The Age campaigns for free public transport

[Green Left Weekly, #668, May 15, 2006]

For the past two months Melbourne's Age newspaper, owned by the Fairfax media group, has been energetically campaigning for free public transport in the city. Former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett — who privatised public transport in 1999 — revealed in an interview that he argued within his cabinet for a simple universal gold-coin fare system. He said his biggest regret in public life was that he failed to stick to his guns in the face of bureaucratic opposition. Kennett's cabinet colleague Robert Maclellan canvassed the idea of making public transport completely free until leading officials talked him out of it.

We might well wonder what is going on when a major corporate mouthpiece and leading capitalist politicians call for measures long advocated by socialists.

Livable city or urban nightmare

Undeniably there is a major problem. Globally, motor vehicles are a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for the climate change threatening humanity. They also kill and injure significant numbers of people each year — directly through accidents and indirectly through pollution.

As in all modern cities, life in Melbourne is conditioned by the motor vehicle. A large part of the city is covered by the roads and parking spaces necessary to accommodate all the cars and trucks. Major arterial roads are barely functional for large parts of the day due to traffic congestion. Noise, pollution and lack of amenity are the inescapable results. Recently, residents in Yarraville blocked a major intersection in their suburb to protest the intolerable noise and pollution levels from thousands of heavy trucks passing through each day.

It has been estimated that only 7% of journeys undertaken in Melbourne are made by public transport. The ALP government's stated goal is to raise this to 20% by 2020. But this seems yet another example of Premier Steve Bracks and Transport Minister Peter Batchelor spouting green rhetoric while doing absolutely nothing to provide real alternatives to the motor vehicle. In Western European cities, public transport figures are typically closer to 25% of all trips made.

If the government were serious about achieving a radical reduction in Victoria's greenhouse gas emissions and making Melbourne a more liveable city — rather than the urban nightmare it is fast becoming — it would put forward an ambitious and comprehensive plan to overhaul and expand public transport and achieve a large-scale substitution of rail freight for trucks.

Motor vehicles need to be pushed to the margins of city life. What is needed is not 20% of all trips made by public transport but something more like 50, 60 or 70%. Some figures given by the Age are striking here: one train can move the equivalent of five kilometres of cars and one tram can move the equivalent of over 50 cars.

Of course to achieve change on this scale will not be easy. First of all, the motor vehicle and related industries (rubber, plastics, oil, etc.) probably account for 40-50% of the economy under capitalism and will fiercely resist any efforts to reduce the size and influence of their sector. Secondly, any plan on the scale needed will require very large investments. Thirdly, it is hard to imagine that the necessary results can be obtained without beginning a redesign of the city itself: a real halting of the urban sprawl, a gradual consolidation to produce higher population densities, and so on.

Public transport in crisis

Melbourne's public transport system is in crisis. Following the big petrol price hike earlier in the year, tens of thousands of extra commuters packed the trains. The already creaking system couldn't cope with the surge in patronage and the result was massive overcrowding and service cancellations.

Frequency is a major issue. Trains and trams are often late and cancellations are common. In the wastelands of the outer suburbs, there are often no buses after 6 or 7pm or on Sundays — the only realistic option is the motor car — failing that, simply don't go anywhere. Following Kennett's earlier slash-and-burn assault, most train stations are unstaffed raising major issues of safety. Kennett also eliminated tram conductors, seriously reducing the safety and amenity of the service, especially for older and disabled commuters and people with prams.

Melbourne's public transport system, especially the railways, is designed on a radial plan. It is often very hard to travel across the "spokes". What might be a five- or 10-minute trip by car can become a one-hour marathon by public transport — and that's without taking into account the question of reliability of service — will my bus actually turn up?

Over the last year or so a new model of tram has been introduced across the system. Try as one might, it is hard to avoid concluding that it has been designed by complete idiots. It has far fewer seats than the previous design and the ones it does have are often embarrassingly close together. The only positive feature is a wide low-floor entrance which gives prams and wheelchairs easier access. But did everything else have to be wrecked to achieve this result?

Privatised system

Kennett was the architect of the 1999 privatisation. It is ironic that it was the Age which on the eve of Kennett's 1992 election victory ran a truly appalling campaign against the tramway workers (complete with a spurious photograph purporting to show a worker drinking on the job). Tony Parkinson, later the foreign editor of the Age, was responsible for this piece of yellow journalism. This disgusting series helped set the scene for Kennett's landslide win over the discredited Labor Party government and lay the basis for the later sell-off of the public transport system.

