Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why don't they just get along?

It has been my privilege to observe, know or work with people in various parts of transport. This has exposed me to competing (and often strong) views on the merits and limitations of other people or organisations.

I might be talking to Y and they might be proposing many things that Z supports. But when I ask Y's opinions about Z they might be quite dismissive. In return Z might be similarly contemptuous of Y, even though the people concerned haven't even met. But on the substantive issues (in my possibly naive opinion) I find more similarities than differences between the protagonists.

This leads me to the following conclusions:

* Transport policy, planning and debate is a play. All the key individuals act and say things largely determined by their set role (eg operator, bureaucrat, academic, activist, media etc).

* There is consensus amongst all the above actors that a larger role for public transport is in the public interest.

* There is a somewhat lesser agreement on the projects and policies are most needed to handle increased patronage. Nevertheless there is more commonality than some would have us imagine. For example, I believe that important things like (i) reforming the way the City Loop runs, (ii) tram priority, and (iii) buses headway harmonised with trains would command broad support - probably 80% or more. And even the bigger debates (Dandenong triplication and Eddington's rail tunnel) are more about means than ends.

Having established that there is more agreement than is generally acknowledged it now remains to explain the intensity of some of the squabbling.

I attribute this to the three Ps; Politics, Position and Personality (and background).

First politics. Public transport (like roads) is largely publicly funded. The proportion that isn't (ie fares) is publicy collected through the Metcard system. Franchisees look after the operations but policy, planning and new projects rests with the government. As public transport involved politics, we need to have an idea of how the system works.

There is always more demand for public services than taxpayer dollars to fund them. The democratic political system provides a mechanism for the people to elect members (mostly from a political party) to form a parliament. Some of these members (nomally from the largest party) get to be ministers with responsibility over a portfolio such as transport. Senior ministers are also a member of cabinet which sets the general direction for the government and approves major decisions.

The department oversees contracts with the operators, develops policy, plans for future needs and provides advice to the Minister. A minister can also refer matters to her department for its advice.

Policies and proposals can be developed by departmental staff, come to the department from outside or be requested by the minister. For example, an innovative manager could introduce a revised ticketing rule, or the government might reduce fares. Overcrowding might force action such as additional train purchases.

The exit of an operator might cause a revision to franchising arrangements. Matters may get in the media or be the subject of lobbying; these might force action (eg New Years Eve) or the Minister to ask for a review (bicycles on trains). Operators themselves might press for change, for instance the 2003 campaign by BAV to improve bus services (leading to the MOTC bus improvements from 2006).

The point is that democratic politics can be adversarial. There are always more demands than resources to satisfy them. if politicians are convinced there is broad support for public transport then they might put more resources into it. Lobbyists might seek to grab media headlines to demonstrate support for their cause. Then the government commits additional resources and instructs the department to implement.

A more co-operative style of advocacy relies less on megaphones and media. It is more technocratic than political. This is the one that seeks to forge relationships with bureucrats rather than speak to their masters through media sound-bites and public rallys. Graham Currie exemplifies the first approach; Paul Mees the second.

Position is to do with acting the roles in the big play mentioned above.

Key actors, with some quick notes, include: Operator professionals (Connex, YT, bus operators)

Work for one of the operators, often for many years. Experienced in operational matters. Respect own technical rigour and proud of what they do. Sometimes view media reports, activists and some academics with suspicion because they 'get it wrong'. Because of where they work, they might not always see 'bigger picture', the passengers' view or view transport system as a whole. Variations exist between the 'lower level', 'skilled technical' and 'managerial' strands.

Bureaucrats (eg DOT)

Good knowledge of political process, policy, contracts and regulations. Network knowledge varies greatly. Favour a co-operative method of working over 'megaphone lobbying' that speaks over the department's heads or worse. May be variations between the 'skilled technical' and 'managerial' strands.

Activists (eg PTUA)

Good overview of system as a whole (as seen by passengers). Value independence highly. Articulate and effective relationships with media. Perceived within the industry as being 'negative' with limited relations with middle levels in bureaucracy and operators of most modes. Distrust some bureaucrats and professionals as belonging to an 'entrenched culture of failure' from the PTC days.

Academics (attached to one of the universities)

See bigger transport picture well. Generally strong media profile and contributors to public debate. Not always good with technical details. Either 'collaborators' or 'crusaders' - depending on personality.


