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 strategiesreal 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
Panels 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
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.
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
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.