Fares please

Will tram conductors be back? How this question is answered will tell us what kind of shape post-Kennett Victoria is taking.

Their departure in May 1998 seemed part of an unstoppable process. The tide of technological change swept away conductors along with service station attendants, bank tellers and milk bar owners. Instead of conductors, we have seen security guards at ticket machines, fleets of inspectors and even undercover agents. It was benign version of a military coup.

But there was resistance. Since their departure, ex-conductors have been active in public life, organising Full Monty spectacles, Moomba floats, candle vigils, Circus Oz acts and exchanges with Calcutta. Their absence has given us the opportunity to appreciate what we had.

This came home to me personally when I asked an ex-connie about his favourite tram route. Roberto elected the #15 Moreland-St Kilda line. When I asked why, he responded with an epic monologue about the different people who use it. He began with the old Italian shoppers from ‘Morelando’, then the sewing factory workers, Mosque-attendees, university students, St Kilda road businessmen, suburban tourists and finally St Kilda artists. I realised that there is nothing else in Melbourne what would bring these people together apart from their use of a common route, and their ordinary contact with this man. With so many of our traditions imported from elsewhere, here was an example of living cultural heritage.

With pressure from exiles like Roberto, the ALP election policy included a promise to return one hundred tram conductors into active service. Will they do it? And more importantly, how will they do it? We currently have two strategies—real and virtual.

The real strategy is to recruit conductors with a feel for their work, who will learn to operate their patch. Take the machines out of the Class W trams to increase seating and a person who can respond to immediate passenger needs. The Stolen Generation report is an example of how progress can often be a matter of acknowledging past mistakes and restoring what has been lost. As the Jewish proverb suggests, ‘Make your days new as of old’.

The alternative virtual strategy comes from the MET, who are currently running campaign titled ‘Tran(sit) Stand-Up’. The windows are plastered with jokes like ‘Does the psychic ever miss a train?’ Patter broadcast through trams cajoles passengers to validate their tickets. And lurking somewhere is a comedian ready to pounce on an unsuspecting commuter with prizes.

M & C Saatchi advertising has designed a $1/2m campaign over three weeks to encourage commuters to validate their tickets. Rather than enforce validation by burly inspectors, they have enlisted the talents of three radio breakfast personalities (including the Panel’s Kate Langbroek) and a fleet of clowns.

Why is validating tickets so important? Even if you have a legitimate ticket, you are still required to validate it at every change of transport. Selling off public transport to several companies has made tracking passengers essential. To the average commuter, it seems an irrelevant exercise. To change this attitude, the Met has to turn ‘passengers’ and into ‘customers’.

There are two major concerns with this campaign. First, it replaces a home-grown tradition with a veneer of entertainment. In the place of daily contact with a tram conductor, you contract some local Seinfelds to jolly things along for a while. In Sydney, they add a ‘vinyl crackle’ to their digital acid jazz music so that it can have a little ‘warmth’. Like sprinkling dust on wine bottles, these short-cuts to authenticity have only superficial meaning.

Second, the campaign reinforces a ‘prize culture’ that puts individual greed before cooperation. It panders to a consumer increasingly hungry for freebies, give-aways, and privatisation dividends. Is this inverse coercion the way of the future? Will breathalysing teams offer random prizes to sober drivers? What was before a moral choice becomes now an opportunity for gratuitous acquisition. It has dangerous implications for how citizens are expected to participate in public life.

The alternative tack is to treat the commuter as a responsible agent and explain why it serves the greater good for everyone to validate their ticket. A LED counter on every tram showing the number of validations would offer passengers real participation in monitoring. Get the public on board, not a crowd of individuals.

The critical choice now is what to do with the hundred jobs about to happen. It is not enough to get conductors back. In the virtual scenario, the extra hundred jobs would be shunted off into the role of Customer Service Officers, to make things ‘look’ good. There is a living and working cultural heritage unique to Melbourne. They need to be reintegrated back into the system as ticket sellers. Fares, please!

Kevin Murray (published in The Age 22/12/99)

Comment from Mark Williamson:

You hit the nail on the head of what disturbed me about the "Stand up and be Validated" campaign with it s faux overtones of ".. and be Valid". The economic rationalist approach of do this and you win a prize is far from the nature of the public spirit of paying for what you use. Of community. 

The whole transition from a demand system, the conies requiring a ticket, to an honesty system has been hopelessly managed. Of course when a demand system, a system where getting away with a free fare because the connie missed you was a major bonus is replaced by a free one, or at least one that has the overtone of free is always going to be a slow transition. The expectation that commuters would change their behavior overnight is misplaced. 

Why don't the new owners of the trams go the hard yards. Insist that paying for a ticket is an act of public spirit. An act where the payer and the community benefits and hence a worthwhile act. The whole validated argument is to try and make up for shortcomings in a system that was poorly thought out and ill suited to being sold off into separate businesses whatever the government of the day may have claimed. Instead of as you put it "a prize mentality: we should hark back to the days of the establishment of the public network with the concept of the public good.

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