Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Travelling second-class -

Paul Mees

LAST week, it was the Oaks day train debacle; this week, it's the chaos surrounding the new timetables. Melbourne's rail system has once again failed the city, leaving hapless travellers stranded on trains and at stations. Melburnians could be forgiven for wondering if the city's rails are cursed. If European cities, and even Perth, can have first-rate trains, why can't we?


By the 1920s, the system had been electrified and expanded. More trains left Flinders Street Station in peak hour than do today, with a service every three minutes on the Sandringham line. Reliability was high and cancellations rare. Europeans envied Melbourne for the excellence of our rail system. So why can't we transport people reliably to and from the races now?

The Department of Transport says the reason is that we don't have enough tracks, even though we have many more than in the 1920s. Sir Rod Eddington agrees, and has proposed a multibillion-dollar tunnel from Footscray to Caulfield that will take decades to build and has a price tag we can't afford. But the Eddington tunnel would not have prevented the stuff-ups on Oaks day; nor it will fix the problems created by running the Epping and Hurstbridge lines the wrong way through the city loop.

The main cause of Melbourne's rail woes is a tremendous deterioration in management and planning. Levels of efficiency that could be achieved in the 1920s, or even in the 19th century, are now claimed to be impossible in the 21st century. Things are so tangled that the public doesn't even know who to blame for the collapse of service: is it Connex, or the private company that maintains tracks and signals, or Transport Minister Lynne Kosky, or one of the many divisions of the Department of Transport?


The "franchising" system is a shambles and a farce, and nothing will change as long as it persists. No successful urban rail system in the world operates on the model we use in Melbourne: even Margaret Thatcher baulked at applying it to London.

We have ample evidence of the kind of management structures that produce well-run public transport: lean, dynamic, accountable regional authorities that are publicly owned but kept at arm's length from the ministerial spin cycle.

An excellent example is the Zurich Transport Network, which controls all public transport in the state (canton) of Zurich. The ZVV, which many observers regard as the best transit agency in the world, administers a public transport network as big as Melbourne's with 34 staff (the equivalent organisation in Melbourne employs more than 10 times that), of whom only six are responsible for timetables and service planning.

The Zurich staff and their jobs are set out, in German and English, on the authority's website ( Everyone knows where the buck stops in Zurich's public transport system.

A century ago, it was Melbourne, not Zurich that was the world leader in urban rail provision. We could become so again, but only if our public transport system is run for the benefit of its passengers, rather than its operators and administrators.

Dr Paul Mees is senior lecturer in transport planning at RMIT.

Read the whole article at

No comments: