Monday, June 7, 2010

The Trains, The Bloody Trains...

As a frequent user and advocate of public transport (I don't own a car) in Melbourne, I have to laugh at the state of the Met system here. Melburnians do nothing but grumble and gripe at their trains, trams and buses. And it's understandable. The system is a shambles. The signalling system is old and out of date, timetables make no sense but have to be followed because services are too infrequent and overcrowding, by Australian standards anyway is often an issue at peak hours. Is there any merit to the system? One good thing about it is that it's pretty cheap to travel and because the system is generally such a shambles it's really friggin' easy to ride for free. Often whether you pay or not is totally your choice. For example I travelled to Southern Cross Station the other day (one of the two big central stations) and the far-left barricade had been casually left open and unstaffed. What's the point then of going through a barricade with a ticket? This is the norm at suburban stations and pretty common even at Flinders Street Station, Melbourne's "Grand Central Station". The only risk is getting caught by one of Melbourne's Met Gestapo (Ticket Inspectors) with an invalid ticket during your trip, but now that Myki has been introduced you can get around them really easily again as they haven't got any equipment with which to check whether you've validated these smart-cards or not. It's just like the good old days of the Met scratch tickets (see right). 

With these tickets which were still around in the late 1990s, you would scratch off the appropriate month, day and time (if applicable) when you boarded the train, tram or bus. Of course, especially on trains, and then on trams when the conductors were got rid of in 1994 you would just keep your ticket "virgin", and then hastily scratch the appropriate squares if you happened to see an inspector coming your way. After some "experimentation", I figured the best thing to do was to buy a daily ticket and scratch off the appropriate month but leave the date unscratched. Bus drivers only ever glanced at your ticket and waved you through (I have never in 16.5 years seen an inspectors board a Melbourne bus, although there are myths & legends, circulated by The Met probably, about them boarding buses), and if inspectors boarded a train or tram you could quickly scratch off the date before they got to you. 

Of course you had to be a bit wary and on guard for this to work right. I remember one time I hadn't seen any "Met Gestapo" folk for literally months and had pretty much forgotten all about my scratch ticket, was sitting at the front of the carriage daydreaming and some inspectors walked through the door coming right for me, and in my panic I scratched the wrong date. With a very red face I said I'd mixed up my days. Of course both me and the inspector knew exactly what I was up to, but, perhaps because it was 9.30PM on a Sunday night, she just said "Make sure it doesn't happen again", and let me off. 

In any case, back to 2010. Melbourne is the only city I know of where to get from one side to the other side (say, East to West) of the city you often have to go around something called the City Loop. The loop is a collection of five CBD stations [Flinders Street, Parliament, Melbourne Central (which despite its name is not really "Central Station" which is Flinders Street - it's just named so after the shopping complex it sits under), Flagstaff and Southern Cross] and trains usually run around the loop, either when they depart Flinders Street or before they get to Flinders Street. I hate the City Loop. It's confusing and a waste of time. Often you have to plan beforehand which Loop station to get off to switch lines because otherwise you will end up going around the Loop twice, or thrice if you're a tourist, before you actually get out of the city again. And sometimes you just have to anyway. Like yesterday, I caught a train from Balaclava (East) to Sunshine (West). The Sandringham (Balaclava) train was a Loop train which went from Richmond via Parliament, Central and Sth Cross before terminating at Flinders St. Then I realized I had to get on a Watergardens train to get to Sunshine. Suddenly I realized if the Sandringham train was a loop train then the Watergardens train would be as well, but the other way. So, at which station should I alight? I was still trying to decide at Central but by then it was too late so I just got off at Sth Cross. The Watergardens train came 5 minutes later but going the other way around the Loop, so in the end it wouldn't have mattered which station I got off at. Because I had to go all the way around the Loop again to get out of the CBD.

Today was the first day of a new timetable implemented by Metro and the reason I'm writing this is because of a critical article in The Age dissing the new timetable. I found the article quite funny, because I think they somewhat jumped the gun - I mean it's a bit unfair to poor old Metro to be trashing the new timetable after just one day. Especially when some delays were caused by a passenger falling ill at South Yarra station (see left). It reminded me of the Metro service in Shanghai. Now I'm not going to praise the subway system there although many people do. That's because I lived in the outer suburb of Chuansha for a while, something not many foreigners do, so most of them don't know what they're on about when they gush about Shanghai's brilliant train service. Try living out in the real 'burbs (I don't mean Pudong) and then see what you think. I still find it astounding that the government there chose to spend one billion US dollars on a stupid maglev train from the airport to the nearest subway station rather than expanding existing lines to suburbs which desperately, and I mean desperately needed them. You should have seen some of the buses I caught from Zhang Jiang (end of Line 2) out to Chuan Sha. Man, these crappy, old buses with zero air-conditioning were always packed to utter capacity. It was just bloody ridiculous, especially in summer. I tried a couple of times and then just did the rich, arrogant foreigner thing and reverted to taxis. 

Anyway, The Age seems to blame poor old Metro for delays caused by passengers falling ill. It just reminded me of an incident in Shanghai where some random guy jumped in front of a train and died. They had the scene cleared in 15 minutes and services restored. In Melbourne it would have taken 15 hours. But of course Shanghai is a city where public transport is not an environmentally friendly, politically correct option, that you only use when you're in a particularly conscientious mood. It's the fastest and most efficient way that 16 or more million people have of getting around. In the iiner city at peak hour - forget about a taxi if you're going 4 or 5 km - it'll take you an hour and a half to get through the traffic, never mind that taxis are cheap in China. The same distance by subway will take 5 minutes (and it will only cost you 40 cents instead of $15). In other words, the Shanghai subway is vital. That's why trains run every 2 minutes all day long and even then they are still totally packed at almost every station. But not so here. As long as the car is the government's preferred mode of transport and Vic Roads is ultimately in charge of public transport funding, the system here will remain the second, third-rate shambles as it is now. You got to realize, the public officials in charge just don't care about all the grumbling and complaining. They don't want more people getting on trains and ditching their cars because ultimately that will mean less money for roads. And that's the very last thing they want.

However...that being said I also think it has something to do with the culture generally here. The Chinese, you know, are, like super-hero efficient. When they want something done, they get it done. I think that's why they're so uninterested in convoluted European ideas such as representative democracy. I mean, Jesus, how can you get anything done that way? Seriously. (And you got got to feel totally sorry for the people running Metro Trains, who are in fact Chinese, trying to deal with the bureaucratic monster that is the Department of Transport - they must have long torn their hair out already haha.) Apart from the fact that there's a massive conflict of interest as regards public transport (VicRoads funding it for example), the reason everything's such a shambolic mess is because we're just too laid back and lazy to do anything much about it. We have too much of a "near enough is certainly good enough" attitude here. Some really effective and efficient solutions have been proposed, such as scrapping the City Loop for example and having all trains running direct, which would unclog the whole system and allow for many additional services as well, but imagine the unholy democratic furore that would follow. Literally everyone and his dog would be grumbling and whining about having to follow a new timetable; the media would have a total field day and it would probably take a decade to get the legislation passed through our democratic parliament and processed by the bureaucrats who, in any case, would no doubt do everything in their power to block it as it would in fact mean a fast, reliable, train service which, remembering that they're VicRoads folk, is the last thing they want to see.

Ah well, that's life in Aussieland. As long as there's iron ore in the ground and the Chinese are buying it, she'll be right mate...

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