Saturday, November 15, 2008

Contrary to reports, our rail system is alright

For years, Paul Mees has been arguing that there is some overseas city whose public transport system Melbourne should be emulating, but in his article "Travelling second-class", published on this page on Wednesday, Dr Mees has added a temporal comparison to his usual geographic ones.

While he eulogises the performance of the Melbourne rail network in the 1920s, he is apparently unaware of the experience of F.W. Eggleston as minister for railways in that decade.  Eggleston's attempt to improve the railway was so disillusioning that it converted him from being a firm believer in state control of all common services to an advocate of private enterprise wherever possible.

Many of the problems that were to bedevil public transport for the rest of the 20th century were already observed by Eggleston as he made the obvious point that a service that habitually loses money is bound over time to adopt lax financial methods and to lose its focus on the customer.

While the latest cities with which Mees likes to compare modern Melbourne are Zurich and Perth, it is interesting that the one comparison that he never makes is the obvious one, with the city most like Melbourne -- Sydney.

Helpfully, the NSW Government's Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal recently commissioned a consultant to undertake that very task.  Their benchmarking of the two cities' rail systems showed that on just about every criterion, Melbourne's rail system is providing much better value for money to its citizens than Sydney's.  The study concluded that the NSW Government would have to reduce the cost of its CityRail operation by almost a quarter if it wanted to match the financial efficiency of the franchised Melbourne model.

Franchising has locked in public transport costs at a level that is a major embarrassment to Sydney and provides Melbourne with far greater opportunity to put more money into the network, as it is not being wasted on unnecessary costs.

That same franchising model that Dr Mees describes as Byzantine, a shambles and a farce, has, in recent years, produced faster growth in public transport use in Melbourne than any other Australian city.  Of course, there has been a significant rise in patronage in other Australian cities, driven by a range of factors such as the increase in the price of petrol, but the fact that Melbourne has led the way indicates that it comes up well in any interstate comparison.

Since franchising began in 1999 both trains and trams have seen significant increases in services, the introduction of new rolling stock and a more customer-focused attitude.  Also, commuters no longer experience the sort of industrial action that produced the 55-day rail strike in 1950, or the six-week tram blockade in 1990.

Most of the problems that do arise in the Melbourne system are the result of either decades of under-investment in the maintenance of infrastructure during the time when it was fully government operated, or from the problems of overcrowding resulting from the success of the operators in attracting more customers.

The Government has also been slow to respond to the demands on the system of more commuters.  If, as Mees asserts, there are more efficient ways to deliver extra capacity on the rail system than the $9 billion Eddington rail tunnel from Footscray to Caulfield, then competitive tendering provides the opportunity for one of Connex's bidding rivals to provide a better alternative.

The Victorian Government would no doubt welcome any operator that said it could deliver more services without huge capital expenditure.  By contrast the NSW Government has no capacity to replace, and no will to reform, its poorly performing government operator.

What is also striking in Dr Mees' article is that every criticism he makes is directed at the rail operator, not at the tram operator.  One can only assume that even he must acknowledge the obvious improvements in the tram service.

It is easy to feel nostalgic about the good old days, or assume that other cities do it better, but for all its faults Melbourne has an improved public transport system that compares well with those of other cities.


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