Either (i) already work in the industry, (ii) aspire to work in industry, (iii) don't work in industry or (iv) unemployable. Network knowledge is excellent, though can sometimes be single mode only. Mindset ranges from being able to see things from a passenger's perspective to 'the operator is always right'. Impatient when the media or activists get it wrong.

The above groups are not necessarily fixed; there are people who've belonged to two, three or more. Academics have become activists, gunzels have got industry jobs, and industry people have joined the Department.

However it is possible to find some differences that (mostly) hold up and might further explain why people with similar views in a similar field don't get along.

This is personality and background. Here I will make some quite sweeping generalisations that nevertheless might account for some of the irrational reasons for difference.

As a general rule, the operators are 'blue collar'. They contain large numbers of 'frontline staff' who man the stations, drive the trams and service the buses. These jobs do not need university degrees as all the specialist skills are taught in-house and on-the-job. Unionisation is high and incomes aren't bad. This is the Labor of Chifley and Calwell.

In contrast, bureaucrats are 'white collar'. Almost all have degrees. This is Whitlam or Keating Labor, though you might find some Greens in there as well. There will also be some Liberals, but 'tertiary educated', 'urban' and 'government employee' all point to a left-liberal majority.

That's the two groups of insiders. What about the two groups of outsiders?

Gunzels (who aspire to run the operators). There's exceptions, but I think most are blue-collar-ish.

Activists (who aspire to run the Department or tell it how it should be run). Well they've all got degrees, just like the bureaucrats.

See a pattern? It's almost like there's two strands, most clearly identified by formal education. I could go on about Zone 1 versus Zone 2, values intellectual vs practical, refugee rights vs border protection, art vs sport but won't for lack of evidence.

I can't help wondering if there's some sort of socio-cultural thing that pits each group against one another and makes them hate each other. Just look at many Railpage discussions if you want any doubt of how the gunzels view the activists. Higher up the tree (operators versus bureaucrats) similar differences may exist, but discussed with more decorum, always about substantive issues and generally not in public view (unless one counts subleties in media comments).

But it's not just differences that can cause conflict; commonality can lead to 'competition'; for instance between the degreed 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. Insiders might support a particular 'outsider' policy but be unable to get it through the department. Then it might make a big splash in the media, the government adopts it and the 'outsider' claims all the credit.

Similarly operator people can be (often rightly) dismissive of the more 'feral' gunzels. However the door should not be completely closed since some gunzels have made successful transport careers.

To sum up, those involved in transport, whether as operators, bureaucrats, activists, academics or enthusiasts have more in common than some arguments you hear indicate. Thus the differences must be due to other factors. I have attempted to describe some them, including the nature of the political process, the roles people have and the characteristics and backgrounds of the participants.


Anonymous said...

Very insightful as always, Peter. My experiences with Railpages has been one of abuse and disrespect - whilst I have had good experiences with PTUA people (of which I am one of them).
I think Paul Mees has excellent grasp of what's wrong with the system - but goes about expressing it a little aggressively. Graham Currie - never really heard much from him, although I read something that implied he was pro-privatisation (and de facto, anti-networking).

Anonymous said...

Yes good summary.

Can I add myself, Phin and you as "theorists"?

As is well known on Railpage and elsewhere - I am not 'active' and would not consider myself an 'activist' and am not academically involved in transport (but was once).

As for wanting to run the DOT - maybe, but you'd still have to confront Kosky, her minions and the political system at large, that can't really grasp PT theory just as it doesn't grasp the theory of the field in which I work.

One common thread you've grasped is people 'getting it wrong' in the media, whether it be Mees, the PTUA, the pollies or whoever. Apart from the iggorant journos who take it down all wrong, and misquote, maybe we are all too sensitive (me included) to those who get it wrong.

Of course, when someone does get it wrong, there's no easy way to tell them. I can't just pick up the phone to Daniel and say "You got it wrong, it really is..." for every little soundbite he puts in on the TV or the Age or whatever.

The risk is, of course, he will do it again.

I think you'll find sympathy for the Greens higher than reckoned. I was in a mid-eastern suburb seat, 16% of the primary vote, count out a large ethnic group who I know don't vote for them, means an even larger proportion of the balance do. Not Fitzroy or Northcote by any stretch.

Anonymous said...

Riccardo, interesting reply.

If you feel so inclined, I'd like to hear you tease out more of the differences between 'theorists' and 'academics' Both of the latter are targets from self-proclaimed 'practical types' such as your 'railpage dribblers', or Meesian 'entrenched PTC-types' and the arguments seem similar.

