22 January 2011

Mulder on the Right Track

So much for this not being a political blog! Anyway, there were a couple of articles over the past couple of days which grabbed my attention on the state of Victoria's public transport network. Since, as I explained in my last post, public transport is one of the three key reasons Ted Baillieu was elected as Premier in my opinion, and one of the key issues his first term will be judged on, this continues nicely from my last post.

The first of these articles was given the title "Funds Doubt on Brumby's Tunnels," and is basically an interview with the new Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder.

It is very easy to be cynical about politicians, and given the amount of hollow spin from Federal Labor (and the NSW Right faction in particular) over the past year, it is often well deserved. But by the same token, when a politician "gets it" they also deserve credit. And if Mulder manages to deliver even half of what he has promised in this interview, with increased reliability on our trains (and across public transport in general), he will be quite rightly regarded as the best Public Transport minister in over a decade.

Let's take a look at a few highlights from the article:

''When you have a look at the billions of dollars from around Australia - and have a look at what has just happened in Queensland - the feeling that I am getting is that over the next few years it is most likely smaller projects that are going to get federal government funding.''

He said the proposed $5 billion WestLink freeway under Footscray had already been turned down for funding by Canberra. And his government had no plan to build the second stage of the road, from the Eastern Freeway in Clifton Hill to CityLink in Flemington.

 Brumby was a big fan of pushing through large projects which would create large number of (unionised) construction jobs. Such projects (for example, rebuilding Spencer Street Station, now dubbed "Southern Cross Station") often cost billions of dollars and came at the expense of more mundane network maintainance. Worse still, many of these projects were pushed through without paying any regard to local residents and businesses.

If the new Government sticks to long overdue network extensions, network upgrades, and puts off some of these Brumby pet projects like the Footscray Tunnel, the State will end up in better shape than it was under Brumby.

The biggest promise Mr Mulder must fulfil is to establish a public transport authority, which Premier Ted Baillieu has promised will plan, co-ordinate and manage Victoria's public transport system. Quizzed about the authority, Mr Mulder could answer few questions about how it would work, its powers or which existing bodies it would replace.

Another big step in the right direction if it goes ahead. While there is little benefit to the State Government nationising (or re-nationalising) the day to day operations of the public transport operators (private operators under contract can do the job as well), there can be a lot of benefit in having a single body bringing together stakeholders such as the transport operators, consumers (perhaps represented by groups such as the PTUA), and the State Government in order to make sure our public transport system is run, planned, and timetabled as a network rather than as a Balkanised spaghetti mess of bodies where everyone is at fault but no-one is to blame (as was the case under Brumby).

On a related note, it's good to see the new Minister taking ownership of the DOT and standing up to some of the bureaucrats there:

The Department of Transport will be restructured under Mr Mulder, who conceded the government's promise to slash consultants was proving difficult... ''It is very hard to get a handle on how many external consultants are working for the department and what they are doing,'' he said.

Mr Mulder said previous transport ministers had been too easily ''captured'' by their department. ''I raise as many questions as possible.''

Recently he made a point of touring the 11 floors his department occupies. Mr Mulder said some had been surprised at his presence. ''One [person] said to me it was the first time they had seen a minister down there in 37 years.''

Why is the D.O.T. bureacracy such a problem? It's a point I'll get to in a moment.

Anyway, instead of the wasteful white elephants Brumby loved so much, it's good to see the new Government paying attention to well overdue extensions to the train network:

The government has also promised a rail line to Avalon airport, plans for rail lines to Melbourne Airport and Doncaster, and a feasibility study on rail to Rowville. The Avalon project would begin by 2014, Mr Mulder said, and be built before a Melbourne Airport rail line because it was ''a very, very small amount of money compared to … Tullamarine''.