The old state-owned system certainly had its problems. It suffered from under-investment and lack of real public accountability and input. But the notion that private ownership is the solution is ridiculous. The one "efficiency" of the private operators of the system has been in collecting their government subsidies. Apart from that their reign has been marked by big staff reductions and a decline in service. The rail, tram and bus system, previously united under a single owner, was broken up. Yes, it is notoriously true that train and bus services were not integrated but the possibility was there and with little effort this could have been achieved.

In 2002 there was a crisis when one of the system's private operators announced it was facing bankruptcy and couldn't continue. Bracks and Batchelor shovelled over another $105 million and the truly dreadful prospect was averted that the state government might have to resume operation of a major part of the system.

A recently-released report by four leading transport academics claims that the privatised public transport system has cost taxpayers $1.2 billion more than if it had remained state-owned. If the contracts with the private operators are renewed, this figure will rise to $2.1 billion by 2010.

The contracts are up for renewal on November 30 this year. If the government chooses not to renew them, the rail and tram system reverts to public ownership. The only obligation on the state would be to purchase any rolling stock owned by the operators, but this would be relatively cheap as this equipment can only be used in Melbourne.

From the start the privatised system has been marked by massive fare evasion. In 2005, some 125,000 fines were issued by inspectors, mostly for fare evasion. Probably only a small proportion of fare evaders are ever caught. Mass fare evasion is probably due to several things: a protest against the privatisation of the system; the decline in staff numbers (especially the elimination of tram conductors); and the ever-rising cost of tickets.

In July, Bracks announced the award of a $494 million contract to introduce a smartcard ticketing system in 2007 to replace the current system. Smartcards will be pre-loaded with money and scanned as passengers enter (and leave) public transport. The scan will calculate the best-value fare and debit the amount.

ALP position

Bearing in mind all of the above, it seems that this is a perfect moment for the government to resume control of the public transport system, dispense with fares and develop a plan for a massive overhaul and expansion of the whole system. The social benefits would be immense. It is one major way in which the state could start to grapple with seriously reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

The money saved by scrapping the new ticketing contract and junking the whole ticketing infrastructure could be ploughed into the upgrade of the system.

What is the government’s position? Bracks and Batchelor are vehemently against both re-nationalising the system and scrapping fares. They make Kennett and Maclellan look like left-wing radicals — and that is no mean feat! Of course, if use of public transport was made free and some upgrading took place, patronage would increase and yet more funds would have to be invested in the system and a "responsible" neoliberal government tries to avoid such commitments.

But if petrol prices keep rising, more and more people will be forced to use public transport anyway. Unless an overhaul of the system is begun now it may well collapse under the strain.

In its broad outlines the socialist position is clear. Resume full public control of the entire system; develop a plan for a massive upgrade of the whole system with major investments in track and rolling stock; hire thousands more staff to run the system; increase service frequencies; and integrate rail, tram and bus services. Fares should be scrapped completely so that we can avoid wasting funds on a costly apparatus of supervision and inspection. (Even Kennett's gold-coin fare would need an apparatus to monitor it.)

Make the corporations and the rich pay

Unfortunately, the influential Public Transport Users Association opposes making the system free. They probably figure that unless fares are retained there will be insufficient funds for the necessary investments. Other transport experts call for a Medicare-type tax levy.

Such approaches are mistaken. We actually live in a very rich society, objectively well able to afford a quality free public transport, a first-rate free public healthcare system, and so on. But the condition of the state being able to finance such things is that the capitalist corporations and their millionaire owners are compelled to stop bludging off the rest of us and pay their way. Raise the top personal and company tax rate to 60% or more and eliminate tax avoidance and then we could have all these things and more.

(Of course, taxation is a federal matter but this is really secondary. The federal and state authorities constantly play the game of each blaming the other for lack of progress in one area or the other. Socialists reject this buck passing and demand that the system provide the funds one way or the other.)

Finally, we may wonder why the capitalist Age is pushing this apparently socialist measure. (The Sydney Morning Herald is running a similar campaign.) This is not some accidental effort by a maverick journalist but a serious, sustained, well-argued effort by the editors. It would seem that a section of the corporate elite realises that things simply cannot continue as they are. They are not about to abandon the motor vehicle economy but consider that serious adjustments have to be made if a real meltdown is to be averted.

Socialists have to use every opportunity to insert ourselves into the debate and push for the only realistic and radical solution.