Do Melbourne’s trams need conductors?

Multi-section Siemens Combino tram - could one conductor handle all this in peak hour?

On the face of it, The Green’s case for the reintroduction of tram conductors looks pretty convincing. They say that for a net cost of just $6-9 million p.a., 1,000 conductors could be placed on all of Melbourne’s 500 odd trams from the first service to the last.

The Green’s proposal rests firmly on the assumption that the presence of conductors would effectively eliminate fare evasion. While it would cost $50 million p.a. to employ the conductors, they would claw back virtually all the estimated $40 million currently stolen by fare evaders.

Fewer ticket inspectors would therefore be needed and there’d be further savings in reduced vandalism and injuries to passengers. The Greens have called on the Government to introduce a two year trial with 100 conductors, targeted at heavily patronised routes like the No. 96.

Given we’ve (theoretically) got an automated ticketing system, my default position is we shouldn’t need the expense of conductors anymore than we still need elevator operators, ushers at the movies, bank tellers, or someone to fill our petrol tanks.

Yet The Green’s proposal is what I call a “what the heck” argument. The logic goes like this: the $40 million is dead money, so we might as well get some value out of it by bringing conductors back. It’s not necessarily the optimum way you’d spend an unencumbered $40 million, but what the heck, our options are limited.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea. Restoring conductors could potentially provide a range of benefits. As well as checking validations, they could issue short-trip tickets, advise tourists, assist the disabled and provide at least a limited disincentive to vandalism and anti-social behaviour. In my view conductors could also provide an important intangible benefit – they would eliminate the ‘regularisation’ of evasion that is arguably inherent in the existing system.

Indeed, if the net cost really is less than $10 million p.a. as The Greens claim, restoring conductors sounds like a pretty attractive proposition. The idea could be very attractive politically to a Government that wants to demonstrate its bona fides on public transport.

But there’s the inevitable catch. The Greens assume 1,000 conductors because that was the staffing level when the conductor role was abolished in the early 90s and it seems to fit with the size of the current fleet (just under 500 trams) and the need for two shifts per day. However while the number of trams hasn’t increased significantly since the days of conductors, the size of trams has.

It’s doubtful that a lone conductor could make much headway through a crowded five-section Siemens Combino tram carrying 200 passengers in peak hour, while checking mykis, helping passengers and selling tickets. Either larger trams require multiple conductors in the peak – at greater cost – or it has to be accepted that conductors wouldn’t make as big a dent in foregone revenue as The Greens assume.

In any event, even if The Green’s number is accepted, it still under-estimates the number of conductors that would be needed. Due allowance hasn’t been made for conductors getting sick, going on holidays, attending training, and so on. Also, on-costs need to be factored in, as well as administrative support and the cost of equipment like mobile myki readers.

If I assume 1,300 conductors are required at $50,000 p.a., plus 50% on-costs, the aggregate cost is $97 million p.a. (I’ll follow The Greens in also assuming a saving of $10 million p.a. because 100 ticket inspectors would no longer be required, but I’ll add back $10 million p.a. for ancillary costs). That looks pretty expensive compared to the amount of evaded revenue conductors could realistically bring in.

But we don’t necessarily have to adopt the “what the heck” strategy. There might be other ways to recover all or part of the lost $40 million, thereby enabling any recovered funds to be applied to their optimal use. A failing of The Green’s proposal is that it doesn’t assess the alternatives.

According to this press report, only 1% of tram tickets are checked by inspectors. That sounds like awfully good odds for evaders. The obvious question is whether there is scope to increase net revenue by employing more inspectors. There’s got to be a ‘sweet spot’ in the ratio of cost to recovered revenue.

Also, the deterrent effect of the current $180 fine warrants review. Again, the obvious question is what effect a larger fine might have on compliance. There’s probably some legal issue of ‘proportionality’ that would need to be considered – the maximum size of the fine can’t be higher than more serious offences – but it’s an option that should be evaluated.

There are other possibilities too. The tram operator shares aggregate ticket revenue with train and bus operators in a fixed ratio, so the operator’s incentive to minimise evasion is lessened. There might be ways to frame the contracts that give the tram operator a greater interest in protecting revenue.

Improving availability of tickets could also help to bolster revenue – there are other cities with ticketing/validation machines at every tram stop. It might also be possible to create “enclosed” super stops in the city centre where entry and exit, as with the loop rail stations, requires validation. There’s also the option of strengthening the powers of ticket inspectors. Not all of these are equally feasible or even desirable, but they should be examined.

