“There’s panic on the switchboard, tongues in knots. Some come out in sympathy, some come out in spots. Some blame the management, some the employees. Everybody knows it’s the industrial disease.”
Welcome to the latest issue of The Transportist, especially to our new readers. As always you can follow along at the transportist.org or on Twitter.
Making the Trains Run On Time, Or At All
Making the trains run on time, or run at all, is a core responsibility of a railroad, or really any dictator. We started hopeful. We were told two weeks ago that “Sydney train network to [Finally] resume full weekday services on February 28.” Yet at 2 am on Monday February 21, the day the Australian border opened to tourists after near two years of isolation, and on which the University of Sydney resumed in-person classes, and with the world on the precipice of war, those who assumed the mantle of “leadership” at Sydney Trains and Transport for NSW decided to play partisan games with people’s lives and lock-out workers. They misleadingly claimed this lockout was for safety reasons — when obviously it was a negotiating tactic, that turns out to have been planned in advance. They did this without telling the passengers. They passed it off as “industrial action” — implying a strike (engendering discord in the Sydney Morning Herald newsroom about what to call it, with the reporters siding with truth and the editor with fake news) — to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt. When they do all this you know they have failed in their core responsibility, making the trains run. The agency name is “Transport for New South Wales”, not “No Transport for New South Wales”. This is shambolic.
While the party in power and transport minister were on the offensive for a few hours (calling the Union “Terrorist-like”, when all they were doing was working to rules, which while inefficient is hardly incapacitating), hoping to score cheap political points, they ultimately miscalcuated. In the before-times, which we are trying to restore Sydney relied on public transport to get to work. In 2016, the metropolitan transit mode share was 26%, in the CBD it was closer to 75%.
Everyone soon enough figured out what really happened, (compare the URL address: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-21/nsw-train-strike-halts-all-passenger-services/100846938 with the revised headline: NSW train chaos could continue tomorrow, commuters warned to ‘avoid rail travel’) and the finger pointing began: the Premier began to collect a Dossier on the Minister for Transport (To be clear there are four Ministers for Transport in New South Wales at the moment; my insider friends said the Premier didn’t think Elliot, who is responsible for Trains, was up the whole portfolio, it turns out he wasn’t up to even a quarter of the portfolio. This is being debated by his colleagues.) Elliot said it was a staff decision, and they didn’t wake him. The ABC says: “By 5pm, Sydney Trains chief executive Matt Longland had claimed responsibility for the decision to shut the network down.” If The Australian newspaper, owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation, is criticising the LNP,1 you know the process to lockout workers and shut trains in the middle of the night without informing passengers (or updating the GTFS Feeds the map apps travellers rely upon) was a fiasco. One has to ask: Do these officials or ministers ride the trains themselves?2
My own tale, after going to a closed train station and figuring out it was closed (this was not obvious, the monitors just had a logo instead of a schedule, but people were waiting at the platform and nothing was chained closed, I walked most of the 8 km to work, catching a bus along the way for some of the distance (obviously no one bus serves the entire route, since it is so well served by trains). I’m fine, I am healthy, I have flexibility.
But this displaced ‘essential’ workers, school students, people with limited time due to carer responsibilities, people with limited cognitive abilities, people for whom English is not a first language, people with disabilities, and so on, who rely upon the reliability of the service. Despite her faults, the former Premier (and transport minister before that) Gladys Berejiklian never would have let this happen.
This all indicates a government less serious about governing than the world requires, a government which thinks this is still student union politics. New South Wales state elections are next year. Australia federal elections are in May. In a huge decadal reversal, LNP is now behind Labor in the polls at both the state and federal levels. The tick-tock of governance between major political parties in a democracy is, in principle, healthier than one-party rule, keeping power from become absolute. It looks like we will see it again.
Post-script: Trains indeed were restored to full service on Feb 28, with 3 times as much service they were far less crowded. The same industrial action by the labour union apparently is continuing, drawing further into doubt the lock-out rationales of a week ago.
