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. Read the rest of this entry »


Do public transport and road pricing go together?

Animation of US expansion from 1700-1900 - post office openings

It surprises me who’s still lukewarm about congestion pricing of roads. I’d have thought the focus on the carbon tax over the last year would’ve heightened understanding of the role of the price mechanism in managing resources better. Obviously governments find it too hard politically but even organisations like The Greens and the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) offer only heavily qualified support for congestion pricing.

The PTUA doesn’t support congestion pricing in the absence of alternatives, arguing that it would be unlikely to win community support and would be socially inequitable. It’s position is public transport must first be improved to a competitive level. The Greens take a similar view. Senator Scott Ludlum says the party believes a congestion tax “would be an unfair impost unless significant improvements to public transport and other non-driving modes of commuting, such as walking and cycling facilities, are made at the same time”.

What this means in practice is neither organisation has much to say in favour of congestion pricing – neither could be regarded as a staunch advocate of this potential reform. I think that’s a real pity because congestion pricing and improvements in public transport go hand-in-hand. They are the veritable horse and carriage – you won’t get one without the other.

Cars are a very attractive transport option, especially in our dispersed cities. But even the streets of a dense city like Manhattan are full of cars. We could wait generations in the hope that land use changes will make Melbourne so dense that cars will necessarily become a minority mode. Or we could ignore the probability that motorists will shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles or to ones powered by alternative fuels and instead bet that higher fuel prices will drive cars off  Melbourne’s roads.

But waiting and hoping aren’t a good basis for policy. Realistically, we can’t expect Australians will forego the private benefits of a car unless they’re forced to. The only reason most CBD workers don’t drive is because they can’t – traffic congestion and high parking charges rule driving out. Even so, around a quarter of CBD workers in Melbourne still drive and that proportion rises pretty rapidly to 50% and higher once you move even a few hundred metres away from the city rail loop. It would be a bit hard to argue they make this choice because public transport isn’t good enough.

Investing in public transport without simultaneously constraining the car will only achieve a modest increase in public transport’s existing 15% share of all motorised travel in Melbourne. Consider that Melbourne’s train, tram and bus system would cost an unthinkable amount if we had to build it from scratch today – hundreds of billions of dollars – yet 85% of motorised trips are still made by car. It should be obvious that simply providing the infrastructure isn’t enough.

Congestion pricing is the only way to reduce the considerable competitive advantage cars have over public transport (in most situations) within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost. It’s therefore the only way to significantly increase public transport’s share of motorised trips. Of course good public transport has to be in place at the time congestion pricing is introduced. But what The Greens and the PTUA are missing is that you have to positively and enthusiastically embrace both.

The efficiency case for pricing is very strong and rejected by few. It’s the only practical way to manage traffic congestion. Its great virtue is that it prioritises travellers according to the value of their trip purpose. It also reduces accidents, as well as transport-related emissions and pollution.

The key concern of those with misgivings is the equity implications of congestion pricing. I don’t think it can be doubted that richer people will be better placed to buy road space. But I think there are a number of other issues that also need to be considered here. Read the rest of this entry »


Are our trains going down the toilet?

There’s a theory that women are an “indicator species” of how bike-friendly a city is. According to Deakin University’s Jan Garrard, “if you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’ — just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female”.

I reckon you can say much the same thing about public toilets and public transport. Good public transport systems have good toilets because good managers focus on the welfare of users. Maybe users who are given a good system take better care of it.

The idea that a major urban node like a rail station doesn’t have toilets for its thousands of daily users is simply appalling. We wouldn’t tolerate their absence in other public places like a school, a stadium or a mall.

What’s more basic than a call of nature? If you’re travelling by train and you’ve got infants that need to be changed, or pre-teens that have difficulty planning ahead, or you’re pregnant, or you’ve been on the turps, or you’ve got an aging bladder, or you or someone in your care is feeling sick, then having access to a toilet is a fundamental human necessity.

Even in Manhattan, one of the world’s great public transport oriented cities, a busy interchange station like Union Square, with tens of thousands of people passing through each day, does not have toilets accessible to the public. Dense nodes of human activity are the very places that should have toilets!

Fortunately we have toilets at major CBD stations in Melbourne, but most suburban stations don’t. According to Greens MP, Greg Barber, two thirds of stations in Melbourne do not have toilets for public use. Even some premium stations don’t open the toilets at all times, even when staffed. Mr Barber says there are 40 stations with more than 5,000 patrons per day that don’t have public toilets.

For example, Box Hill is the tenth busiest rail station in Melbourne with circa 10,400 users per day on average, however according to Wiki:

Despite being a Premium station, there are no public toilets within the station complex. Toilets for station patrons were originally located out in Main Street Mall, however, they have been closed permanently due to vandalism. Station patrons must now use the toilets provided by the adjoining shopping centre, which are only open during trading hours.

Lack of privacy is a disadvantage of public transport relative to the car, so managers should be working hard to minimise passengers’ fear they might be put in an embarrassing position. Passengers shouldn’t have to plan their travel around the risk of needing unscheduled toilet stops.