The Greens describe their proposal as “partial” and “selective”, yet the only specific limitation I can see is in the idea of a two year trial with 100 inspectors. However I can’t imagine any Government would be so politically naïve that they’d embark on a trial unless they were already committed to the idea.

It would be nice to have conductors again, but if it’s going to have a net cost of circa $60 million p.a. or more, I think there’re better ways the money could be spent. Melbourne train travellers manage without a conductor, I think tram travellers can too.

Frankly, I don’t know why nominally progressive people are so infatuated with this issue. In my opinion, spending $60 million p.a. on improving outer suburban bus services would achieve a lot more environmentally and socially than providing conductors for relatively privileged inner city and inner suburban tram travellers.

24 Comments on “Do Melbourne’s trams need conductors?”

  1. Daniel says:

    I’m not sure I find the tram length argument very convincing. Conductors managed fine on B-class trams (24 metres); would they really not cope on a 30 metre Combino? It’s not even as if trams spend all of their time packed to the gills.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Much more revenue at stake when they’re packed to the gills though. My recollection of catching the No. 96 tram to work in the mid 80s was many times not paying simply because the conductor found it slow going to negotiate the crowd.

      • Tips says:

        I agree that there is a rose-coloured-glasses view of conductors capacity to collect fares. As a kid riding conductored trams in the late 80s and 90s, I remember a lot of opportunities for fare evasion, in all manner of clever ways. And that was long before most people caught trams. No way could a conductor get around some of our more packed trams these days.

        • Tips says:

          The conductor needs to be able to see all the doors at each stop, so they can then go find all the new passengers. The bigger and busier that tram, the longer that will take. If they are still servign passengers by the time the tram gets to the next stop, the more unchecked tickets they need to store in their head!

  2. Jim Wells says:

    In the 60’s single conductors coudn’t cope with crowded W2s.

  3. Jeremy says:

    It’s worth noting that all the alternatives that you mention are passenger hostile. The trouble with honesty fare systems is that the potential for an honest person to forget is always a possibility. So you want to increase the chances this person will be caught and slapped with a bigger fine. Yet this person pays for every other journey they make, bar one or two days every year say.

    For example, public transport fines are already out of proportion with parking fines. I believe it’s $180 for the first offence but it goes up by about $100 for subsequent offences. In contrast a fine for fare evasion in Germany is 40 euro. Far more reasonable and would certainly reduce the hostility between passengers and ticket inspectors. But I’m not convinced that a solution that still predominately relies on passenger honesty will ever be effective.

    While putting barriers on tram stops may be effective with reducing fare evasion, it will reduce permeability of stops. With that convenience of accessing trams will go down and capacity will become constrained. It’s already much worse with the current super stop design than it previously has been.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The way to deal with “forgetful but honest” travellers is to make it too easy to buy and validate tickets. The suggestion of having scanners at every tram stop is one possible way of doing that. Of course there are potential issues (e.g. vandalism), but I can’t see how such a measure would be “passenger hostile”.

      • Jeremy says:

        Doesn’t help 100% because you can still walk past the validator and forget to validate. The station announcements reminding passengers to validate their tickets become white noise over the years, especially when you always validate and think you validated for that journey.

        As for trams, they won’t be putting vending machines at every stop. They were initially ordered for being installed on board trams and there are about four times as many stops as trams. Expect chaos when Metcard is turned off and passengers expecting to buy tickets on board trams can no longer do so….

        • Alan Davies says:

          If ticketing/validating is made really easy and really legible, the “I forgot” defence doesn’t stand up, anymore than it would if you walked out of a newsagent without paying for a magazine.

          • I’m not in Melbourne but ride public transportation every day. Forgetting is rare but it happens. Last year, I probably forgot to validate maybe twice. One of those days I was lucky enough to meet a fare inspector. He let me off because everbody else in the train vouched for me, otherwise it’s a US$200 fine.

          • Jeremy says:

            The difference with the newsagency is that they typically have staff working there! It’s pretty hard to walk past a staffed counter and forget to pay. Likewise I find it harder to forget validating at a staffed station even though the staff aren’t checking tickets, it’s like walking past the staffed counter at a newsagency, it just prompts your memory better far than an inanimate post. But with staff actually checking tickets, well that’d be impossible to forget!

    • Marcus W says:

      You could drop the fine but ramp up enforcement: a $50 fine monthly costs a fare evader the same as a $150 fine every 3 months, but the $50 fine is fairer for someone who was unlucky enough to forget to buy a ticket as a one off.

      • Dave says:

        People aren’t so forgetful once they’ve copped a fine. Likewise, you don’t forget to check you speed so often once you’ve got a speeding fine.