- Premier wants to see an end to cheap overseas transport fleets. Building transport vehicles locally, will that lower costs, or improve quality? Easy decision to make now that most of a decade’s worth of fleet have already been procured.
- Mutual Co-Colonisation – If one were to look solely at the coal and iron ore, China would be seen as the colonizer despite Australia’s higher standard of living. And if one were looking at some metrics of urbanisation and development, like the deployment of high-speed rail, China is also more ‘developed’.
- A Grand Bargain – Hypothesis: Raising speed limits on motorways and lowering speed limits on local roads in urban areas reduces traffic deaths per capita. This might be a politically acceptable way to lower speed limits in cities.
- The Pessimist’s Dilemma – The self-negating prophecy of the pessimist does not reward the pessimist, who had to be wrong to warn people off the wrong path.
- Virgin Hyperloop lays off 111 staffers as it abandons plans for passenger transport. And somehow I missed this from November 9, 2020 (buried under election counting news and the death of Alex Trebek I assume) “The world’s first crewed Hyperloop trip was a success” By which they mean they moved 2 people 500 m at a peak speed of 107 mph (~172 km/h) inside a tube. Not so much a success that they will continue to develop this technology though.
- ‘Acoustic aggression’: Paris installs radars to curb traffic noise from hell. In my own area, burnouts by hoons are becoming more common, creating noise, but especially the smell of burnt rubber..
- Accessibility ideas are all across this report: Benchmarking Melbourne which is good. But it is access TO public transport, not access BY public transport TO destinations. The international benchmarking consultants (who sell the same report to many cities) are decades behind practice.
- The Olympics foretell future technologies. We read: Hydrogen Cars and Buses Seize the Spotlight at Beijing’s Winter Olympic Games. But we also read 12 years ago: Largest hydrogen fuel cell transit bus fleet to serve 2010 Winter Olympics. Hydrogen, the transport energy fuel of the future, and always will be.
- Finding a way to Western Sydney Airport – by rail? – Article by Peter Thornton. Maybe a north-south train serving an airport in a city aligned east-west is not the best first move.
- Sydney’s new road tunnel ‘unviable’ without surge in Harbour Bridge tolls. The tunnel is $$$. If the toll operator (presumably TransUrban) is to recover enough $$$ to make a profit, the other crossings need to raise their tolls from $$ to $$$. This will need to get done soon if the political polls are correct and this is the last year of the current LNP government in NSW, as Labor is much more populist on the tolling issue.
You might think the Murdoch papers are the house organ for the LNP, but the reverse is nearer the truth.
Note: When I was in Minnesota, I generally refrained from criticising the Minnesota Department of Transportation in print because they funded my research, so that would have been a conflict of interest (I had no such compunctions about the Metropolitan Council, who only provided funding indirectly once). Despite submitting a few proposals, I have not been funded by TfNSW, (though obviously have colleagues who are), nor are there any immediate prospects, nor, after years of request, have they even provided the kind of data one could easily get in the US; so can use my free speech rights without any kind of direct repercussions. I suppose there could be an “I’ll hurt your family” type of threat, I haven’t seen it, but will be sure to report it.
I got that vague threat once back in Minnesota from a public official (the head of the local transit agency who complained about an above-the-fold interview I gave talking about “dogfooding”), which I discussed here.
Obviously tenure in Australia isn’t the thing it is in the US, and state transport agencies have leaned on highly ranked universities to punish academics like the late Paul Mees in Victoria; I trust that won’t happen at Sydney. I am instead a taxpayer and customer. Governments “buying” academics through research grants, who should have the freest of free speech freedoms, is a significant problem. The push for universities to be more like consulting firms, and the pressures on academic staff to get more and more research grants, exacerbates this problem, where many of the smartest and most knowledgeable experts are conflicted out of commenting on public affairs.