Melbourne's public transport chaos

If there is one thing heading towards a complete meltdown even faster than our economy then it's Melbourne's privatised metropolitan public transport system.

As mass train cancellations have become an everyday occurrence, leaving thousands of commuters frustrated in sweltering heat, the justifications given by the private rail operator Connex and the Department of Transport are becoming increasingly implausible.

Connex chief executive Jonathan Metcalfe told 3AW radio that cancellations of trains on January 19 were due to very hot weather the day before — even though the temperature had only reached 25° Celsius!

And for good measure Connex has tried to blame the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) for the transport chaos, because it "stopped some trains running that could easily have been in use" the January 21 Age reported.

Terry Sheedy, president of the locomotive division of the RTBU gave a much more likely explanation for the cancellations in the same article. He put the blame on Connex's failure to improve maintenance standards and hire enough staff to solve the problems.

Victorian public transport minister, Lyn Kosky, extended the contracts to private operators Connex and Yarra Trams until November 2009. This came despite transport experts calling on the government to not renew the contracts when they expired in 2008 because of bad performance and high costs to the public.

Under the government agreements with the private operators, Yarra Trams receives taxpayer subsidies of $112 million per annum over five years and train operator Connex receives $345 million per annum over five years.

According to a 2006 report by leading urban planning academics titled Putting the public interest back into public transport, Victoria's privatised public transport system cost taxpayers $1.2 billion more than if it had remained state-owned. This figure is set to increase to $2.1 billion by 2010 if the system remains privatised.

Melbourne's public transport system has recently attracted international notoriety.

A 2007 University of Melbourne study, Travel to Work in Australian Capital Cities from 1976-2006, claims that some urban planners in the European Union are using Melbourne as a case study of what to avoid!

An August 2008 report commissioned by the Department of Transport, Melbourne Public Transport Standards Review, found Melbourne compares poorly to other international cities.

The report notes that Eastern European cities invest 137%, and Western European cities 57%, more in public transport per capita than Melbourne.

To make matters worse, frazzled commuters were hit with a hefty fare increase of 5% from January 1. This makes Melbourne's public transport system the most costly in Australia for trips under 40kms.

Danny Bowen from the Public Transport Users Association told Green Left Weekly that ultimately it is the government that needs to take responsibility for the problem: "The weather is no excuse; Melbourne gets hot in summer, that's normal and not new.

"The government owns the tracks and trains and needs to urgently upgrade the run down system", he said.

A leaked annual business plan for Yarra Tram reveals that the private operator also expects its ticket inspectors to increase their annual quota for passenger fines by 33%, Age journalist Clay Lucas told GLW.

Aggressive and confrontational ticket inspectors have become a notorious feature of Melbourne's transport system, leading to a raft of complaints.

Sue Bolton, Victorian Socialist Alliance state convener told GLW that the only real solution to Melbourne's public transport woes is for the government to take the system back into public hands, massively increase investment for proper maintenance and expansion, and to make it free.

"Especially in the current economic downturn and with the challenges that climate change poses, serious investment would help create jobs, reduce emissions and could deliver the integrated public transport system the community deserves", Bolton said.