western suburbs).

•Commit to a 5am-midnight minimum operation of all services (24-hour operation for major train lines).

•A new train line to East Doncaster to ease pressure on the Eastern Freeway and inner north.

•Extend existing lines to the outer suburbs — lines to Sunbury, Baxter and South Morang.

[Margarita Windisch is the Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Footscray in the Victorian election.]

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