Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two loops: Feedback and the City

In teaching creative thinking, Edward De Bono often discusses humorous or whimsical concepts that when refined can become practical ideas.

A example is building a factory downstream of itself. The practical idea here is that since it needs clean water the factory would have a vested interest in not polluting if its outlet was required to be upstream of its inlet.

Expressed as a more general principle, this is the idea of building short and direct feedback loops so that consequences of poor behaviour or decisions are more swiftly felt by those responsible. Or, more diplomatically, corrective action can more quickly be taken if circumstances change.

While the City Loop's noon reversals and weekend variations do not make it the most passenger-friendly system, its vagarities do make it a very efficient feedback loop.

It wasn't always like this, though.

Ten or so years ago, if like most Melburnians you lived in the south or east and commuted to the city, working near Parliament Station was an advantage. You had the shortest trip in and the shortest trip out. Train patronage was higher than its nadir c1980, but not that much more. And reliability was generally pretty good in the early 2000s.

Then numbers started growing above trend. Not just 1 to 2 per cent a year (roughly in line with population growth) but double digits for successive years. The growth forecasts promised by the franchise bidders came true, but not all survived to see it. Extra services were added but the growth in passenger numbers outstripped the increase in service provided by five to one if not more. So trains got more crowded and the network became more fragile and prone to delays.

Which group of passengers were most affected by this trend? The answer is, for those who live in the south and east, those boarding at Parliament in the afternoon. For Parliament is their last city station. Even a short suspension of the regular train throughput can leave people behind on the platform during peak times. Boarding at Parliament is like drawing the short straw and some even walk to Flinders Street, despite the extra time in the loop.

Who works near Parliament? Politicians first spring to mind. But equally important are departmental officers and ministerial staff. They experience the joys and pitfalls of suburban train travel first-hand. And, despite recent press, transit's modal share amongst CBD-based bureaucrats is still rather high and exceeds that for the population as a whole, many of whom work in suburbs with free parking and less public transport access.

And so orders for 38 new trains, and, more recently, new trams, have been placed. Subject to available line capacity and power, their commissioning will allow substantial service improvements. While unfair to accord it full credit, the City Loop and its mostly clockwise pm peak pattern appear to have played a role in forming a rather effective feedback loop.


Riccardo said...

Again PP, I don't know why you like the soft-and-cuddly DoT bureaucrats, a place that needs to be (as fans of Alien might say) nuked from orbit.

If they are anything like any other state government bureaucracy, those other than the boss are likely to be driving themselves and at best reading about the bad news in the paper.

And minsterial staff? You must be joking. Lynne Kosky only gets the train when they organise one for her, clean it up, and run it in the middle of the day when it won't be crowded or filled within inconvenient voters, who might tell her what she has stated, she doesn't want to know.

A better De Bono-esque loop would be if politicians salaries arrived by rail, or the preselection committees travelled to their meetings by rail, especially Lynne's backers.

Remember the ALP are as bad as the Libs at PT policy, and include many soft and fluffies (I remember them all lining up to back Bronwyn Pike over Richard Di Natale) who despise public transport, and think it is only there for the poor.

Loose Shunter said...

Riccardo, don't let your ideological prejudices blind you. Your one-man crusade against DOT bureaucrats both demeans you personally and tarnishes your message by placing it into the Paul Mees "DOT senior management show as much concern for the travelling public as the Burmese Generals showed the people of Burma" typology of inflammatory statements made in a search for relevance (or just a form of showboating or holding court in the streets).

If, as you suggest DOT was 'nuked from orbit', who would fill the vaccuum? And why stop at DOT? If you're going to use one nuke, it's either one too many or not enough.

I would suggest the problems in the Department stem from the deep and pervading links between the political level of government and the bureaucracy which is particularly prevalent in DOT compared to other state and federal departments I have worked in.

Riccardo said...

LS, please explain further what you mean. Why should the unhealthy links between the bureaucracy and the political system be worse in DoT than elsewhere? I don't see transport policy as only being made in the DoT, it is also written in the Treasury.

