Thursday, February 01, 2007

The lessons of Victorian public transport

Okay fellow citizens. Its time for me to use the case study of Victorian trains and public transport to give you all a lesson in why socialism fails, why central planning of an industry is a slow and unresponsive way to manage and allocate resources, why politicians and bureaucrats have very little regards for individual happiness and prosperity, and much more regard for their own public image and power.

I was angry enough to write this post, but given that the Number 16 tram this morning just flew right past my stop at 8:35am, even though it wasn't full, this is the final straw. I registered a complaint with Yarra Trams who are supposed to get back to me within 7 days.

Heres a brief background of recent events in the news. Firstly:

Connex, the private operator running Melbourne train services, has already cancelled 37 daily peak services indefinitely after taking almost half its Siemens fleet out of service.
Yesterday, despite reassurances from public officials and bureaucrats:
The Age can reveal that another Siemens train was impounded late yesterday after it overshot the platform at Seaford station just before 6pm.
The 4.55pm Flinders Street to Frankston six-carriage train yesterday overshot the Seaford Station platform.

Then today, this report:

The rail operator has already prepared a crisis plan to run its weekday services on a Saturday timetable if all 72 of the Siemens trains are withdrawn.

The move could result in almost 400 cancellations every day, creating peak-hour chaos, worsening overcrowding and causing delays across the system.

And its not just brake problems causing havoc:
An overhead power fault disabled two peak-hour Connex trains in Melbourne's north-east this morning.
The trains stopped for up to an hour between Greensborough and Macleod during this morning's peak hour.

Due to cutbacks in number of trains, the remaining trains were over-crowded. Who ever said over-crowded trains were limited to the 3rd world countries such as India ?
Last week, one Connex commuter rode in the driver's cab with 14 other passengers because there was no room left on the train. Claire Reynoldson said she tried to board a morning peak-hour train at Balaclava station when the driver invited her and a group of passengers to ride with him.
Now .. if this were a private sector business. People would be voting with their dollars - meaning that Connex would be kicked where it hurts, as they lose millions in revenues from lost customers. Connex managers would be scrambling to fix the system quickly and keep as many services running as possible. This mechanism comes about because of the profit incentive under private enterprise.

Better yet, there would be another valuable mechanism in place due to the profit incentive. Connex managers and stakeholders would have greater reason to avoid such calamity in the first place seeing as they are risking their own money. They would perform better servicing of trains, and only purchase trains that had an excellent safety/reliability record with extensive testing.

But .. this is the public sector people ! Look closely at the mechanisms in any public sector business that occur when there are failures, shortages and quality issues. The first mechanism is to reassure the public that something is being done and to convince them that your tax dollars are being well spent, so nobody will dare ask for them back. All you get is:

  • Ass-covering by the Connex spokesperson:

Mr Cassidy said there was no problem with the trains, but could not say when the overhead voltage problem would be fixed.

"Our technicians are working on it at the moment. I don't have an estimate."

  • Contradictory statements, about how the "system" still works:
"There is a risk that the trains could slide by an amount, some by just a few metres, some by further than that," Mr Osborne told reporters today.

"But in terms of managing the risk of that problem I'm confident that the safety of the system is intact and is continuing."
And yesterday on the radio, the leader of the opposition criticised Connex and suggested the trains be pulled. The Connex spokesperson, rather than consider the public's safety, lashed out against the criticism saying that "Ted Baillieu is undermining confidence in the system".

Oh heaven forbid that we criticise our public servants, administrators and bureaucrats ! Don't you dare criticise the system !

But Ted Baillieu responded wisely:
"I tell you what undermines the confidence in the public transport system: when the brakes don't work.
Of course, there is another government bureaucracy in place to regulate safety. But like any arm of government, they absolutely oppose people trying to live their lives, use other forms of transport and get to where they need. They insist that the government service is indispensable, perhaps because it is tied in to their funding. Check out this amazing statement, it defies belief:
But the safety regulator said it was unnecessary to remove all Siemens trains.

"If . . . we closed the system down and everybody ended up on the road system in their cars then they would experience an awful lot higher level of risk if they did."
And its not just train users who suffer under the measure. As a cyclist myself, I find I am often stuck at boom gates. Just last week, there was a faulty boom gate that remained down for 5 minutes after a train left. It took the next train to trigger it to lift !
Under the new safety measures, trains must approach platforms at 25km/h, not at the 45km/h speed previously allowed.

Boom gates at level crossings will come down sooner and stay down longer as well.
On a final note, let me show you a quote from Connex that really reveals the socialist mindset. There is very little care for individual people, their level of satisfaction and happiness, the profitability of the enterprise, and whether resources (trains, infrastructure, staff) are allocated effectively.

This final quote shows an immense level of idiocy, arrogance and an elitist viewpoint that sees citizens as guinea pigs. There is only concern for ... the system:
"We're actually learning an awful lot by keeping the trains in service, and provided they continue to present no risk to members of the public I'd see nothing being served by taking them off," Mr Osborne said.

UPDATE: This absolute gem of a quote from Steve Bracks, in a 2003 media release:
The Premier, Steve Bracks, today welcomed the new M>train to Melbourne’s rail tracks - the first of 62 new three-carriage trains that are being built at a cost of $500 million.

Mr Bracks said the new M> train, built by Siemens, would improve passenger safety, comfort and accessibility on Melbourne’s public transport system.

“The new M> trains mark a new era in public transport travel,” he said.

“The trains offer increased room, digital information displays and announcements, push-button operated doors and air-conditioning.

“M>Train have contracted to purchase 62 trains, all of which will be riding Melbourne’s tracks by mid 2005 and will replace the ageing 1970s Hitachi trains.”