The for(a?)mer or gunzel group see trains as existing for their own sake - it matters not whether one carries 5 or 500 people.

The latter group have resigned themselves to a declining modal share for years and are not particularly innovative or passenger focused (ie the culture that privatisation was supposed to change).

So maybe you & Phin (don't include myself) are better thought of as 'independent academics', or if you prefer, 'independent scholars'. In other words done as a spare time activity and largely outside the affiliation of a major university or research institute. Or their uni affiliation might be as a student or academic in another field.

I'd agree that there's a fair green contingent. Support is highest in the inner city areas. Affluent eastern suburban Liberal electorates seem to have more Green supporters than working-class western Labor areas.

Plus teachers, government, media, arts and other 'knowledge workers' seem to have more Green supporters than elsewhere, and their strongest areas seem to roughly coincide with the tram network.

Anonymous said...

I posted the following lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng comment at Peters Facebook but he has asked me to leave it here instead.


As one of the kinds of people described above "Operator professionals" as you call it, a whilte collar worker within Connex, I have to disagree with part of your description of this group first of all. My disagreement comes from this bit:

"Sometimes view media reports, activists and some academics with suspicion because they 'get it wrong'. Because of where they work, they might not always see 'bigger picture', the passengers' view or view transport system as a whole."

In my section at least, thoughts often revolve around passengers, what impact will it have on them, what is more convenient for them, etc etc...

As for "activists", I won't speak for groups other than the PTUA. The PTUA just have no idea at all what they are talking about. They make claims about what could be done which are pulled from their arses.

While I am all for the public and customers to say what they don't like, how they think it should be improved, etc... IF they have no knoweledge at all, they should not make any claims unless they can back them up.

Now for gunzels. As I am one myself to an extent, I will blatantly say here, and not meaning to blow my own trumpet or those of yourself or others who are in the industry, but over half of the gunzels out there are just not suitable at all for a public transport job, and I will give the fololowing reasons why, and each person could be covered by more than one reason:

1. KNOWITALLS - People who think that because they have an interest, that they know it all! They never do! And while one can have a lot of knoweledge about transport, and ideas, he/she must accept he is not always right even when he thinks he is, and that some people know/do it better.

2. FERALS - Many gunzels out there just will not tidy themselves up enough to look respectible in order to gain a job. You don't have to gel your hair (I don't) or wear makeup, but just dress in respectible clothes, etc... If you can blend in with locals from Frankston then you have no hope of a transport job :-P

3. THOSE WHO ARE "TOO GOOD" FOR ANYTHING ELSE - There are some out there, who will work rail or work nothing! And look where they are? Nowhere, doing sweet fuck all! Why is that? Because for a transport job, which is usually highly sought after (~1000 people applying for 20 positions is a common figure), they have no experience due to the fact they won't go after any, no car, etc... and wonder why they get nothing!

Firstly, a foot in the door is crucial, and if you are successful to get a station host or barrier job (to use Connex example) then take it! If you are lucky to get to that stage in the first place....

But one needs to start small, stack shelves or be a checkout chick at the supermarket, get the experience with people etc...

And this one will offend a few people, so I apologise....

4. ANNOYING GUNZELS - Some out there will pester public transport operators with trivial errors and corrections to publications, and while its useful for one or two.... over and over and over again? What sort of name are you making yourself? Sure, on one hand it is helpful, on the other hand its irritating, and when sifting through applicants for jobs they need as much as they can to rule people out in order to get the right one.

Then..... there are those such as myself and Peter Parker here, who have been successful in transport? Why is that? Because us, and certain other people, have not fallen into any of the above categories.

One can't just throw "gunzels" into a category... they are a diverse group, some will make it and some won't, and as a whole, a fair portion of gunzels would not suitable running a transport network.

And often, all of the above sub-categories don't get along.

Now looking at a slightly bigger picture, this time to the "activists".... sift through them with similar categories to my above and one will see the same applies.... everyone has their traits, but only few will make any sense or throw any weight in the industry.

I'm sure many are left wondering what my point was.... but here it is.... if Gunzels see the annoying traits they see in each other in Activists, and Activists see them in Gunzels, then this explains why, on a whole, they don't get along, and why there are exceptions etc. The same applies for Operators/Gunzels, Activists/Beaurecrats, etc...