Why are there so few public toilets at rail stations? The former Minister for Transport in the Brumby Government said toilets at stations weren’t open “for good reasons: first of all for issues of security, and for issues of cleanliness, and the like”. I acknowledge it costs money to clean graffiti and repair vandalised fittings. It probably costs much more to keep toilets clean (and were toilets opened at stations I expect users would demand a high and costly standard of maintenance). But I reckon that’s just one of those base line costs, like safety, that just have to be  accepted – it’s the price of simply being in the business.

The excuse I find really odious is that toilets should be closed to prevent druggies using them. That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are other strategies for managing this problem – the Government’s promised PSOs should help – but even if toilets are used by junkies, they should nevertheless be kept open and kept in good order so ordinary passengers aren’t punished when in extremis. Travellers will doubtless avoid using toilets frequented by addicts, but they need to know they’re there when nature calls urgently and unexpectedly. Read the rest of this entry »


How can we improve our schools?

High demand: tram or bike? (Fed Square, late morning, Tuesday 9 November, 2010)

The editorial writer in The Age today reckons many teachers and parents will be underwhelmed by the Government’s new $208 $258 million Education for Life promise. The writer bemoans the lost opportunity for the Government to advance some “big ideas”.

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.

It’s a pity, though, that the Premier didn’t use the opportunity of the campaign launch to also pick up on the important message in the new report on teacher effectiveness released this week by Melbourne’s own Grattan Institute, Investing in our teachers, investing in our economy.

In the past I’ve wondered what the purpose of some of the Institute’s reports is, but not this one. Its message is clear and direct – improving teacher effectiveness is the single most important reform that could be put in place to improve educational outcomes.

The report makes three key points. Read the rest of this entry »


Does the Green’s public transport plan cut it?

Click to hear accents from world cities

Following my review of the Greens’ Public Transport Plan for Melbourne’s East (here and here) some Green’s supporters have suggested that I should really look at the party’s broader public transport vision for Melbourne.

They’ve suggested I should examine The People Plan, which the Greens bill as their “long term vision of the Melbourne we want to live in”. It’s intended to avoid good long-term policy losing out to short-term politics.

During the week The Sunday Age also asked me about the Greens transport policies, so all in all it seemed timely to visit The People Plan.

So I have. And I’m gobsmacked. There’s barely a space on the map where the Greens aren’t proposing to run a new rail line or a new tram line, build a new station or duplicate, triplicate and quadruplicate rail lines. The scale of this plan is epic. The main components seem to be:

  • 10 new rail lines
  • Close to 40 new rail stations
  • Extension of four rail lines (electrification)
  • The aforementioned expansion of track capacity (duplications, etc)
  • 30 new trains
  • 12 new tram lines
  • 12 extended tram lines
  • 550 new trams
  • Conductors on all trams

All of this, the Greens say, can be bought for a mere $13 billion plus additional operating costs of $333 million per annum.

I applaud the objective of making Melbourne a more liveable, sustainable and equitable city. Melbourne definitely needs better public transport. But whether this Plan is the best way of achieving that objective is doubtful. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »


Does the Opposition’s pitch on Doncaster rail stack up?

San Francisco bans the Happy Meal!

So now the Victorian Opposition has jumped on the Green’s bandwagon and proposed a new rail line along the Eastern Freeway from Clifton Hill to Doncaster!

Ted Baillieu has made an art form of ‘vagueing’ the details, but this is essentially the same proposal as the Greens put forward last month for linking Doncaster with Victoria Park station.

I dealt with the shortcomings of this idea last week (here and here) so I’ll just look at a claim made in The Age that the City of Manningham has low public transport use.

This is attributed to the absence of both trains and trams in Manningham – the only municipality in Melbourne that doesn’t have at least one of these modes.

The reporter, Clay Lucas, says that only 7% of all trips made by residents of Manningham are by public transport compared to the metropolitan Melbourne average of 9% (actually he said 14% but the VISTA travel survey indicates the correct figure is 9%. Note also that this claim does not appear in the on-line version of The Age).

He is right – public transport does indeed have a lower share of trips in Manningham. In fact VISTA shows its share compares poorly with the neighbouring municipalities of Whitehorse, Banyule and Maroondah, which all have rail lines. In these municipalities, public transport carries 10%, 11% and 7%, respectively, of all trips. Still, there’s not all that much in it – the car dominates in all four.

The journey to work is probably a more pertinent measure of the warrant for a rail line to the CBD as peak period passenger volumes determine the need or otherwise for a mass transit system. Read the rest of this entry »


Victorian election – why have the Greens dug a black hole?

The Green's transport plan for Melbourne's east

If you think the Greens provide a real alternative to the tired, cynical politics of Labor and the Liberals, then you might be very disappointed in the transport initiative the Green’s are promoting for the forthcoming Victorian election.

The Green’s Public transport plan for Melbourne’s east proposes a massive $6 billion program of public transport works, including a new rail line to Rowville and another along the Eastern Freeway to Doncaster. It also proposes rail duplications and triplications, new train stations, level crossing upgrades, tram line extensions, transport interchange upgrades and improvements to bus services.

The Greens clearly and loudly proclaim that the $6 billion will be found by scrapping the Government’s proposed North East Link, the so-called ‘missing link’ between the metropolitan ring road at Greensborough and the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen.

It almost sounds too good to be true. No additional funding, no new freeway and heaps of new public transport infrastructure! Trouble is, as the Greens well know, it isn’t true – there is no $6 billion to reallocate. Read the rest of this entry »