Is management of public transport a mess?

Who is responsible for public transport? (PTUA)

It seems the way management structures and processes are arranged is still the key public transport solution being advanced in the Victorian election campaign.

The first three points in the Green’s Six Point Transport Plan all relate to governance and management. Now the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has released this chaotic flowchart with the charge that “a hundred different organisations are running public transport in Victoria” (see first graphic).

The PTUA says the flowchart illustrates how difficult it is for the average person to work out who to contact with questions and problems. This is a brilliant and no doubt effective piece of politics, building on the glorious history of spaghetti diagrams like Barry Jones’ famous Knowledge Nation vision.

As I’ve argued before, I think management arrangements are a second order issue – there’re more important things to get right first. And I’m by no means arguing that current arrangements are ideal or can’t be improved.

But there are a number of reasons why this flowchart is not a fair and reasonable account of the way transport is managed in Victoria.

First, as pointed out by a commenter (Invincible) over at, this is a deceptive diagram – flow charts usually flow from top left to bottom right, otherwise they will always look misleadingly complex. Invincible has redrawn the same information in a more logical flow, producing a vastly simpler diagram (see second graphic).

Same data, different diagram (by Invincible)

Second, the numbers are exaggerated. Of the one hundred odd organisations the PTUA identifies, 77 are private bus companies. There are many localities in Victoria served by buses. A small, local operation is often better placed to meet community needs than a very large one covering all or a large part of the State.

Third, there are a number of organisations that seem to be included only for the purpose of adding apparent complexity. Can the existence of a completely independent organisation like Bicycle Victoria really be counted as evidence of unnecessary complexity in the way the Government is managing the transport portfolio? Likewise, the inclusion of a national organisation like Australian Rail Track Corporation is, at best, highly questionable.

Fourth, there are a number of non-transport organisations in the diagram, like the Police and local government, which couldn’t seriously be considered for rationalisation solely or primarily to meet transport objectives. In this context they would have to be regarded as a given no matter how the Transport portfolio itself were restructured.

Fifth, any difficulties the average person has in working out who to contact – what the diagram nominally shows – is not necessarily evidence that the management structure, with its attendant systems of accountability and communication, is lacking. It might be an easy cliché, but how easy it is to make contact is not necessarily a reliable measure of management effectiveness.

So I don’t think the PTUA’s flowchart really provides a fair assessment of the weaknesses in the way public transport is currently managed in Victoria.

It should also be noted that virtually all of the relevant functions in the PTUA’s diagram have to be provided, whether or not they are delivered by separate identifiable entities, or are collectively subsumed within a larger organisation.

The need to coordinate functions will still exist. While it might be argued that coordination would be easier within one organisation, there is a wealth of experience that says large organisations also have their downsides.

The idea of better integrating responsibilities and services is an important one – there are certainly plenty of examples in Melbourne where different modes are not harmonised.

But I don’t see much evidence that creating a new Public Transport Authority over the top of the existing structure is the silver bullet, as the PTUA and the Greens seem to think. It’s more important to get the right policies, the right relationships, the right resources and the right people.

10 Comments on “Is management of public transport a mess?”

  1. jack horner says:

    Agree that the PTUA’s chart is a bit of a beat up.

    Agree that ideal administrative structure, in principle, is neither necessary nor sufficient for good outcomes.

    Not necessary, since good managers working cooperatively may achieve good outcomes in spite of an unhelpful structure.

    Not sufficient, in that bad managers will achieve bad outcomes in spite of a helpful structure.

    But in practice, a helpful structure – helps.

    Perhpaps it is a second order issue, but if you do something about it it might, in a strategic sense, help you manage your first order issues.

    A single transport authority is responsible for planning and delivering an integrated network service with one brand and marketing (it can contract out the actual service provision behind the scenes as much as it likes).

    Who is responsible for that at present? Some unknown bunch of policy officers within the department of transport, presumably. They’re not doing very well, are they? This is not a personal criticism, it’s just that the present structure and bureaucratic power relationships makes it hard for them to do their job.

    • Alan Davies says:

      A very concise and well put summary!

      Yes, much better to have a helpful structure than a bad one.

      We already have the Director of Public Transport who is responsible for making sure the system works as a whole.

      There are problems as you say but I doubt they are either caused by, missed by, or will be solved by, creating a new structure.

      But having said that, it seems the Government is losing the PR war on this one. A smart political move could be to give the Director’s office more visibility.

  2. I see the term ‘larger organisation’ numerous times throughout your article.

    Whilst I don’t know if the PTUA have ever actually put a figure on the number of employees they think should run the Public Transport Authority (PTA) that they propose, the Greens certainly have.

    The Greens have suggested that around 50-60 people should be employed by the PTA. This would include about a dozen recognised public transport experts recruited from Australia and abroad (‘the right people’).

    You’ve also suggested in the last paragraph that creating a new authority over the top of the existing structure is not going to be a silver bullet. I think you would find that both the PTUA and the Greens wholeheartedly agree with you, which is why they wish to scrap:

    * Transport Ticketing Authority;
    * VicTrack;
    * Metlink;
    * The Public Transport Ombudsman;
    * The director of PT and the PT division of the DOT.

