Friday, May 01, 2020

Victoria's transport ministers: Inheritances, legacies and messes

This is a quick look at Victorian transport ministers over the last 60 plus years and the legacies they left for public transport. As well as the errors they made.

Credit and blame

A reasonable question is the extent to which a minister's success is within their control. It is never completely though some ministers made a better fist of the circumstances they faced than others. Two examples were Kennan vs Brown who both presided in difficult times. Kennan had no successes to speak of and won the opprobrium of many from his own side while Brown's successes in stabilising the system afterwards privately earned the respect of people such as the PTUA's Paul Mees.

Bigger shifts, often over several decades and outside their direct control, can change how we view ministers. For example the move from rail to road as people bought cars and settlement spread  reduced rail's viability. Especially where management and unions resisted reform this set up a vicious cycle of declining revenue and service that one might blame the minister for. Hence the trend to shift management of the railways more directly to the bureaucracy, then managers recruited from outside and later the private sector.

More recently we've seen how growth can cause its own challenges. Increasing crowding and decreasing reliability became particularly apparent about 10 to 15 years ago as CBD employment grew and inner suburbs densified. This changed how we saw certain governments and ministers as they scrambled to respond to these pressures.

Ministers with good intentions can be cut down by bigger matters, such as the state's industrial relations and economic conditions. Problems here can cause services to be less reliable and less in number due to line closures and timetable cuts. Governments may centralise power in (say) Treasury or the premier's office, reducing what a transport minister can do. Although transport is normally a fairly senior portfolio, parts of it can fall to a newcomer with less sway in the cabinet than someone who has been around for longer.  

Still, one should not regard ministers as passive victims of circumstance. There are things that state governments and ministers can directly control. For example ministers could have chosen to resist the advances of information technology charlatans (known for over-promising and under-delivering), not  to sign ticketing system contracts with inexperienced parties nor agree to unsustainable rail and bus franchise contracts due to their greed for a cheap deal. And they could be more wise to waste such as duplicative bus routes that could have funded network upgrades within existing expenditures.

Some advice could have been followed sooner. Earlier action on boosting metropolitan rail capacity may have saved the Brumby government from defeat in 2010 for example. Promising too much can cause ministers to appear failures, such as the inability of successive Cain government transport ministers to honour grand rail network expansion promises made in 1982. Then there's plain sloppiness such as what appeared to spark the contracts dispute that stymied bus network reform for years.

In transport the customer is always right. Most will use whichever mode is best for them. That is determined by the relative quality of available choices for the trips they make. Which government and ministerial decisions in areas like planning, infrastructure and service can certainly affect. But only if they stick to the core of what running a good service requires.

Focus on what matters

Ministers and their departments can get distracted by side-issues that diverts them from working on the things that matter. That was a particular problem in Victoria during the 1990s and 2000s. Then the ministers had their bureaucrats obsess over three things: (a) ticketing systems, (b) operator franchising, and (c) rebranding. These diverted attention from the really important things like network reform, reliability and service levels that govern whether the service is useful or not. 

While work on ticketing, franchising and branding is obviously needed, other cities managed to give it a proportionate attention that never distracted them from the main game of planning useful, frequent and reliable services. 

Take Perth which has resolved these matters with a fraction of the drama that we had in those  two decades. For instance the Transperth network brand was established in 1986. With only minor and low cost evolutionary changes since it enjoys excellent recognition. Compare that to Melbourne with its numerous rebrandings since The Met yet still missing a proper system name. Same with ticketing. Perth got smart card tickets before Melbourne. It has fewer features than our myki but got introduced without the controversy, big delays and cost over-runs. As for private operators, these were brought in (for buses) without drama in the early 1990s, with the contract model able to retain integrated network planning and coordination between modes. The trains remain state-run but in an efficient manner with a higher passengers per staff ratio than (say) Brisbane's and generally better 7-day frequencies than on most Melbourne lines. These arrangements have been stable and settled for many years. 

While Perth's network is far from perfect, their management's ability to focus on what is important has led to sustained steady service improvements over decades as discussed in 2005 and again in 2019. This is under both Coalition and Labor governments. Perth was able to achieve its operational reforms under rail electrification. And because its were scrapped so long ago Perth never had Melbourne's silly sentimentality over tram conductors. No one in Perth wants to go back to the public transport they had 50 years ago (it was bad!) whereas many Melburnians would say the'd want to. WA also lacks Victoria's culture of militant unionism which occupies so much of our transport ministers' time (and even devoured a few) just to keep services going, let alone improve them. 

We've had our good times too, although with fits and starts. For example the 2006 - 2010 period for buses and a subsequent period where greenfield timetables were introduced on some train lines. There was less money but good network planning for buses in the 2013 - 2016 period. More recently we've been in a service planning stupor with the pace of service and timetable reform dropping on all modes. However, in their defence one could make a case that recent ministers have at least been focused on long-term beneficial infrastructure rather than their predecessors' unproductive sorties into side issues like franchising, ticketing and (re)branding.

