Thursday, September 09, 2010

Politicians, Politics and Transport Authorities

A well-attended forum on public transport took place last night at Melbourne Town Hall. Convened by the Metropolitan Transport Forum it featured speeches from the Minister for Transport, Shadow Minister for Transport and The Greens. There was a period for questions after.

Below are several paraphrased statements followed by observations and questions that could have been raised if there was time.

The Greens member recited neither the Minister’s list of projects nor the Shadow Minister’s list of objections. However he briefly mentioned two topics, that of political involvement and management by transport authority, that are worth exploring in more depth.

Martin Pakula (Minister for Transport)

Buses cannot always connect with trains as they operate at different frequencies

This is a fair description of the present for many bus routes (that might run every 38 minutes not not connect with trains every 20 minutes). However such planned non-connectivity is neither an inevitability nor something that can’t be changed.

Given that buses are largely publicly subsidised, and that you oversee a department charged with service co-ordination under the Transport Integration Act, harmonised frequencies and better connectivity should be both achieveable and affordable.

The second reason why buses cannot connect with trains is that they intersect with many train lines. For instance a SmartBus orbital might link ten stations and scheduling connections is impossible

Much like the frequencies we run our buses, the decision to design our premium routes to be long orbitals serving numerous stations was a choice not an inevitability.

Any choice has certain consequences and compromises.

However it is not correct to accept certain consequences as inevitable without acknowledging that they only came about because certain choices (which were not inevitable) were made (in this case the decision to go with long orbital routes rather than upgraded shorter routes serving fewer stations that would be easier to harmonise and ideally co-ordinate with trains).

Terry Mulder (Shadow Minister for Transport)

There will be 2 protective services officers posted at every suburban station (and major regional stations) from 6pm until last train each night. They will be able to escort passengers to their cars.

This was widely reported in the media when announced. But could the escorting service mean that those waiting for a train (going the other way) would not have staff presence for a while? And will security staff go to the trouble of changing platforms to meet every train (where possible)?

The regional fast rail project was a farce

This project did deliver significant service frequency increases to major centres (sort of a follow-up to 1981’s ‘New Deal’ timetable introduced by a previous Coalition government) and patronage has grown rapidly as a response. It also included a component of ‘catch up’ maintenance.

It is true that V/Line on-time performance is often below standard and the bar for longer trips has been lowered. This is often attributed to the suburban network’s unreliability, along which V/Line trains must travel to the city. While punctuality was said to have deteriorated since the RFR services commenced, I didn’t hear anything that convinced me that RFR was the cause of this decline.

Instead his main argument appears to be that his opponents claimed financial mismanagement of projects including myki ticketing, Southern Cross Station and RFR has meant that infrastructure basics that should have been attended to were not.

Greg Barber (The Greens)

Public transport should not be political… it should be run by an accountable public authority

While it is fashionable to argue that ‘things would be better if they were less political’, I am not sure if this is entirely feasible in public transport. This is due to its dependence on public funding for both capital and operational purposes, and hence requires parliamentary scrutiny of same.

As well as not being feasible, ‘non-political’ public transport may not even be desirable. Political decisions can close lines, reopen lines and build new lines. People pushing unfashionable issues envy those whose interest areas are 'political footballs', since at least they're getting air time. And anyone who watched the interviews with Peter Newman on Perth’s rail revival (available on YouTube) heard that the decision to go with train rather than bus for Perth’s booming northern suburbs was a political decision, whereas most industry insiders favoured bus. In this case had ‘non-political’ public transport prevailed the very successful Joondalup line might not have got built.

Also unhelpful is that the term ‘political’ has come to be synonomous with ‘party political’. However there is also a broader politics tied to public organisation (often around community or interest groups) and participation. ‘Political’ could also mean any activity where people comment on a matter of public governance or interest, for instance suggesting where a bus route should go at a public bus review meeting (such as have recently been held).

In some cases the ‘political’ can indeed result in an inferior network and service for most. This could be due to residents not wanting buses in their street, a handful wanting to retain a bus route deviation that makes the service slower and less legible for the majority, or a group who succeeds in obtaining a new route, even though that bus would have met a greater need or attracted higher patronage elsewhere.

