At North Melbourne she saw a few straggling hopefuls wandering the platforms. It was a good place to wait for a train: three lines (or five, if you believed the driver) passed through here. But no one got on her train. She wondered if any of them were hoping to get out to Broadmeadows. She’d heard there was land out there, places you could grow food and have a little space around you. But it was probably false advertising.
– A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson
I walk to the station before six, sun thin on the horizon, bag laden with the work I need to do before I arrive on campus to teach at nine. I no longer bring my bike. The old trains they’re using now are already overloaded; they don’t have the space. What was a twenty-minute cycle from Richmond to Fairfield has ballooned to an hour of slow Metro train travel, and a long, hot walk.
Our country town is quiet at this hour. We chose this place for its proximity to Melbourne, only 100kms. A commutable distance, I wagered. We’ve lived everywhere, but the prohibitive cost of rent in the city tipped our hand. The house we’re renting now, a renovated three-bedroom period number with a lush backyard, costs a fraction of the price (about a third, if I had to guess) of what it would in the inner-north near work. By living here I can afford to work part-time; be with the children; write the novel I’m anxious to write. It was great for a while, the life I made for myself. Tiring, but possible; I only make the trip to Melbourne three days a week.
But it’s become a nightmare now.
At eight o’clock the train sits motionless on the outskirts of the city. A world-weary voice updates in ten-minute intervals on the trouble for today, but nothing changes. My legs ache from standing. I haven’t been able to use this time to work, or to sleep, activities requiring a seat. The train is overloaded with commuters, people in the aisles, on the floor, in doorways. I’ve avoided the bus for this.
I turn the situation obsessively, calculating routes and modes and travel times, but the result is always the same. I’m spending almost as long travelling to work as actually working. I’ve heard it said that Melbourne is a most livaeble city, but how can that be? Travel between regional towns and centres, and the city, has stretched to unbelievable lengths for what is a twenty-first century, first-world context. The median cost of rent has jumped to over $400 a week in Melbourne. Arterial roads are standing still. Gazing out over the baking Eastern suburbs, that interminable sprawl, I wonder: how has it come to this?
It isn’t easy to decipher. I read the reports in the media obsessively, hoping for good news, but half-baked with exhaustion I can’t seem to make sense of the stories, which read as though lifted from a Douglas Adams novel (at best). I recall the dire depiction of Melbourne’s transport system in Jane Rawson’s dystopic A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, a novel I love, where folks camp out waiting for trains that never come, supremely grateful when any old slow-moving service shows up. I delighted in this strange science fiction once, but it seems alarmingly prescient now.
Eventually I discover that the immediate problems with the trains are two-fold: the wheels on VLocity models (the newest) have worn down much faster than expected; elsewhere V/Line trains are failing to trigger boom gates at crossings, thus banned from Metro areas. Transport Minister Jacinta Allan notes that the problem with boom gates was identified in 2011, a report prepared for the former government in 2013, but that can’t be right. Long before I moved, even before I considered becoming a parent, 2011 seems light years in the past, a time of unending hangovers and minimal responsibility that I can barely remember. And yet, they claim to have known everything then. They did nothing.
It is announced that there will be free travel offered as compensation for the catastrophic breakdown, $2 million per week to subsidise, but after a time this novelty evaporates and free travel becomes available only on the grinding, crowded replacement coach services. V/Line chief Theo Taifalos quits, a move that is slightly gratifying to observe from a distance, but ultimately of no consequence. The alarm goes off regardless; the bus waits. Jaw clenched, heaving into my office just after nine, the eyes of my colleagues bore into my back.
Late again, I hear them tutting. Lazy.
I won’t see my child in daylight for two nights and three days. Even when I leave work early (a scandal!), I just can’t travel the distance between us quickly enough. Our relationship, the mothering he gets, occurs in the dark, in my fumbling, wearied efforts to silence nocturnal cries.
It takes a while to identify what is skewing my understanding of what has gone wrong. I presumed that an issue like this would be at the centre of cultural discourse, rigorously reported. Yet all articles provide the same maddening, minimal facts. I search and search through the lukewarm statistics and predictions, but I cannot locate the voices of those affected. I cannot find mention of what should in good conscience have been done. For all the lamentations of money lost and services disrupted in the mainstream media, there is just so little anger. It beggars belief.
Things would vastly improve for me if I could locate an opportunity for local work, negating reliance on transport altogether. But this seems a narrow and unrealistic view to take across the board. For one thing, there are few rural opportunities in my sector and many others. Changing jobs would most likely involve a massive pay cut, less interesting work, doing something I’m not really qualified to do. For years I’ve considered these options, then boarded the train as a means of dismissing them. But they are back on the table now. I’m not even all that concerned about the idea of losing money and status in order to accept a job close to home, but such career-focused flippancy may be a luxury out of reach for others: those in specialist jobs; students partway through degrees. It seems a folly to advocate as a solution to the problem, that everyone just stay put.
On my day off, my husband messages from the car just before nine.
I’m still stuck on the fucking freeway, he hazards to write. Three hours! I’m nowhere near the city! Everyone from the train’s on the roads now.
Reading from the backyard, I groan, feeling his frustration, squinting up at the sky. I’m searching for evidence; proof that things are going wrong. But there’s nothing to see. All is quiet in the sunny garden: an inhale before the scream.