And using my opinions towards the PTUA above is a pure and simple example of it all... I hate them, but I won't say I hate activists, just a group of "KNOWITALLS"

I hope that made sense and you arn't all fast asleep with boredom now.

Anonymous said...

Just to add one last bit.... there is one last category of gunzels.

5. GUNZEL WORKERS - Those of us who have made it into the industry, and further to that, in some cases (such as Peter and myself), moved up in it. While we are doing things we see as right, the know it all's out there don't think so, as "they could do it better" or "we're not doing a good enough job". The annoying nit-picky ones don't think so either as we "make too many trivial mistakes", etc...

So there will ALWAYS be people who are unhappy with what is being done.

And sometimes, one sub-group in one category, might have negative thoughts on the exact same sub-group in a different category.

IE: A white collared railway worker who does well at his job, might absolutely hate something a white collared worker at the DoT has decided to do, saying its a mistake, etc...

In the end, you can't please everyone, so don't bother :-P Hahaha

Anonymous said...

Damo, much food for thought, and look forward to reading more from you!

In relation to the 'transport professionals' comment, the sort of example I was getting at was things like bus timetable availability at stations. Trivial, but if staff don't see the system as a whole then marketing efforts to get passengers to view it the same way are going to fail.

Timetable stocking levels at stations varies from 0% of routes to 80%+. If you go to any given station and ask for a local timetable the chance is about 50% that you'll be able to get it - not good enough.

In the absence of strong official policies and enforcement (managers tend to check attendance books and first aid kits at stations more than audit timetable stocking) it falls to the vision and initiative of the staff. And like in any organisation that varies.

I'd expect similar variations with bus drivers (they should know the rough frequencies, though not necessarily exact times of trains) and tram AOs, to be fair to all modes.

The system and culture should reinforce the concept of a network with transport to a wide range of destinations, and the cost in doing so should be fairly small beyond better signage, staff education and procedure.

Anonymous said...

Peter, one premise (I don't blame you for it, but is there) I will challenge is that conflict is bad - I think social conflict is inevitable and sometimes a good thing.

I have some funny ideas, I will admit, and I do enjoy reading websites that confirm my prejudices like

The middle class and neo-working class probably SHOULD be at war as their interests are in conflict.

I am not surprised that rail transport is caught up in this conflict, as it is on the front line. It has all the elements - middle class welfare, legacy capital, professionalisation of the management but not the front line staff (compare with say McDonalds which has had its frontline operation reengineered).

Some people also have a fantasy that Railpage should be free of this conflict - but I ask, why should it?

As for my side, I am clearly on the middle class side - my concern is not that the conflict is heated, but that why are we sparing the [rhetorical] ammo?

I do not believe in fairness. I vote Green not because of fairness, but because they have promised to fix the transport problem, which the others haven't.

Peter Parker said...

Riccardo, maybe I should have said 'needless conflict'.

There's always going to be conflict between those with different aims. Eg you're not going to expect the RACV and PTUA to see eye to eye. Or for that matter a private operator and DOT over contractual matters. The legal and political systems are based on peaceful means of resolving conflict and allocating resources.

HOWEVER my post was most about conflict between those who ought to be on the same 'side'. When you take them aside and listen to them individually you'll find much in common.

But as soon as the topic strays from substantive transport matters to personalities and organisations then that's when the squabbles start.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

Your post here rounds out a number about the state of the commentariat from my holy trinity of PT blogs. Riccardo mentioned Daniel Bowen and Phin did Paul Mees. As I see it I'd define you all as pamphleteers rather than academics or theorists. And that's not a dig at you.

I made a comment on Riccardo's blog defending the PTUA and given your analysis and Damo's comments I'd like to add some insight.

I work in government. Not in transport but it has given me a marvelous insight to how public policy works. Damo, this one goes out to you. You wouldn't believe the myths that gets bandied about in my field from the public. The danger is that you take it personally. People I work with do. They get frustrated and talk among themselves endlessly about how wrong the comments are. But I stand by the point I made in Riccardo's blog that the PTUA are just a bunch of people who are upset they missed their train once. When you read what they say, keep that in mind. I know that it may be factually questionable at times but that's a reality of life in the big picture. Do I have to post a list of companies/governments/advocates that have been a little loose with facts? If it was a government organisation we'd call it "spin". I'm not saying it's justified but it's there and probably isn't going away anytime soon. It's no reflection on the way you go about your work.

