Are Melbourne’s trains really dangerous?

"You are not alone" - discouraging suicide in Belgrade (click)

Personal safety on trains is a big election issue. Both major parties have promised to increase transit police numbers and to return more staff to stations.

This is not a beat up. Fear about personal safety – whether real or imagined – could seriously undermine usage of Melbourne’s trains, especially in off-peak periods. There’s a danger that negative perceptions will reach a ‘tipping point’ and assume epidemic proportions.

If the money proposed to be spent on building and operating a Doncaster rail line were instead devoted to improving security on the entire train system, I’ve little doubt it would give a much bigger pay-off in terms of replacing car trips with train.

But that highlights the other big issue with security – it adds significantly to the cost of running the train system.

The Government has promised an extra 100 transit police and 180 staff to provide a “presence” at all metropolitan stations. The Opposition is promising two armed police protective services officers on every one of Melbourne’s 200 plus stations after 6pm.

The Auditor General says there isn’t really a problem – passengers are apparently over-reacting. The number of crimes on the rail system remained constant over the last five years even though patronage grew 50%. Crime fell from 45 offences per million boardings in 2005-06 to 33 in 2008-09.

Yet in spite of these favourable numbers, perceptions of personal safety on trains and at stations have deteriorated over the same period. The proportion who rated the rail system as safe declined from 55% in 2005-06 to 51% in 2008-09. In contrast, perceptions of personal safety on buses were constant at around 71% over the period.

Train users might be delusional or irrational, but I doubt it.

I think a key reason for the apparent disconnect between perception and reality is that most of the recent increase in train patronage occurred in the peak. Train travellers, however, see the off peak as the dangerous period, especially at night.

There might be a quite different picture if stats were available specifically on the change in off peak crime compared to the change in off peak patronage. In other words, I’m not sure the Auditor General’s numbers are telling the full story.

Another possible explanation is that while total rail-related crime remained constant at about 7,000 offences per year (of which over 60% is property-related crime), the number of assaults and robberies increased sharply from 887 in 2005-06 to 1,190 in 2008-09. It seems to me that people are more fearful of personal violence than they are of property-related crimes involving offences like breaking into cars in station car parks.

My feeling is that public transport is one of the few times when many people are exposed for any length of time to the sorts of people – no doubt often drunk and disorderly – they imagine are primarily responsible for violent acts on trains. Perceptions of the potential for violence probably drive feelings of insecurity.

But perhaps the most telling factor of all is that no matter what the current trend is, the Melbourne system actually isn’t all that safe by international standards. The Age reports there were 160 assaults in 2008 on the Toronto rail system, which carried 750 million passengers that year. Melbourne on 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 systems than Melbourne.

Violent crime on trains seems to be going against the broader societal trend. According to ANU economist (and now Federal MP), Dr Andrew Leigh, serious violent crime has declined in Australia. Writing in his new book, Disconnected, Dr Leigh says the average chance of being murdered fell from around two in 100,000 in the late 1980s to 1.2 per 100,000 in the late 2000s (the homicide rate is taken as a proxy for violent crimes like assault and rape because the latter sometimes aren’t reported, whereas homicide almost always is).

The railways, it seems, have a problem. Focussing resources on those stations and services with the biggest problems is doubtless the most cost-effective approach in the short term. But something much deeper seems to be going on – trains are just the symptom, not the cause. Whether real or imagined, whichever party is in Government after 27 November needs to take the issue of passengers’ personal safety very seriously. They will need to look beyond the rail system.

4 Comments on “Are Melbourne’s trains really dangerous?”

  1. A very good post Alan.

    It’s good to see a breakdown of the property vs. violent crime, and hardly surprising that people feel more threatened by the later category.

    I think the best solution to this problem will be restaffing stations and putting more official presence on the trains. Hopefully the cost of all the additional staff will be considerably offset by an increase in farebox revenue.

    Of the 2 major parties policies on the issue though I think Labor have hit the nail on the head and the Liberals have missed the mark.

    I’m sure both policies would increase actual safety along similar levels, however the presence of armed guards, twiddling their thumbs 95% of the time would be detrimental to the perceived safety of the network by making it look even more dangerous than it is. Meanwhile regular station staff can provide some extra services and make the system feel more ‘humanised’ without the ‘WARNING’ ‘DANGER’ vibe.

    On a side note I believe the yellow squares with CCTV, bright lights and giant wording ‘SAFETY ZONE’ on the ground at stations probably aren’t helping perceived safety either!

  2. Chris says:

    I think these issues indicate a more serious failure by Victoria police to accurately record crime statistics.

    If Melbourne’s police knew where and when crimes were happening the way the NYPD apparently does they could use their resources much more efficiently, and staff the correct stations at the correct time, with the correct presence.

    But instead Melbourne’s police focus all their attention on abusing civil liberties and having their photo taken.

  3. […] I agree that Education for Life won’t rattle the windows of most voters, but the objectives of the program are important and worthwhile. As explained by VECCI, it addresses the disengagement of many young people from the education system. This is a program that, if done well, might help to tackle the sorts of safety and security issues around trains that I discussed yesterday. […]

  4. jack horner says:

    For fun, let’s see how many security guards could be hired in lieu of building the Doncaster line @ $2 billion.

    Upfront capital cost of X, discounted at 7% over 20 years (Treasury standard) has an annual value of about X/11.

    If a security guard costs $75,000 per year (guess), $2 billion upfront cost may be exchanged for employing about 2,400 guards, indefinitely.

    This is not particularly a criticism of the Doncaster proposal, which should stand or fall on other grounds. Just making the point that for all majore infratructure proposals alternatives and opportunity cost should be considered.

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