Saturday, December 04, 2010

After the Election

Last Saturday Victorians voted for a change of government. Below are a few observations on the campaign and the challenges facing the new government.

Rail’s rise

Public transport was prominent in the campaign, with the main topics being railway service delivery, security and staffing. Feasability studies for new lines and revised arrangements for service planning were also on the agenda. On election night the Opposition’s David Davis said that passenger discontent contributed to victories in Bentleigh, Mordialloc, Carrum and Frankston, all on Melbourne’s least punctual rail line. In contrast, buses hardly figured, except as alternatives to a Mernda railway.

Transport plans reflect rail’s growth in political importance. The 2006 ‘Meeting our Transport Challenges’ was largely about buses, especially upgraded local services and new SmartBus routes. Whereas the 2008 Victorian Transport Plan was basically a road and rail infrastructure plan, proposing the Regional Rail Link and Melbourne Metro projects.

Successive ministers heaped blame for disruptions on the rail operator. The former premier promised ‘improvements from Day One’ when the new franchise operators took over last year. Politically this hurt more than Bob Hawke's famous 'by 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty' promise. Labor learned the hard way that the railway is a fragile and fractious beast whose reliability reflects past maintenance, errant car drivers and straying pedestrians more than political niceties. After a brief honeymoon, the new government, with its 'fix it' mandate, will be held to account as surely as the previously one was.

Quiet on the buses

In its last term the defeated Labor government made buses run on Sundays and after 7pm but failed to remind voters of this gain. The consensus on both sides was that buses were not politically significant, despite their extensive coverage. Accordingly the major parties promised either no or minor improvements for buses. This is one of those cases where the past record exceeded the promises; 2010 saw a record number of SmartBus routes added to the network.

The key message for those wanting better buses in 2011 is that most if not all improvements must be cost-neutral. In other words nothing much will happen unless resources can be found by withdrawing or shortening existing routes.

The choice is between a passive approach to bus service planning and few improvements, or a more active approach (including deleting or reducing services on some routes if necessary) and freeing resources for a more important route. After some time where the pursuit of economy was laid aside, transport planners will need to reacquaint themselves with concepts such as ‘opportunty cost’ and the sometimes unpleasant job of rationalising redundant services for a greater good.

All this is a big change from 2006 – 2010 where there was significant new money for bus service upgrades. Planning efficiency probably suffered because services tended to be boosted before being reviewed. And there was sometimes a reluctance to rationalise services, even when overlapped by new routes. Bus reviews came later, but by then funding had run out for wholesale implementation, especially in established areas.

Getting along on the roads

The relationship between road users was an issue in certain seats. Inner-city Liberals campaigned against extended clearway hours on roads served by trams. Clearways sped traffic flow but were vocally opposed by shopkeepers.

Bus lanes on Stud Road were also topical in the electorally critical south-east. These were seen as taking space from motorists and giving them to buses. Bus lanes can be deceptive – a relatively quiet bus lane can carry as many people as a lane full of single occupant vehicles. Nevertheless to moderate community opposition they need to be seen to be used, and this may require a more intensive service than currently runs.


First the Greens, then the Liberals. Both advocated some form of public transport authority. Labor saw no need, citing the existing functions of the Department of Transport and operators. Whether something gets done (eg bus-train co-ordination) is more important than who does it.


gxh said...

The results in the electorates on the Frankston line can be compared with the 2 electorates in each of the Ballarat and Bendigo regions plus Ripon - all 5 of which were held by Labor and all of which are served (at least to some extent) by the regional rail network. As the regional rail system appears to be functioning quite well, this seems to suggest that there is political "upside" in rail, as well as the potential for downside as demonstrated on the Frankston line.

matt cook said...

You give a good analysis of the overall situation.

I suspect that only viable solutions to the clearway issue are to kill of the shopping strips (ala Hoddle St), or for VicRoads and/or local councils to establish more low fee off-street parking. I like the second idea better, but it would of course cost much more.

It may well be that some shops would gain some benefit from clearway improved PT going past their door, but there are some retailers who sell things that people will prefer to carry by car.