Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Transport: the fine print

Leaked documents show the public transport system faces massive extra strain, but the operators will not suffer rigorous performance fines.

IF YOU catch a train, tram or bus in Melbourne, things are about to get worse for you. Much worse.

The State Government knows this but until the Opposition on Monday released leaked tender documents for the running of the city's train and trams for the next 15 years, it hadn't planned on telling you.

Premier John Brumby admitted yesterday that public transport in Melbourne was choked with as many passengers as it could handle.

"The system is running at absolutely full capacity," he told 3AW's Neil Mitchell. "And if you assume that petrol prices are going to stay high or that oil prices may go even higher in the future, we're going to see increasing demand on the system."

Brumby would have preferred people did not understand just how much that demand is set to increase - or whose fault it would be if the rail and tram system fails to cope with the demand.

But, thanks to the documents leaked to Opposition transport spokesman Terry Mulder, what has become all too clear is that it will not be the transport operators who will pay for a poor system. It will be commuters.

Mulder this week released a leaked copy of the confi dential expression-of-interest documents that will set out the terms for Melbourne's privatised train and tram operators. The documents reveal that Melbourne's next operators will face softer penalties for late services and too many cancellations.

They also reveal the Government's own estimates for just how many passengers will pile onto our already packed train, tram and bus network, which is at "full capacity".

By 2011, train passengers will total 253 million a year - up from 198 million - while tram passengers numbers are expected to grow to 182 million, up from 161 million.

Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky often cites the Government's decision to buy 18 new trains from French train builder Alstom as proof it is acting to reduce the massive overcrowding on the system. The fi rst of the new trains are due to arrive next year.

But the new fi gures - which Kosky had ruled out making public at a parliamentary committee last month - reveal that even these new trains will do little to accommodate the huge expected growth.

While train patronage will grow by 28% over the next three years, the fleet capacity is increasing by just 11%.

Worse still, while tram patronage will boom by more than 11% in the next three years, there are no fi rm plans to buy a single tram, but they are leasing an additional five.

Kosky yesterday rejected any suggestion she had tried to keep secret the expression-of-interest documents and all of the details they contained.

"It's not secrecy," she told ABC Radio's Jon Faine. "It (the expression- of-interest document) is more of a draft, and so it didn't make sense to put ... documents which could be confusing for the public."

Mulder says the documents, which marked the fi rst stage in the tendering process to run the rail and tram networks, were not confusing - rather, they were all too clear for the Government.

They are, he says, an admission that the poor performance of the system is not the fault of the operators Connex and Yarra Trams. Together the companies have been fi ned more than $60 million for tardiness and cancellations in the past year.

Those fi nes, Mulder believes, speak more of underfunding by Labor in public transport since it came to power in 1999.

"The problem is not with the operators, the problem is with the Government," he says. "In the past, the Government has hid behind Connex and Yarra Trams over the fi nes they are (accruing). But, now with the renewal of the contract, they are basically admitting they can't blame them any more if they want to attract anyone to run the system."

Mulder has argued for several months now that in addition to the 18 new trains ordered, the Government must buy a further 20 from Alstom.

Brumby, although he wouldn't readily admit it when questioned yesterday, seems to agree that public transport users face tough times ahead.

"When the system is running at 100% capacity, there is absolutely no margin for error," he told Mitchell.

"It is likely that the level of breaches (by transport operators) could be higher, not necessarily because of any fault of the operators."

Instead of his normally polished radio performance, Brumby stumbled when asked how the public transport system would cope with the increased patronage.

He promised short-term improvements by providing more train services in a timetable review in November. He promised rail duplication projects in Clifton Hill and other parts of the network.

And in the longer term, he promised to look at $20 billion worth of recommendations by Sir Rod Eddington, including a $7 billion rail tunnel joining Footscray to Caulfield.

But the leaked tender documents, written by Brumby's bureaucrats without the spin, acknowledge that there is a crisis in transport in Melbourne now, and that it is going to get worse before it gets better as more passengers pile on to avoid high petrol prices...

Read the rest of the article here...

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