05 February 2007

Travellers responsible for Melbourne public transport woes?

See this, by Christopher Scanlon, from The Age ,which takes its cue from a new Connex advertising campaign: "Don't hold others back, help our trains stay on the track":

That message, despite the spiffy-looking website and expensive TV ad campaign, was never particularly convincing. In fact, it's looking decidedly worse for wear amid the recent crisis around the braking system of Siemens trains.

As the repeated references to "Siemen's trains" in the media implies, though, Connex still isn't responsible. Rather, it's that pesky German electrical engineering giant with its unreliable brake system that's to blame. This overlooks the small fact that Connex should have thoroughly tested the trains before putting them into service.

So, should we conclude that Connex is to blame? As tempting and satisfying as it might be to lay all the blame at Connex's feet, it would still be mistaken. While Connex certainly bears a good deal of the responsibility for the crisis in Melbourne's train system, the real problem isn't Connex — or any other private operator, for that matter. Rather, the real failing is privatisation itself.

The problem with privatisation, as many opponents foresaw, is that it permits — even encourages — shifting the blame between different parties. This is the great unspoken benefit of privatisation: it allows governments not only to outsource the delivery of a service, but also to outsource the blame if and when anything goes awry.


If Victoria's experience is anything to go by, the lesson of privatisation is that it puts the State Government at the mercy of the private operators who can leverage more and increasingly generous subsidies from the public purse by threatening to walk away from running the public transport system.

The record shows that private operators are quite happy to use this leverage. As University of Melbourne transport expert Paul Mees has documented, in February 2002 the State Government forked out $1 million in extra subsidies to the three private rail and tram franchisees when they threatened to walk away from their franchise agreements.

The extra money still wasn't enough to keep National Express, the UK company that formerly operated three of the Victorian franchises, from walking away in December 2002. In 2004, the two remaining private operators, Connex and Yarra Trams, negotiated a further deal to run Melbourne's train and tram network for five years, receiving about $1 billion in extra subsidies.

When the Bracks Government came to power in 1999, it reviewed the contracts signed by the previous Kennett government with contractors for privatised services. The report outlined a series of objectives that the Government would hold private transport operators accountable to. These included improving the quality of services, ensuring high safety standards were met and, crucially, transferring the risks involved in operating a public transport system to the private operators.

Recent years, and the last month particularly, have shown that the private operators have failed to deliver on these objectives — even with massive injections of public money. As much as commuters might love to hate Connex, though, the private operator is not the problem. Rather, Connex is being used as the whipping boy for the State Government's unwillingness to sort out the dog's breakfast that is Victoria's expensive experiment with privatising public transport.

Unless Connex's franchise is extended (or another party takes a turn at being the whipping boy), at 3am on November 30, 2008, Melbourne's trains and trams will revert to public ownership without the State Government having to pay a single cent of compensation to private operators. It's time for the Bracks Government to admit that privatisation has been a failure and begin preparing to once again run a public transport system.

Sound familiar? Remember this?

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