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. Read the rest of this entry »


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. Read the rest of this entry »