Melbourne’s Train Network: Why the State Government is at Fault

We’ve all had our fair share of frustration with the persistent under-performance of Metro trains; there are far too many problems and disruptions that could possibly happen during day to day travel. From rampant peak hour delays, overcrowding, infrequent services and train cancellations to signalling faults, waiting for V-Lines and unfortunate but very disruptive train-pedestrian collisions. Our frustrations don’t end there. Metro came up with all sorts of timetable and station-skipping gimmicks to achieve punctuality targets, with the additional help of ‘lateness’ being 5 minutes after scheduled time. With fare costs rising and the government spending billions of dollars to upgrade the system, we ought to expect some improvements by now in terms of performance.

The problem is, and always has been the ageing infrastructure and so little public investment and maintenance done over the past decade. Only until recently have there been so many projects and public spending in the rail network going on all at once, to try to expand capacity, increase passenger use, and improve performance. Several reasons have been cited to explain the urgency of sudden $10+ billion splash for cash, such as poor operating performance by Metro, growing patronage on public transport, living up to the political promises by the Bailleu government and an outdated system pushed to the brink during peak hour services.

From the early 2000’s most of the projects such as line extensions, and building new stations was essentially creating more demand. Meanwhile the tracks, overhead wiring, and the old network design, full of bottlenecks built almost 30+ years ago, has gone unchanged. With the exception of spending on a couple of band aid fixes, and more trains it leaves capacity – supply – unchanged. Poor planning and management by the state governments (both parties) in the past decade have led to the current state of a shortage in capacity especially during peak hours, too much demand not enough supply. That is because the state government not only spent money on projects that created more demand and ignored capacity supply, but they also severely underestimated the huge growth in public transport usage. This led them to believe the old infrastructure was enough to meet capacity needs, and thus conclude upgrading it would be a waste of money under normal cost benefit analysis.

The challenge now is how to cost-effectively upgrade the system. As with any type of government spending, these projects suffer poor planning, and state bureaucracy project management resulting in delays and cost blow outs. Even though there has been extensive work done around the network to upgrade the infrastructure to meet capacity needs, we are unlikely to see any improvement in performance by Metro any time soon. These infrastructure projects take time, new trains take time to build, we’ll likely be suffering for another 2-3 years before we see any improvements being made. These bottlenecks and upgrades to ageing infrastructure should have been done years ago, but due to poor planning by the state government it has resulted in a shortage of capacity we see now, and a whole host of problems. Although most of us put the blame purely on Metro, much of the anger and frustration should go towards the state government, don’t let the Metro gimmicks fool who the real under-performer is.