Agree, I should drop the hyperbole. Part of my style, but I do admit some people are put off by the 'how' of what I say than the 'what'

You know, I don't go in for the fluffy bunnies. Unlike the host of this blog, I don't see the political system as a cooperative, goal oriented system. I see it as adversarial, designed to enrich and empower the few at the 'equilibrium' level that optimises the discontent of the rest of us. It's not about bringing people together, its about finding the right place to stick the wedge, then driving it in hard.

When I read my Ian Allen mags it is very clear that your average passenger rail manager or transport ministry bureaucrat in the UK actually DOES catch the train.

They too have their problems but it makes good meat for their political system to chew on.

For some reason, whatever insights our DoT do get from their daily commute, don't translate into improvements or even sensible debates on what to do.

I posted somewhere else how I was on a train and saw a woman marking up a set of papers with bus routes around the Ocean Grove area - I was troubled when I noticed the notes to see the very thing I feared - arbitrary planning done by someone a long way from the area. At least she was a public transport user!

Peter Parker said...

Riccardo, regarding the last paragraph I should clarify that what you saw being done re Ocean Grove buses was not service planning at all, but an exercise to document the route so it can be explained more clearly to the public.

There is a history of bus operators doing their own things with undocumented route deviations, unmarked stopping points, timepoints where passengers can't actually board and quaint footnotes.

Maybe OK for the local schoolkid or pensioner who uses the same bus most days, but not for the visitor or irregular user (whose taxes fund the buses too).

Things like more frequent regional trains, integrated fares, websites and journey planners means it is desirable to be able to explain any route to anyone one anywhere.

And in doing this work it's no bad thing if an educated outsider does this work as they can ask questions about matters that if left to the operator alone may have been left unexplained (after all 'the locals all know don't they').

Having said that, Geelong bus routes are subject to review and route revisions along with a new city interchange should start next year.

Loose Shunter said...


I have worked in a number of state and federal government departments over the years and none have had the kind of permeability between the bureaucracy and The Party (the ALP) than the Victorian Department of Transport. Even my wife who works in Education and has worked in DTF and DHS believes that the numbers and levels of penetration of the 'Commissars' are far higher in DOT than in other parts of the service.

Of course there are the cadre of professionals (engineers, economists, statisticians, technicians, planners), but in the more nebulous parts of the department (stakeholder relations, communications, strategic policy) there is a concentrated core of party members who pass easily from the Ministers' office, the Premiers' office and media unit into the Department and back again.

I think there are historical reasons for the tight political control over the railways that have been central to the development and running of Australia's railway network. This ranges from the oscillation between 'independent' commissioners to government appointees to the commissionership in the 19th Century, the political patronage and influence that swayed the alignments of railway lines to benefit individual politicians and their friends and the massive investment in railways that was evident by the early 20th Century. Historian W. K. Hancock stated back in 1930 that railways accounted for 1/4 of public debt by the end of the 1920s and around the same time, Victorian MP (and Minister for Railway) Robert Menzies stated "the railways have always been the storm centre of politics".

In regard to your distate for 'us' on the inside, your hyperbole tends to strengthen the reflex actions of either dismissing you outright as someone with an axe to grind or drawing the wagons into a circle. The message tends to get lost among the volumes of vitriol.

A little more honey and a little less vinegar might go a long way...

In terms of our friends at DTF, their power to make or break policy at state government level is being undermined by the Federal Government. When you look at the COAG National Partnership Agreements for example, the Federal funding is tied to State service delivery on specific measures, rather than a transfer of a lump sum. There's no chance for DTF to squirrel away the Commonwealth money into a hollow log, it needs to be spent in the required place in the required timeframe. While roadbuilding moved over to the 'tied' Federal funding rather than grants throughout the 1990s and into Auslink, the last great area for this kind of 'reform' is public transport. Although since the IA money is now flowing for Metro I and RRL, the door to the future is now slightly ajar, although DTF still has great power at the moment to influence PT.