I think a healthy democracy needs a number of different voices from different viewpoints. It may not be the most efficient way of acheiving things but it's the way we choose. Personally I revel in the PTUA's pestering. While it may seem negative it adds weight to the direction PT will go. The government is not going to hold out on improving PT just to spite the PTUA. In some part (and it may be small) they contribute to the expansion of PT in this town. And that's your industry Damo. Think of them like a colonoscopy. Sure it's a pain in the ass now, but it's for the long term good.

Let me play devils advocate for a moment. If the more technically inclined railfans are that concerned about the accuracy of the PTUA, maybe they could join. What the PTUA lack in technical knowledge they gain in media access. Can you bring technical knowledge to the table? Riccardo has suggested they pay for this knowledge and I think that's a very wise target. In the meantime, some knowledgable members could go a long way. And they get to be part of the grand colonoscopy. Now that's an aspiration!


Anonymous said...

People won't listen to the PTUA if their ideas are plain balmy. And not to put too fine a point on it, many pro-privatization and pro-Kosky elements have infiltrated groups like Railpage. My experience with railpage has involved much mental illness, abuse and threats to my life - so I can't take any of that collective seriously.
I'm a member of the PTUA - but being a member means I can challenge any views they hold. It's quite absurd to suggest they talk rubbish when everyone seems to have a vested interest.

Loose Shunter said...

Peter, insightful and penetrating as always. This is as good a 'reading' of the institutional storylines of public transport organisations I have found outside peer-reviewed journals. It has extra value with the addition of the enthusiast's storyline.

I like the way you've shown that people can be mobile within these groups, with someone working for an operator transferring to the bureaucracy and vice-versa (you're an example of that movement) and activists transferring to the bureaucracy (my career is an example of that).

I also like your observation on personal relationships and their effect on policy making.

I wish I had more time to write a detailed response to yourself and the other commenters, but I have to study for my Transport and Land Use Planning exam. I was 'privileged' to be in the last iteration of this course taught by Dr Mees at Melbourne University. It required much restraint to not arc up at the regular statements by Mees that the Bureaucracy and the operators were corrupt, incompetent and stupid. Not a way to win friends, but it certainly got him plenty of attention.


Daniel said...

An interesting post, and interesting comments.

Each player has their different strengths and weaknesses. I cringe myself sometimes at some of the media reporting - I think it's important for the non-activists to realise that the activists don't get to dictate directly to the journalists, and sometimes things do get lost in translation.

But then, maybe activists will always get flak from others in the space -- if not over fine technical detail, then over differences of opinion.

Criticism about campaigning style can be a bit hard to take though, since so much of it is done outside the public eye. It's like an iceberg. Don't assume what you read in the media is all of it. I suspect it surprises some people when they hear that the various players are very much on talking terms with groups like the PTUA, even if publicly they might clash regularly.

For myself, I'd always welcome civil discussion and debate. Yes, even pointing out when I've got something wrong. Feel free to email me.

(RVB, when Peter talks about PTUA people, I think he's referring to the active campaigning committee, rather than the regular membership.)

Anonymous said...

Bowen at it again - doesn't he realise how this SOUNDS?

I agree there are some alternatives to tunnel digging but would be very, very careful about how I expressed it publically

Anonymous said...

Listened to the mp3 on Bowen's site where Mees takes the question from the Connex guy about Dandenong line capacity - adds another dimension to the conflict:

-Connex managers (like some of the so-called Transport Professionals) say they are 'constrained' by the system but don't say why, or what lead to that situation

-The infrastructure managers are better placed but still in turn defer to the

-Politicians whose decision it really is

-If people really understood what is going on they would understand

-Australia is a basket case of a country and therefore it is no surprise that

-transport policy is a poor fit, a mismatch for the country as it is and as it could aspire to be

-good transport policy and bad transport policy take decades to riccochet through the system (you can draw down the capital of good decisions in the 1920s for most of a century, but it is now running out) and

-hysterisis effects mean that even if we slam the Queen Mary into full reverse, it will take decades for the billions we must spend to show a real effect on the city and nation

-just as the Queen Mary would churn the water a bit if we did that, there will be lots of churn as we throw billions of dollars into fixing problems that tens of millions would have fixed a decade or two ago.

-To push this analogy to its limits, if we had started reversing the ship earlier and at lower speeds, it might have had an effect.

-and Captain Kosky ain't the one who's going to do it.