Saturday, 25 October 2008

The ongoing public transport civil war

Thanks be to Kae for this tip-off from Michael Costa.

Many aeons ago, about the time I was still cuddling a teddy bear, there was an organisation in NSW called the PTC - the Public Transport Commission. This bastard organisation, which was formed in 1972, lasted a mere 8 years before it was broken up. During its existance, it ran all the public trains, buses and ferries in NSW, and it was an unlamented pile of poo.

A much used term over the last decade has been "integrated public transport". It is the holy grail of many of those that work in the public transport sector in NSW, and it is the reason why we (the taxpayer) have been lumped with the fiasco known as Tcard. Integrated public transport is a fetish for many transport academics, who continually pump out research papers asking why we can't have a public transport system like Singapore.

There's just one thing getting in the way of an integrated system, where the buses, ferries and trains all work together in harmony.

The people that operate those three modes of transport hate each others guts.

You might think that the common enemy would be the RTA, with its fondness for building an ever increasing mileage of freeways, but the people that the railways really like to hate are the bus companies. And the loathing is returned with a passion.

For there is one continual problem that the three face, and that is revenue sharing.

Now you, as a taxpayer, might think that public transport is paid for out of one big bucket of money, but nothing could be further from the truth. Each agency gets a certain amount of money from the Treasury, and has to raise the rest of its operating budget via fares. The more customers a company has, the more money they'll rake in, and that will make the most important people happy - no, not the customers - but Treasury. For you see, being a success in the public transport business is not about making the travelling grockles happy - it's about not having your throat torn out by the maniacs in Treasury.

So the aim of the game is to grab as much of the public transport patronage pie as possible, and if that means knobbling the bastards running the buses, or sinking a few ferries, then so be it. When ferries started running aground or running into boats on Sydney Harbour last year, I assumed that a crack team of bus drivers had been sabotaging the ferries, Rainbow Warrior style.

The greatest opponent of new rail lines is not the great unwashed who are addicted to their cars - it is a certain Sydney academic who has a bus fetish. Everytime a new rail line is proposed, he trots out a paper showing that it will be the greatest disaster since the Hindenburg, and why a bus transitway should be built instead. The papers that he puts out really are akin to being shot in the back by your own side.

The RTA of course stands there on the sidelines, watching the rail, bus and ferry people gouging each others eyes out, and then walks off with all the cash to build an incredibly stupid bridge like the Anzac Bridge (stupid, in that it is much taller, and thus more expensive, than it ever needed to be).

Tcard turned to shit for a number of reasons, but it was hobbled at the very beginning by the SRA and Sydney Buses engaging in ferocious haggling over how revenue would be shared. It then went down the toilet when the SRA refused to see sense and revamp their ticketing system to produce a simpler fare structure. It refuses to do that because a simpler fare structure might have cost it a few million in revenue at the fare box, and it was more important to protect those fares than to give Sydney an integrated and simplified ticketing system. Each agency was only interested in protecting its own turf, and to hell with the bigger picture.

Costa is right in that our urban planners are living on another planet. We should just ship them all to Mars and let them develop their new utopian fantasies on an untouched world. But the other thing that hobbles thinking about rail transport is that in Sydney, it is totally and utterly focused around transport to the CBD. People will make noises every now and then about "nodes" such as Parramatta, but no one really gives a shit about moving people to Parramatta. You know why?

The head office of RailCorp is in the CBD. Well, okay, it's on the southern fringe of the CBD, behind Central Station, but pretty much the entire head office personnel of RailCorp works in the CBD. Until the mid 1990's, they were all housed in Transport House above Wynyard, but that was sold off and a new set of buildings thrown up behind Central. Paradoxically, even though the SRA (as it was then) was shrinking in overall staff numbers, more and more seats were required for people working in head office.

When the great breakup of the SRA occured in 1996, the CEO of one of the newly created offshoots thought about moving their offshoot out of town. Various options were canvassed, including North Sydney and Parramatta, but the groans of horror from the staff were too great to overcome - they had to stay in the CBD. Have you ever seen the movie Van Helsing? If you have, think of the screams of the female vampires when denied their prey - that's the kind of racket that the staff created.

