Are Melbourne’s trains really getting safer?

Offences on NYC's subway have fallen

A new report on the safety of Melbourne’s trains says they are getting safer. Reported offences fell from 45 per million passenger boardings in 2005-06 to 33 in 2008-09. That’s a phenomenal 27% reduction.

The report, titled Personal Safety and Security on the Metropolitan Train System, was prepared by the Victorian Auditor General and released publicly on 9 June 2010, shortly after a mob attacked a train at McKinnon station.

While the statistics look good, the report also says that passenger’s perceptions of safety on trains nevertheless got worse over the same period and are significantly lower than for trams and buses. Passengers feel reasonably safe during daylight hours but markedly less safe at night, not only in trains but also on stations and in car parks.

An initial observation is that 33 offences per million boardings is actually not that good. For example, crime is much lower on the New York City subway (see chart -shows absolute numbers), which carries ten million passengers on an average work day. The Boston rail system carries 350 million passengers per year with only 2.2 crimes per million boardings.

But what I want to look at is the puzzling matter of why passengers feel less safe on Melbourne’s trains even though crime is apparently falling.

Disappointingly, the Auditor General’s report doesn’t seek to explain why they are out of kilter. The implication seems to be that passenger’s perceptions are irrational and shaped by the media.

The key to understanding what’s going on, I think, is firstly to note that the number of crimes increased in absolute terms. The number of assaults rose from 887 in 2005-06 to 1,180 in 2008-09 and the number of crimes against property increased from 4,193 to 4,397 over the same period.

However these raw numbers need to be looked at in the context of a second factor. Patronage increased massively – by around 50% between June 2005 and 2010 according to the Auditor General. Hence even though crime has risen, the number of passengers has increased at a much faster rate, producing a fall in crime per passenger.

At first glance that seems fair enough. More passengers could mean more potential offenders and more opportunities for crime. But I think there might be more to it. I can’t vouch for the reliability of all the data so I’m not going to be dogmatic, but apart from the “irrational perceptions” explanation, I wonder if there aren’t perhaps other reasons why the number of offences and travellers perceptions diverge so much. Let me advance two hypotheses.

First, it might partly be because the level of resources devoted to policing has not increased in line with the 50% increase in passengers. Victoria Police’s Transit Safety Division oversees the public transport system (buses, trams and trains) and had 200 officers up until April this year, when the number of full-time transit police was increased to 246, or by 23% (fare inspectors are a separate group).

If the number of police doesn’t increase in line with the rise in passenger numbers then proportionately fewer crimes will be detected. I’m not talking here about crimes that are easy to identify like serious assaults or robberies – those sorts of offences will always be recorded because there’s a victim who can’t be ignored.

But passive crimes like possessing a knife – which rely on police being proactive and taking the initiative – are more likely to go undetected. The transit police will always be going backwards if their numbers aren’t increasing as fast as passengers.

This explanation assumes (as the Auditor General implicitly does) that offences are proportional to passenger numbers, but this might not be the case. A second explanation for the apparent discrepancy between crime rates and passenger’s perceptions might be that there are separate passenger “markets”. As I understand it, most of the 50% increase in train patronage occurs in the AM and PM peaks and is strongly correlated with commuters journeying to work by train, particularly to the city centre.

Negative perceptions of safety and security however are primarily shaped by off peak conditions. I expect that most of the serious personal and property crime occurs outside the peaks – at night, on weekends and afternoons, and clusters on particular lines and even particular stations.

If I am right about that, then what we therefore really ought to be told is how offences per passenger are tracking during the more dangerous periods and on the more dangerous lines. As passenger numbers have not risen dramatically in the off peak, it might be that offences per passenger have actually increased during this period, or at least not improved. If so, this would accord with perceptions.

If offenders do not travel as much in the peaks (or are not inclined to offend as much during the peaks) then aggregate or system-wide measures of offending rates will not be that revealing. Worse, they will conceal the real underlying level of danger to travellers and might lead to resources being inefficiently deployed.

I can’t be certain about my explanations – they’re hypotheses. Whatever the real explanation is for what’s going on with these numbers, I’m not persuaded the Auditor General has looked hard enough at this issue.

(For some wise words on personal safety and public transport, see this article by Peter Parker of Melbourne on Transit).

2 Comments on “Are Melbourne’s trains really getting safer?”

  1. TomD says:

    Great dissection of the statistics and possibilities Alan! All stats should be presented with such accompanying variables to aid enhanced public understanding of the possible truths and explanations. And also challenge politicians and Ministers to realize there may still be a need to delve and act further.

  2. […] the other hand experienced 1,327 assaults in 2008 but carried only 219 million passengers. I’ve previously cited stats suggesting that both New York City and Boston also have much lower crime levels on their rail […]

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