Planning for Doncaster and Melbourne Airport, and consideration of Rowville, would all proceed.
If Mulder and Baillieu can deliver any of these, it would mark the first significant extension to our rail network since the opening of the Glen Waverley line in the 1950s. And anyone who has tried catching public transport through Rowville or Doncaster will no doubt agree that these lines really should have been built 30 or 40 years ago. So a very big step in the right direction here.

Mr Mulder said a $40 million federal grant for planning on the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, the centrepiece of the former government's Victorian Transport Plan, would proceed.
But the project's $5 billion-plus price tag also made it unlikely to go further, he said. ''I believe into the future the tunnel will be built, but it's a matter of when and how it lines up with other priorities.''

Really, the tunnel was another Brumby white elephant at this point, and the new timetables with through running trains is a much better idea at this point. This isn't to say that there won't be a point in the future where extra lines through the city will be needed, but (as Paul Mees and others have repeatedly pointed out), there are other steps we can take in the interim.

Now, earlier in this entry, I talked about clearing out the Department, and having a new authority taking control of Melbourne's public transport system. I opined that this was a step in the right direction because, as a second Age article ("Taken for a Ride") points out:

While it is early days for Metro in its eight-year contract, there is a widely held view among rail industry insiders and commentators that the company has hit a wall in Melbourne; that an entrenched inertia and old boys' network in the state bureaucracy and unions has made reform in Melbourne public transport impossible.
Expert observers such as University of Queensland urban economist Chris Hale are baffled by Metro's experience in Victoria. ''MTR are really among the leading mass transit operators worldwide. If Melbourne can't make mass transit work with MTR at the helm, then something is seriously wrong,'' he says.

Further down that article:

[The bureaucrats] ongoing influence in transport policy and management, and their ability to outlive premiers, ministers and rail franchisees, lends weight to the criticism of a Yes Minister-style old guard that never lets go in Melbourne. The relationship between the bureaucracy and rail union is a long and complex one, and was especially so under Labor.
Rail, Tram and Bus Union secretary Trevor Dobbyn is Victorian president of the ALP. Several of the most senior current and past Metro staff have told The Age that they believe Mr Dobbyn is more influential than either Metro itself or the government's transport bureaucracy.

When Metro human resources manager Bill Armstrong sought to challenge long-standing work practices including union control of rosters and who tests new trains, he found he had taken on a bigger opponent that he had realised. Armstrong was one of a string of senior figures moved out of Metro last year.


Meanwhile, at Flinders Street Station there is an enduring Melbourne mystery - the frustratingly long stop every train makes on arrival. The delays are due to an old industrial agreement that requires that drivers change trains after every trip, lest they get bored. Such a practice would be laughable in Hong Kong. 

Part of the reason Government train, tram and bus services were contracted out to private operators under the Kennett Government during the 1990s was because of a series of strikes by unionised rail workers. Unfortunately, that bureaucracy within the DOT has become all the more entrenched during the Bracks / Brumby years, at the expense of private operators, consumers, and the State Government. One of the key things a new Transport Authority will have to do (and I suspect there will be a fight over this at some point in the future) will be to bring the focus back on consumers and away from the Bureaucrats in the DOT.

Then there is the ten year backlog of basic maintainance that this cozy arrangement between the bureaucrats in the Department and the Bracks / Brumby Government:

[Metro Trains] certainly faces obstacles. Some, such as the antiquated complexity of the network and extent of maintenance neglect, were not fully apparent. ''If you look at standards, what we have got is a Third World railway in a First World country,'' says a former Metro executive and rail industry insider. ''Metro did not understand how difficult it was to operate such a complex system.''


As one senior consultant close to Metro puts it: ''The main problem was that the government was 10 years behind on infrastructure. The more they did, the more Metro missed targets because they had to stop trains running to fix things up. These things go to a lack of long-term planning and support.''

 The challenge for Mulder over the years ahead will be how well he deals with these entrenched problems in the system. But it is encouraging to at last see a Public Transport Minister who is on the right track.

Feel free to send any thoughts, comments, or feedback you may have about this article to andrewsadauskas at gmail dot com