It's funny how, if someone spends say 40 years of their working life sitting in an office in the CBD, that their focus tends to be about transport to and from the CBD. Transport to areas "out there" are not really a concern, especially if your job is such that you never need to visit one of the far flung offices of the public transport empire.

Sydney Buses has many bus depots scattered across Sydney, and RailCorp has hundreds of office sites (some are a simple demountable beside a bit of track somewhere, housing a small team working on a project). The head office of RailCorp now hosts thousands and thousands of what I would call "support" personnel - they are there supposedly to support the people in the field - those that clean and drive trains, staff the stations and bang the track with hammers. If you did a survey of those thousands of head office wallahs, you'd probably find that an amazingly high percentage have not left their head office ivory towers in years to visit the field. Some might get out once a year, and brag about how they're getting out and "mixing it with the boys with mud on their boots".

For you see, not only do the rail people hate the bus people, but the head office people really don't want to go anywhere near the field people - possibly for fear of catching something nasty, like a desire to wear ugg boots all the time and to call your kids Wayne, Narelle and Kylie-Jane.

I see that I am getting off track as usual.

The rail people see buses purely as a feeder system to the railways. If the rail people had their way, every bus trip would terminate at a train station, regardless of whether you needed or wanted to catch a train. Rail people get frustrated at the "waste" of allowing buses to pick people up from close to where they live and dropping them off close to where they work, go to school or shop. They think you should get on a bus, get off the bus at a train station, wait for a train, catch the train, then get off at the other end and catch a bus for the final leg.

As if anyone is ever going to do that. But that is the fantasy being pushed by the integrated public transport tribe. Here's my response - when I get on a train or bus, I just want to sit down and not move a muscle until I get to where I want to go. I do not want to have to get off my bus or train and fight for a seat on the next leg. I am comfortable where I am, reading my magazine and listening to my iPod. Just leave me be and take me to where I want to go.

The beauty of that sort of system, from a rail perspective, is that it delivers most of the fare revenue to the railways. The rail people would argue that if the journey is 35km, and 30km of that are done on a train, then the rail company should get 6/7 of the revenue, and the bus company can go suck on a rusty pipe. The bus people absolutely hate that idea, so they fight it tooth and nail. They even fight it when it does make sense to setup a feeder service, because there are times when it might make sense, but they hate the idea, so they oppose it whether it is sensible or not.

So you see, the whole problem with an integrated transport system is that each operator does not want their passengers to get off their bus/train/ferry and travel on another mode - they want to capture them and keep them entirely within their orbit, because then they get to keep 100% of their fare revenue.

Which is why I started with the PTC, which was an attempt to overcome this by rolling them all into one big company. The outcome was that the managers fought so much, it was like watching 10 cats tied in a bag. I have been told that their infighting pretty much destroyed the company, which was why they had to break it up.

And don't think that you only get fighting between buses and trains. Back when the SRA ran country, urban and freight trains, the three groups fought like demons as well - and they still do. Each wants new rollingstock, or priority train paths through Sydney, or whatever, and they go at each other hammer and tongs. And then they all fight with the engineers who maintain the track - which is why back in 1996, it looked sensible to split off the people who maintained the track into their own company (RSA), because they hated the wankers that drove the trains along the track.

In short, public transport is a maelstrom of festering hatreds and fetishes, combined with a lust for power and revenue that makes Bill Gates look like a girl guide.

Which is why I ride a bike to work.

1 comment:

kae said...

Integrated transport is crap.

Like you, I want to sit down in the conveyance and be taken to where I want to go.

People ask me why I don't catch public transport to work because I drive every day 80-odd kilometres for one hour and twenty minutes each way.

The reason is, first of all, that trip would take me at least two hours using public transport. I could catch a dedicated work bus, but it doesn't operate in off-semester. I'd have to leave work early and start late, the bus trip would take two hours. Walking to work fifteen minutes at the end of the bus trip. Driving to the bus stop is another fifteen minutes. Catching public transport would be twenty minutes to the nearest rail station, probably an hour and a half on the train (Rosewood to Bris), then a bus to work then a fifteen minute walk. Over 2 and a half hours for that one I'd reckon.

I drive. I get in my car at home under the carport, I get out opposite the building I work in. One hour and twenty minutes each way.

They can shove public tranport.