From Sunday Age October 3 2010: Its time to help commuters make their connection
By Melissa Fyfe, The Sunday Age’s state politics reporter.
Dennis Cliche, they say, is just angry. This could be true. Last year, the former head of Yarra Trams lost the multibillion-dollar tram contract, despite a decade of strong performance. He was stunned by the government’s decision. Most observers were, too.
But Cliche’s hurt should not devalue his comments to transport academic John Stone in a revealing ”exit” interview earlier this year. Add a similar interview with three former executives of ousted train operator Connex, and Stone’s paper provides a rare look behind the operation and politics of Melbourne’s public transport system.
Cliche and Connex’s Jonathan Metcalfe are unapologetic fans of privatisation, as you would probably expect. But they gave some telling commentary about how political public transport has become and how the system is missing a central organising body and advocate for public transport.
This feeds into an interesting idea that is gathering support and deserves to be a key debate in next month’s election. It involves wresting power from the private operators and hollowmen government advisers and giving it to a crack team of independent experts with experience in co-ordinating the timetables and strategic direction of a large public transport network.
Broadly based on the Vancouver model – but similar to co-ordinating authorities in London, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Zurich, Perth and Singapore – this customer-focused body would receive direction from the minister but have the power to direct the private franchises; organise a city-wide timetable that connects buses, trams and trains; order upgrades; and plan for the future.
At the heart of this idea is that transport planning should be an open process in which the public participates. The board of Vancouver’s body, called TransLink, meets in public, like a local council. Anyone can address the board on any issue of concern.
Contrast this with Melbourne, where our transport future is scripted mostly in secret by political operatives enamoured of glossy, big-ticket engineering solutions tied with a multi-billion-dollar bow no one knows quite how to pay for.
Imagine, for example, such a body holding regular forums so witnesses and experts can be quizzed. You could call in transport unions and interrogate them about their practices. You could get the world’s best experts on air-conditioners and heatwaves. You could find out, finally, who is right: academic Paul Mees, who says the system can run more trains, or the government, which says it has reached capacity.
This type of body is a key election platform of the state Greens. They call it a public transport authority, a small body with perhaps a few dozen experts and some support staff, headed by an internationally recruited chief executive with proven success.
But the basic idea has been around for some time and has support from many quarters, including Michael Porter of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, who was involved in the privatisation of Victoria’s energy and water authorities in the 1980s and ’90s. Metcalfe and Cliche also support a co-ordinating body, as do some of Melbourne’s key transport experts, such as Stone and Mees.
Last year, a cross-party Senate committee investigating investment in public transport recommended Canberra only fund state infrastructure on the condition the states create central co-ordinating agencies in the style of WA’s Public Transport Authority.
Why do we need such a body? It is true the system suffers from a lack of capital investment, a consistent source of funding and long-term maintenance, but problems of governance persist and commuters are frustrated at the system’s failure to act like a network. As the former operators pointed out last week, there is nothing that resembles a Vancouver-style level of expertise and co-ordinated planning in Melbourne. Connex managers told Stone that too many planners, in its own ranks and in the department, had no experience beyond Melbourne.
The network marketing body, Metlink, was never designed to play a co-ordinating role and doesn’t. There is no financial incentive for the operators to connect services, only to deliver them on time. The real power is with a man called Hector McKenzie, the department’s director of public transport. But as senior players in transport pointed out to The Sunday Age, there is no public insight into how he goes about co-ordination and planning.
This year, a Victorian parliamentary inquiry shone a light on the ”co-ordination” between the operators and the government. The train inquiry transcript reveals that fixing basic problems (such as air-conditioners) requires long and complex discussions, with both sides often holding very different ideas about their obligations under the contracts.
As the city prepares for the future, it needs to take a quantum leap in public transport. What public transport needs is what the Victorian car lobby has had for decades: international expertise, a powerful planning body, strong advocacy and clout.