Derailed! Victorian Transport Privatisation Fiasco

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I’ve never been a “creditor” before. But on December 30, along with all other train and tram employees of National Express Group (NE), I received notice of a creditors’ meeting planned for January 2. Happy New Year! We had joined the tens of thousands of Australian workers dumped by a corporate collapse. Except for one thing — we have all our entitlements, superannuation and conditions guaranteed by the government. Such are the benefits of working in an essential service — and having a strong union. On 16 December, NE announced that it was walking away from the train and tram operations, taking a loss of nearly $400 million. The government is now backing the otherwise bankrupt NE businesses. But no one was really surprised. Private ownership of public transport is a crazy idea and has never worked anywhere it has been tried.

Union-busting scheme bound to fail. In 1996, the Kennett Government tried to retrospectively alter superannuation arrangements for train, tram and government bus workers, leading to a strike on the Grand Prix weekend the following year. Kennett claimed that the strike was the impetus for breaking up and privatising the public transport system. In fact the attempt to rob us of our pensions was part of a pre-existing plan to reduce future costs to private managers and to break up the system in order to weaken the unions. So in 1998 and 1999, the system was divided and handed over to a number of private companies, including Thiess, Alstrom, Melbourne Bus Link, Metrolink Consortium (Transdev and Transfield Services), Connex and NE. This was sold as a major cost saving to taxpayers. Instead, duplication of management and subsidies and “bonuses” to the companies have actually increased costs.

NE won the greatest number of contracts, including most of the former government buses, 60% of the metropolitan train and tram networks, and almost all of the country passenger rail services. Connex has the rest of the suburban trains and Metrolink, trading as Yarra Trams, the rest of the trams. The splitting of the integrated network, a ticketing system that has never worked and service agreements based on wildly optimistic increases in patronage meant that this arrangement was doomed from the start. NE was first to quit, but when the government offered Metrolink and Connex the opportunity to terminate their contracts up to 10 years early, both jumped at the deal. Although their French parent companies had deep pockets, the Melbourne operations were notorious losers.

Receivers Deliotte Touche Tohmatsu are managing NE’s former M>Train and M>Tram businesses on behalf of the government, and Metrolink and Connex are managing the rest of the system for 12 months. In the meantime M>Train and Connex will be recombined, as will Yarra Trams and M>Tram. This takes the metropolitan transport system most of the way back to the early ’80s, before the establishment of the Public Transport Corporation (PTC). The PTC was a Cain ALP Government initiative to integrate the once fiercely competitive rail and tram bureaucracies. This is the legacy of the Kennett years — 20 years of planning trashed and in the most expensive way. What was that about economic “rationalism?”

White Elephants. Speaking of costs, NE leaves the taxpayers of Victoria with a costly engineering problem, brought to us by the “superior skills” of the private sector managers. The new trains have a braking system that is incompatible with any other Australian train. This means they cannot be “rescued” in case of a breakdown, nor can they rescue another train. On top of this, an altered driving position and inappropriate cab design means that they are incompatible with the infrastructure provided for driver-only operation. This means that, without expensive modifications to mirrors, cameras and video monitors, the driver cannot see along curved or obstructed platforms in order to ensure that passengers are clear of the train. There is a proposal to install “narrowcasting” TV stations at problem platforms and receivers on trains, thus permitting in-cab viewing. Guess who pays for that!

The biggest stuff-up is that the new trains are too wide. They have only 5mm clearance on straight platforms and jam on the curved ones. Yes, folks, the British train company sent the German manufacturing company the wrong measurements — because it didn’t check locally. This would be funny if it were not so serious — and so expensive. You see, 20 years ago the same thing happened with the previous train fleet, and it was notorious throughout the rail industry. They were too wide as well, thanks to a bulge halfway down the carriages. At platform and roof level, they are fine. But after two trains sideswiped each other at North Melbourne, every junction and every platform had to be altered at an enormous cost. No one has explained precisely how NE managed to repeat history, but the leading theory is that they had the new, straight-sided vehicles constructed to the width of the offending bulge and not the correct, platform height dimension. The problem is that if the platforms are cut back, the gap for the older trains will be too wide for passenger safety, meaning modifications to those trains as well. No doubt it can be fixed, but this means spending tens of millions more taxpayer dollars that should be used to employ teachers or build hospitals.

Keep it public — and extend services. True to its “fiscally responsible” neoliberalism, the ALP government of Steve Bracks proposes to flog the system off again in 12 months or so. NE is not alone in failing to learn from history. People will use a public transport system that’s frequent, reliable, cheap and safe. Privately owned mass transit systems are none of these. Sure, there’s usually a new corporate logo and a splash of paint, but the only way to make profits out of public transport is to cut staff and maintenance. And while it’s true that Melbourne’s trams and trains were chronically under-funded by governments of both major parties, the example of Britain springs to mind as a warning against privatisation. Privatisation in Britain has been an unmitigated disaster. It’s not only the cancelled services and the dirty vehicles. People die regularly on British railways, and the collapse of safety standards is directly attributable to private ownership and the “corporatisation” policies which preceded this. For example, when a broken rail caused the deaths of commuters, the Labour government demanded an audit of the entire network. The audit found that more than 3,000 sections of track were unsafe.

The public transport unions in this country have a proud history of stepping outside the narrow confines of bread-and-butter unionism. For example, rail workers refused to transport uranium and were early pioneers of gay rights at work. Transport workers led the 1969 General Strike to free tramways union leader Clarrie O’Shea, who had been jailed for defying anti-union laws. With good leadership, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union could emulate their forebears and lead a union and community fightback to re-nationalise public transport.

What needs to happen in Victoria is the creation of a single, government-owned, integrated public transport system. The system should be free for commuters. Therefore all passenger and rail freight transport, including so-called “private” bus routes, should be re-nationalised with a decentralised, worker-controlled management structure. Fund services through a levy on big business, since business is the main beneficiary of the mass movement of workers to remote worksites. There must be first-to-last-train staffing on all stations and a conductor on every tram, train and major bus route. The entire vehicle fleet must be extended and modernised to provide full, accessible, low-polluting services in all suburbs and regional cities. Restore the rail freight network to reduce pollution and its related health costs, minimise damage to roads, reduce costs and delivery times for rural communities and to increase employment, particularly in rural areas and the Western suburbs of Melbourne. Fund it by a container levy on big business.

Privatisation is an expensive fraud on taxpayers. Transport privatisation has failed. Demand that the Bracks Government keeps public transport in public hands.

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