Nevertheless there is also a principle that those in remote pockets (even if the ‘remoteness’ is due to a developer’s transit-hostile street layout) should have some service on social equity grounds. This principle is strongly supported (sometimes at the cost of frequency and directness) by the Department of Transport and the Minister (who reiterated the ‘within 400 metres of public transport’ rule last night).

I suspect that many would be surprised at the number of route rationalisations that a business-minded public transport planning authority with a strong charter to maximise patronage for its budget might make. It would certainly mark a reversal of the last few years, which have seen the combination of (a) significant funding of new services, including some new routes that partly overlap existing routes, (b) limited development of headway harmonised timetables and non-SmartBus frequent service corridors, and (c) a reluctance to prune existing routes that may have outlived their justification for existence.

If the experience of Perth’s bus route reform (an ongoing process, but started in earnest in the late 1990s) is anything to go by, a transport planning agency would likely to concentrate on (b) and (c), much of which requires little funding. Funds for (a) would likely be gladly accepted, but this depends on the government of the day (hence the political component will never be avoided).

Evidence such as patronage and patronage potential data is cold comfort to those who have lost their local service, especially if mobility impaired. However some may gain if frequency and connectivity on existing nearby routes is improved. This is why it’s better to delete superflous routes (eg 694) at the same time that existing routes (688) are boosted so that even those left with a longer walk at least gain from higher frequency).

There will be some changes that may never be accepted and there will be constant political pressure for their reversal. This could well come from the very politicians who purported to support an service planning agency.

Although we have few (if any) routes that run on a commercial basis, an approach we could follow is to have most planning on the basis of patronage potential and strategic network importance, along with supplementation for ‘social needs’ routes. These may be less direct and frequent but provide coverage to pockets that cannot be justified as being part of the core network. To a large extent even funding for these would likely be politically determined, proving again that the political cannot (and probably should not) entirely be taken out of public transport.


pt4me2 said...

Nice work. Posted link on pt4me2 media page.

Riccardo said...

Sorry Peter but while I agree with your 'theory' your other political commentary sounds like a defence of the political system, which is what I've always found hard to stomach on your blog.

At the end of the day what's the point that saying a transport system can be optimised, but a political system can't be.

Your comment about Perth is 'correct' but I fail to see the problem. A transport system, especially a public one, needs to be far more conservative and rational in trying to meet public needs. Even the Joondalup decision, right though it was, was against actual wrong transport planning/forecasting, not politics.

If the patronage hadn't materialised, then the decision to use rail would have been wrong. Equally, if they'd used buses and the patronage was excessive, that too would have been wrong. Not political, just wrong. Wrong whether a bureaucrat, a consultant or a politician decided it.

Look at the Sydney tollways. Wrong forecasts, tollway operators broke, forecasting consultants sued for negligence. The market, rather than the political system, carries the can - but it is still about being wrong.

Your whole post I can see is about defending the fusion of the ALP into the bureaucracy and many of the advocacy groups, rather than its replacement by the Greens, other advocacy groups and transport experts who support massive improvements in PT rather than cobbling together excuses as to why it doesn't work.

I actually prefer the Liberal argument - they just don't like PT and don't want it. No bones about it.

Riccardo said...

Also Peter, have you worked out how to cure Stockholm syndrome yet? You seem to want to apologise for the naivety of people like Pakula, rather than be angered that the political system sticks people like him in the executive position of something he clearly has no interest in.

Could you imagine a CEO of BHP who is fundamentally not interested in minerals?

Or a Chair of the AFL who fundamentally doesn't like the game and would rather watch cricket?

You don't seem troubled by such obvious non-answers as we can't connect the buses with the trains because we can't. He acts as the 'victim' of an immutable system rather than as its master.

Where would he get this learned helplessness? Factional dependence within the ALP? Being too stupid to understand his bureaucrats? An endless feedback loop of bureaucrats telling Minister what he wants to hear...and being rewarded for doing so?

I don't have a problem with the Libs not policing every platform or every passenger. After a few high profile run-ins with the law, even on a 50% probability basis, the ferals will get the message and find new people to harass. I've heard the latest fashion is to try and stop ambulances and fire trucks.

Ferals are obviously responding to some inner need to be noticed and to cause others trouble, so expect some displacement.