  4. RED says:

    The inner cities greens hate the outer suburban residents, considering them loutish bogans. Why would they care about public transport in the outer city? All they really want is better services for themselves. I wonder how many of the people calling for conductors on trams have ever tried to negotiate public transport in the outer suburbs?
    I agree with you that the money would have much more impact if it were used to greatly increase bus services in the outer suburbs to a level where they are actually a useful service.
    It took me two and a quarter hours to get into the city from Frankston by bus and train a couple of weeks ago! I nearly cried with joy when I got my car back from the smash repairers.

    • I’m an “inner city green”, and I support fixing the bus network. We’ve currently got a “network” that resembles someone taking a bowl of spaghetti and upturning it on a map of Melbourne.

      However as we’ve already got a huge number of bus services running virtually empty (because bad services attract few passengers), putting in place a planned network (as opposed to the 100 or so different operators all just making individual decisions on where to put routes approach) shouldn’t cost much more than it does now. The extra services needed should be able to pay for much of themselves through increased patronage.

      I also support bringing conductors back though. Mainly for the reasons outlined in the post above. The costs might still outweigh the tangible benefits, but it’s also a bunch more jobs and most importantly a public face to the system. Hell even finding out if your stop is approaching can be difficult enough on a tram, especially the newer trams where you can’t talk to the drivers!

  5. […] back tram conductors: The Greens want to bring back Melbourne’s tram conductors. But Alan Davies at the Melbourne Urbanist is unconvinced: "I don’t know why nominally progressive people are so infatuated with […]

  6. […] back tram conductors: The Greens want to bring back Melbourne’s tram conductors. But Alan Davies at the Melbourne Urbanist is unconvinced: “I don’t know why nominally progressive people are so infatuated with this […]

  7. Richard says:

    The conductor argument is good one, however it’s the lack of design of a system that is the problem. A passenger shouldn’t be able to leave a PT vehicle or station without paying.

    Simple solution number 1.
    * Get on at the back door, scan the pre-paid card, or buy a ticket on the way in or once on.
    * Get off at the front door, scan the pre-paid card or ticket on the way out.

    At tram stops – queue to get on at the back. If no-ones getting on, the driver doesn’t open the door.

    Some may find this an odd suggestion. However I have seen it at work on trams and buses in many large cities in SE Asia.

    Some $ would be needed to make alterations, but for much less than $40 million recurring annually!

  8. Peter Hill says:

    The money some propose to be spent on conductors’ wages could also employ the same people (if they were suitable) as bus drivers to staff an expanded and improved bus network servicing Melbourne’s “less fashionable” middle and outer suburbs.

    I get irritated by the arguments from predominantly inner urban “green” gentry – the political nomenklatura – for conductors as an extra relish on top of what is already the best local public transport service in metro Melbourne, when big swathes of outer and even middle suburbia don’t get evening or weekend PT services of any mode. There are greater needs to be met elsewhere, and some fairness in social equity is called for here by me. Victorian taxpayers aren’t just at the beck-and-call of vocal inner urban elites.

    • Peter Hill says:

      Further to my own post of 30th October! A news item from Brisbane, where the government is seriously delivering more BUS services to the growing areas of metropolitan Brisbane 🙂

      New Bus Services for Brisbane:-

      A multi-million dollar bus package will deliver more services in the southern and south-western Brisbane networks. Two new bus routes have been established in Brisbane and more bus services will run on several existing routes at a cost of $4 million.

      As an oversimplification, that’s about $2 million per new route. Just think how many more bus services $60 million (the estimated wages cost of providing conductors on all tram services in Melbourne) could “buy” in the middle and especially the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Maybe some critics might opine that the government shouldn’t make life more amenable in those outer suburbs, as folk might want to live there, with all their unsustainable “great Australian Dream” consumer behaviours!

  9. RED says:

    On buses, people get on at the front door and must show/validate their ticket, then get off the back door. I can actually remember the days when buses had conductors and you’d get on and off at either door. It was an education process to get people to do the ‘front door entry, back door exit’ thing, but eventually everyone got with the program. That must have been about 1986.
    Funny that no-one is calling for conductors to be reinstated on buses!

    Anyway, the point is that people could be trained to enter and exit at defined doors on trams as well. Get on the front door, swipe your myki … get off the back door, swipe your myki again. It wouldn’t really slow the trams down that much, if at all, and it would significantly increase validation, especially if the drivers had some ’emergency tickets’ to sell.

  10. […] of those options is clawing back evaded fare revenue, but I doubt it is the goldmine many imagine. I don’t find the argument that the private operators and the government are too […]

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