I won't attempt to do a best to worst ranking of transport ministers here. But you are most welcome to do so in the comments below. Colours reflect Liberal (Coalition) or Labor governments. 

65 years of Victorian transport ministers

Arthur Warner 1955 - 1962 
Mess inherited: Continued backlog due to Depression and war, patronage falling due to end of petrol rationing and suburban growth beyond trams and between rail lines
Legacy left: Continued modernisation under Operation Phoenix including new trains, more electrification, extra tracks, rebuilt stations and conversion from steam to diesel 
Mess left: vicious cycle of falling patronage, rising costs and multiple rounds of service cuts, ceased production of W-class trams, Footscray and Victorian Railways trams closed, Replaced some Sunday tram services with buses, major strike in 1960 meant no Sunday trains for nearly a year, little new capital spending after Operation Phoenix money ran out.

Edward Meagher 1962 - 1967 
Mess inherited: As above
Legacy left: Some improvements for outer suburban commuters eg electrification extensions, extra tracks and more parking
Mess left: vicious cycle of falling patronage, rising costs and multiple rounds of service cuts (especially trams), little new capital spending as government interests shifted to road

Vernon Wilcox 1967 - 1976 
Mess inherited: As above
Legacy left: Melbourne Underground Railway Loop, New Hitachi trains, New Z-class trams saved network from closure, some improvements for outer suburban commuters eg extra tracks, some new and rebuilt stations, some train service upgrades (eg 1975 timetable), 1969 Melbourne Transport Plan, Operating subsidies for all modes (as fares could no longer pay costs), 1971 tram and bus renumbering and network map 
Mess left: Closure of regional tram systems, vicious cycle of falling patronage, rising costs, industrial disputation and service cuts (commissioned Bland Report)

Joseph Rafferty 1976 - 1978
Mess inherited: As above
Legacy left: Continued arrival of new trains and trams 
Mess left: Vicious cycle of falling patronage, rising costs, industrial disputation and service cuts

Robert Maclellan 1978 - 1982 
Mess inherited: As above
Legacy left: 'New deal' on regional rail, multimodal ticketing, Werribee electrification, Comeng trains, some reduction in industrial disputation
Mess left: Vicious cycle of falling patronage, rising costs, service cuts (incl metropolitan train timetables in 1978 and 1981), Community outrage re Lonie Report

Steve Crabb 1982 - 1985 
Mess inherited: As above
Legacy left: Continuing 'new deal' on regional rail, restored service on some closed lines, Continuation of fare integration with Neighbourhood system incorporating private buses, Organisational integration, some bus reviews, improved bus services in regional cities eg Geelong and Bendigo, start of revival in metropolitan patronage, successive Tram 86 extensions 
Mess left: Industrial disputation, broken promises on metropolitan rail extensions

Tom Roper 1985 - 1987 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Converted Port Melbourne and St Kilda lines to tram, Major bus service upgrades including new routes and extended operating hours, some suburban track amplifications and improved express services, improving patronage 
Mess left: Industrial disputation, rising costs

Jim Kennan 1987 - 1990 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Met Plan (mostly not implemented), simplified three zone fare system, removed tram conductors, reduced station staffing
Mess left: Industrial disputation, cost blow-outs, scratch ticketing with mass fare evasion, Mismanaged bus contracts - 'Waverley Transit' case poisoned relationship with bus operators, massive bus service cuts from 1990 with large patronage losses, increased train vandalism and graffiti

Peter Spyker 1990 - 1992 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Sprinter trains ordered for regional lines
Mess left: Out of control costs, industrial disputation, scratch ticketing, depleted service levels, falling patronage

Alan Brown 1992 - 1997 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Controlled costs with further destaffing, improved reliability, metropolitan rail frequency improvements in east, regional rail closures, restored Sunday service on all tram routes, some service frequency cuts, introduced bus operator accreditation, Met Bus privatisation
Mess left: Metcard ticketing over-budget and late (time bomb for future ministers), stagnant private bus system, started fare disintegration by allowing National Bus to issue own section tickets. 

Robin Cooper 1997 - 1999 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Improved Sunday train and tram services, relative industrial peace
Mess left: Metcard ticketing over-budget and unreliable, divided network through rail franchising on unsustainable contracts, stagnant bus system, break-up of Met and lack of network identity

Peter Batchelor 1999 - 2006 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Some (but not all) regional lines promised reopened, Regional Fast Rail, Major improvement in bus services (MOTC plan), reunifying metro train and tram networks with more sustainable (expensive!) contracts, taking back V/Line, making Metcard more useful and workable, start of SmartBus, Metlink with improved passenger information, reversing fare disintegration by removing franchisee-issued train and bus-only tickets. 
Mess left: Left time bomb for successor by signing myki contract, declining rail reliability, fare cut promise leading to patronage pressures

