Time to nationalise public transport

November 5, 2016

The socialisation of essential services is fast becoming a formidable policy in the “contestable marketplace of ideas”. Nowhere is this more so than with railways and bus services; an everyday service all social demographics touch daily.

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn believes nationalisation and socialisation will save millions of pounds a year, get community members back to work, augment sustainable transport and retool British industries.

“Labour will put an end to rip-off Britain,” he said. “We will bring the railways back into public ownership, run for people, not profit.”

In Melbourne, advocates of sustainable transport are following Corbyn's lead. A groundswell of community opinion is in favour of public transport, questioning the privatisation model that has stood for 16 years.

Melbourne’s tracks and stations infrastructure remains publicly owned, but the trains, maintenance and customer services are operated by the private sector, under a private franchise system.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union, in a sign of the times, is confidently calling for their return under public ownership. RTBU state secretary Luba Grigorovitch said: “The network, employees and passengers would be better off if the network were operated by a different organisation, or if the network was bought back into the control of the government.”

Socialist councillors in Melbourne continue to call for public control, while infrastructure advocates at Melbourne University condemn the $9.6 billion privatisation model as an embarrassing failure in need of a radical shift back to public ownership.

The public debate is loud and timely: Melbourne’s privatisation contracts will be negotiated over the next eight months with consortium Metro Trains Melbourne (MTM).

Historically, the 100-year public administration of the public transport system was not a profound socialisation: at the most it was a publicly-owned state-run network.

At a Public Transport Community Forum at Melbourne University, Dr John Stone of the Urban Planning Program raised a few rhetorical questions: “What is MTM contracted to do? How does it make its profits? How well has it performed since 2009? Is it worthy of an uncontested rollover?”

Stone believes the proposed “roll over” of the service, maintenance and trains contracts to Mass Transit Railway (MTR) until 2025 without a tender process, will inevitably create a monopoly “that would, almost inevitably, leave the travelling public with higher costs and declining services”.

Using sophisticated data mining to dig deep into public and corporate data, Stone has holistically analysed the system. Unsurprisingly, the figures tell the story of an inexorable focus on profits and system-wide gaming of contracts for MTR shareholders.

“It is a model,” he says, “without a true social and environmental purpose, or even planning identity. Benchmarks have been agreed in private: we know nothing about what is measured or how well MTM has done.”

Undisclosed publicly, and protected by confidence clauses, the output of train service provision is concealed. Public knowledge is vague. Grigorovitch echoes these concerns. “At the end of the day, fewer executive secrets and more access to data will be critical to holding the operator to account.”

For MTR, the contract is a dream come true. Melbourne’s costs per capita are purported to be one quarter the costs of Hong Kong, Toronto, and Seoul.

Anyone who has travelled on the Melbourne network, let alone studied it, would agree with Stone that the figure is largely fictional. Such miraculous figures have given the private operators a $16.7 million bonus on a reported $39.6 million profit for MTM.

But uncounted in the total figures however, are Myki tickets and capital inputs. Stone said: “The biggest growth in costs has been for maintenance and capital works.” Capital works payments make up more than half of all MTM profits, between $17–$20 million.

What is known publicly is that the MTR, even with excessive capital subsidies, has failed to meet its core maintenance and safety benchmarks.

In leaked emails early this year, MTR executives outlined the massive repair backlog and began deleting reports of faults. Grigorovitch said: "We currently have hundreds of faults across the network that before privatisation would have been fixed within a week of being identified."

On other benchmarks, MTR met services and time targets. But to meet these contract benchmarks, Grigorovitch explained, involved: “station skipping and figure fudging, shortcuts on the maintenance of infrastructure, understaffing and further jeopardisation of the safety of workers and the broader public.”

Train cramming and cancellations in places like Upfield have been issues over the current nine-year contract, said Stone. Socialist councillor Sue Bolton, who serves in and around the Upfield line, said train cancellations and the ticket inspector campaign are as bad as anywhere in Melbourne.

Bolton said the well known punitive system of spot-fining easy targets such as migrants and the homeless “hasn’t created an equitable system”. Indeed, the customer benchmark is publicly reported on the "low scale". As one rail worker pointed out to Green Left Weekly: “If the patrons are scared of the corporations, how do you think the employees feel?”

Positions have been cut, leading to safety issues and a lack of customer service. The union has recently campaigned on assaults occurring on frontline workers. As a result, thousands of rail workers are calling on the government to change contract providers or return to a public system.

But calls for public control of the system are falling on deaf ears within the Labor government. This is because the public service and government no longer have the skills to manage the network — the public sector has been deskilled via a brain drain. Accountants, lawyers and managers make up the public sector skill set these days, and 50 years of engineering and planning skills have been lost to the private sector.

In spite of this, public rail is alive and well in most major networks in Australia. There is still hope that private contractors will be sacked or may pull out of the network due to public and union pressure. In 2001 the corporate operator of the regional V/line suddenly quit as the operator, citing lack of profits.

Stone said regional rail, while not perfect, is still owned and operated publicly and has a corporate social responsibility model. This year V/line was banned from network access after a V/line train failed to activate a crossing in Dandenong.

Overall, however, V/line’s benchmark rating of punctuality is 92%, without train turn backs, new track and line upgrades have appeared and 95% of regional patrons willingly pay for the public service.

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