    The plan is not to create one bigger, more powerful authority over the top of everything else as Labor and yourself seem to be trying to indicate. The plan is to cut out huge swathes of bureaucracy and departments and replace this with a lean, accountable organisation that can oversee almost every aspect of the network and that is somewhat removed from the Government of the day.

    It is true that this organisation would still be outsourcing a lot of tasks, but at least with one organisation outsourcing everything, there is only ever one degree of separation between the task being performed and who is in charge.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Actually Julian, I think you’ll find that I only mentioned the issue of organisational size that one time. It was a response to the implication of the diagram that there are too many entities.

      I don’t buy the Government’s “extra tier of bureaucracy” interpretation of the Green’s PTA proposal either. But it’s not clear to me how it’s all going to be done with a lean and hungry 50-60 person authority.

      If all those entities in your list are to be scrapped, where are those functions going to be delivered?

      • Well for comparison the Zurcher Verkehrsverbund or ZVV (Canton of Zurich PTA) employees 34 staff.

        This does obviously not include station staff, drivers, etc. Those tasks can easily be outsourced, providing they are reporting directly to the PTA there is no reason why you need hundreds of staff members.

        Having hundreds (possibly above 1,000) of employees spread across multiple organisations and departments is fertile ground for a complete lack of efficiency.

        Do you know what (the most recent) excuse I got from Metlink about the lack of a full PT map (missing since at least 2006) in Melbourne was?

        I am informed that we have experainced some difficulties in regard to the accuracy of bus route data for the online public transport map.

        When we audited the data we found that the accuracy of the GPS location data was poor – there are about 500 unique route paths in Melbourne and about 25,000 stops to be checked and updated.

        As a result we have deployed teams with GPS devices to capture the stop locations and bus route paths. It is anticipated that more work for the online public transport map and local area guides will continue and that we may have a Beta version of the online public transport map available in later in the year.”

        Who the hell is in charge of planning bus routes if teams of GPS wielding employees need to head off riding buses just so Melbourne can have a basic map?!

        This simply wouldn’t happen if one smaller organisation was in charge of calling the shots.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Isn’t the ZVV model just the same Purchaser/Provider model that Kennett and Stockdale promoted in the 90s i.e. a small unit that purchases services from public and private providers?

        How does it differ substantively from the Director of Public Transport model?

  3. I don’t know if you are referring the model that we have now. I was too young to know if what we ended up with was different to what Kennett might have been promoting at an earlier date.

    The ZVV takes care of all finance, timetable coordination and route planning. Or simply put Tactical Planning. Operators are responsible for operations and are paid on Km/s run, not passenger numbers (meaning feeder services, which are virtually always unprofitable can be cross subsidised by profitable routes without any individual operator getting their knickers in a knot).

    Currently Melbourne runs on a franchise system where each operator essentially takes care of their own tactical planning, although it does have to be rubber-stamped by the DOT. Operators are also paid, with heavy subsidies based on a passenger number basis meaning their only incentive to work together, when it means an increase in passenger numbers for both or all operators.

    • Sure wish I’d proofread that properly..

      “meaning there is only an incentive to work together when it means an increase in passenger numbers for both or all operators.”

  4. Tony Morton says:

    Julian is right. Kennett’s ‘Purchaser/Provider’ model was in fact a franchising model, which is not quite the same thing as the contracting approach taken elsewhere. It was an audacious political experiment with handing much of the planning of public transport service to private operators on the assumption the market would ‘innovate’ and spontaneously create a better system. The reason it’s failed (and simply resulted in paying more money to get the same mediocre outcome as before) is that you need strong coordination to get the various modes and operators working together as a network.

    I agree that you can’t simply fiddle with organisation charts and expect that to deliver a superior outcome (which is why the new Transport Integration Act is mostly hot air). But the PTA idea is really more about putting the right people in the right place with the right powers to get things done. The idea is you don’t take the same people who failed to make the system work before, and put them in charge yet again (that’s another mistake that was made with the Kennett privatisation). It’s about having things run by network planners, not contract lawyers.

    If we can have a competent and powerful road planning body (Vicroads) separate from the departmental structure, it makes sense to seek the same for public transport.

  5. Tony Morton says:

    Incidentally – Alan asks why is Bicycle Victoria on the PTUA diagram at all? The reason is that BV now has management responsibility for the Parkiteer bike cages at railway stations. If you want to store a bike there, you don’t talk to the station staff; you go and see BV. (Whereas if you want to use a bike locker, you talk to Metro Trains.) Likewise, if you want to complain about the upkeep of a bus shelter you have to go to a third party, either the local council or an advertising company.

    The point being made here is that a PTA would be a one-stop shop for all interaction with the travelling public, just like Transperth or the ZVV or Vancouver Translink. If a bus shelter is in poor repair, the PTA is responsible for fixing it (even if the actual maintenance is contracted out). Bike lockers and bike cages are handled through the same contact point. And so on.

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