Lynne Kosky 2006 - 2010 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Regional Rail Link, Victorian Transport Plan, improved buses (including SmartBus orbitals) with rising service per capita and strong patronage growth, beginning of greenfield train timetable planning
Mess left: Train and tram crowding, failing infrastructure, falling reliability, myki cost and time blowouts, backlog re implementation of bus reviews

Martin Pakula 2010 - 2010 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: New DART bus system for Doncaster, new orbital SmartBuses, rise in service per capita.
Mess left: unreliable and overcrowded trains, myki, non-implementation of local bus reviews

Terry Mulder 2010 - 2014 
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Higher train frequencies with greenfields timetables on some lines, better rail reliability, relieved train crowding, new local bus networks, creation of PTV with stronger planning capability, continued building previous government's Regional Rail Link (with some changes)
Mess left: Stalling on infrastructure projects, Metropolitan Bus Franchising/Transdev (not apparent at time), falling service per capita, promise of free tram zone which became bipartisan, deteriorating train cleanliness, unnecessary rebranding

Jacinta Allan 2014 - 2018  
Mess inherited: see above
Legacy left: Addressing our rail infrastructure backlog, level crossing removals, Metro tunnel (future), regional rail upgrades, new generation trains, improved train cleanliness, Night Network
Mess left: Stalled bus network reform, Stalled Metro train timetable reform, still falling PT service per capita, tram slowness and crowding (partly due to free tram zone)

Melissa Horne (public transport), Jacinta Allen (transport infrastructure) 2018 - 

Current risks and challenges: Declining rail reliability, little bus network reform, relationships with transport and construction unions, cost blowouts and industrial disputes affecting major projects, 'disruption fatigue' (as so much is happening and disrupted), changed priorities due to COVID-19. More on the current minister Melissa Horne here

More detail

The above are brief summaries over nearly 70 years. More detail is available elsewhere. Here's some background reading (mainly from last century)

The ideal minister?

Who would be the ideal public transport minister? I'd pick a composite. I'd want the bus resources from a Batchelor, the network planning approach of a Mulder, the infrastructure funding of a Kosky or Allan delivered with the managerial efficiency and reliability of a Brown.

Conversely the worst would combine the closures of a Warner, the blow-outs of a Wilcox City Loop, the service cuts of a Meagher or Maclellan and the management prowess of a Kennan delivered with the diplomacy of a Roper and the credibility of a Crabb.

Please leave your comments below if I've missed anything significant (which I will likely have) or if you wish to comment on significance and record of the governments and ministers mentioned.

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Unknown said...

Nicely done, I like a good political summary now and then. Personally, I think there will always be a mess left to fix after every minister regardless. To what extent depends on the previous inheritances and the in/competence of the minister. Andrews as premier and what government Victoria has now seem to be extremely well-suited to managing the infrastructure part of transport, hats off to them. Service-wise... that remains to be seen. Thanks for the positive views of Perth in each post! In this case, the roll out of SmartRider did have some criticisms, and IIRC some short (1-2 yr) delays, but nothing matching Myki. It would be interesting to see summaries of transport ministers from each state.

Andrew said...

I was so excited when in 1982 a Labor government was elected with Crabb as transport minister, so full of promise and hope. Never have I see so much money so badly spent on public transport (with the exception of Miky) than as was during his years as transport minister.

Peter Parker said...

Thanks Andrew. What were some examples of waste under Crabb's time? Were you thinking about the light rail conversions for Port Melbourne & St Kilda (which they justified on the basis of lower operational costs)?

Peter Parker said...

Thanks Unknown. Looking back I think the biggest recent lost opportunities were in the early Bracks era (1999 - 2005) as state finances were improving. In their 'honeymoon' era the could have seriously but cheaply reformed the bus network (like happened under Mulder but on a bigger scale throughout Melbourne) so that by the time big resource increases came in 2006 - 2010 they'd all have been spent wisely (ie by boosting services on a simple and lean network rather than on duplicative routes or wasteful orbitals through bush) to deliver better service than now.

Alan Brown's off-peak service upgrades for trains and trams could have continued with early evenings and Sunday mornings boosted to every 20 min for not very much. What became myki could have been deferred despite talk at the time of Metcard's high operating costs (changes introduced under Peter Batchelor did improve Metcard). We could have gone for simpler fee for service contracting (rather than a franchise model) in 2003-4 and acted sooner to stop wasteful system rebrandings. That plus a sooner reaction to crowding (eg simpler greenfield train timetables introduced a year or two earlier) might even just have saved the Brumby government.

Anthony said...

Interesting article, Peter. Nice to read something not hopelessly partisan.
The bus network is such a wasted opportunity. Extra stations on SRL are resisted because hubs will supposedly be fed by buses. I'd have more faith of that if Melbourne had ever managed to do feeder buses well.

Peter Parker said...

This item is now out of date. Melissa Horne has now been replaced with Ben Carroll who is also responsible for roads.