Rail against the machine!

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute tells us:

Transit [public transport] becomes more important as cities grow. In smaller cities transit primarily serves transportation disadvantaged riders (people cannot use an automobile), typically representing 5-10% of the population, but as cities grow in size and density transit serves more discretionary riders (people who have the option of driving), and so provides more benefits by reducing traffic problems and supporting more efficient land use patterns.

However, at the margin (i.e., compared with their current travel patterns) many motorists would prefer to drive somewhat less and use alternatives more, provided they are convenient, comfortable and affordable. Satisfying this growing demand for alternative modes can provide a variety of benefits. When all impacts are considered, improving public transit is often the most cost-effective transportation improvement.

When one has spent all one’s money on tickets to see Waiting for Godot, and lives far out in regional Victoria, we discretionary riders appreciate ‘cheap Sunday’ railway tickets. Parking at the Lilydale station is fine on a Sunday and considering the petrol, city parking and environmental costs of driving in – how fantastic that a grandmother, two grown-up best friends and a couple of teens can trundle into the city on a Sunday train for the grand total of $15.50.

But … no.

Tickets bought and validated, the platform monitor advertises a train that doesn’t appear to be leaving at the time advertised on the online timetable, consulted before the journey began.

Oh no, says the man who sold us the tickets, when I enquire. The train will take you to Ringwood and there is a bus to Camberwell and then you can get back on the train to the city.

But this is not advertised on the timetable, say I. There are no signs here, by the window, informing me that this disruption is going on. No warning by the validation machine.

It has been advertised since the 27th of April, says the Lilydale station attendant, with no apology. There are posters.

Where is this poster? We saw no poster!

He points the poster out. It is behind us, in a corner not visible when a customer arrives, buys a ticket or exits to the platform. It is in a corner where no one can see it unless they stand at the counter and look back to where they’ve come in to the station.

It is a sign that any corporate writing student would lament for lack of clarity. Careful reading reveals an announcement of the disruption and subsequent 50-minute delay.

This is getting alarming. A 50-minute delay on an already hour-long train trip. Turning, for us, a four-hour return trip into a six-hour return trip.

But, says the grandmother, this is dated Saturday 15. Today is Sunday 16.

We have tickets to wait for Godot. We can’t be late. Qua sky and all that. We will have to drive. We would like our money back.

Have you validated the tickets? asks the Lilydale railway assistant.

Yes, we say.

Then I cannot refund your money, says he.

No apology. Not the slightest sense of personal responsibility, though he is happy to give us the complaint number if we would just like to wait a little longer.

My friend takes a photo of the useless poster with the wrong date. As we head off to the car, all fuming about the lack of customer service, he hurries out to change it.

Fortunately for us, we’d planned to be early and subsequently found a lucky park at the very crowded Camberwell station. We use our unrefundable tickets. On the platform at Camberwell there are stories being swapped of the multitude of public transport ineptitudes. There are retellings of terrible customer service attitudes practiced by public transport staff. There is a couple with travelling luggage, obviously distressed, probably missing ongoing connections.

This comment by a passing stranger sums it up: No wonder people get pissed off.

How difficult is it to flag changes to a timetable?

How difficult is it to adequately warn customers of 50-minute delays to the usual service – not to mention a train-load of passengers being jammed on to a couple of buses? No fun for the elderly, that’s for sure.

Why is it such an appalling service and why are they allowed such self-serving blanket rules of non-engagement with refunds and/or complaint procedures?

We were privileged enough to jump in our car and take our umbrage to the road. I pity the ‘transport disadvantaged’, trapped in a system that couldn’t care less about them.

Get rid of the pseudo-nazi transport police and bring back conductors who can sell you a ticket if you haven’t got one.

And will someone help the poor customer service staff – something terrible has happened to them.

Only time will tell.

Is there nothing to be done?

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Hey Clare,

    Great piece. I experience this kind of wasted rage every day I am too lazy to ride my bike. Wasted because there are so many other things I could be raging against.

    In other news, there’s a rumour Metro is going broke.

    When will the government take responsibility for public transport and start investing in infrastructure? And when will Metro employees unionise? (In the true sense of the word. i.e. stop checking tickets until conditions and services improve.)

    1. Thanks Jacinda. Yes, petty grievance in the great scheme of things … but really, such a waste of resources…

      When? When Godot arrives, I suspect.

  2. Clare; your experience made me recall this passage from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:

    “But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

    “Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

    “But the plans were on display …”

    “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

    “That’s the display department.”

    “With a flashlight.”

    “Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

    “So had the stairs.”

    “But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

    “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

    1. Ah Stephen, thank you – one of my all time favourite reads. I have it read by the author on tape (yes, tape!) and it is brilliant. I bring it out for my spring cleaning.

  3. In Perth we have it very good, even though we’d like more buses and trains on weekends and public holidays.

    The Transperth website can be slow, yes, but you can pick what bus, ferry and train services you want to keep an eye on. Transperth will email you if there’s anything dodgy going on with them.

    This can be incredibly convenient.

    It’s also nice to be able to SMS your stop number to Transperth, and then to receive back a message saying when the next few services will arrive.

    And the Smartrider system is awesome. You swipe the card getting on and off, and it removes the fare, if any, working out if you would have been better off getting a dayrider and giving you the difference.

    I get so confused going to other cities now, their public transport seems so cumbersome!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *