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Monday, June 09, 2008

Public transport: tinkering not enough by Sue Bolton and Ben Courtice

Hasn’t the Victorian state government noticed that climate change is speeding up alarmingly and that transport is the fastest growing cause of greenhouse emissions in Australia?

Even its Eddington transport report, Investing in public transport: an east west link needs assessment, released in March, assumes it isn’t possible for people to switch from cars to public transport. Eddington’s recommendation continues the tradition of building more freeways while tinkering with public transport. Premier John Brumby got the report he wanted: it will provide enormous contracts for big business. But the needs of the travelling public in the age of catastrophic climate change don’t get a look in.

Remember when former Premier Jeff Kennett declared that Melbourne needed Citylink because the Monash Freeway was like a parking lot at peak hour? Now, we have an uninterrupted peak hour parking lot all the way from the Monash Freeway to the Westgate Bridge and beyond. Implementing the $18 billion Eddington “plan” means postponing the tackling of public transport to the never-never: road congestion and greenhouse emissions will increase with every road built.

The main beneficiaries will be the construction companies, that will make massive profits from building the tunnels, the banks that will finance them and the petrol and motor vehicle companies that will continue to sell more cars and trucks. Also, the companies operating the public transport system have no interest in such improvements, especially as the government pays them handsome subsidies. These subsidies have doubled since 1999.

People use cars instead of relying on public transport because the services are unreliable, frequently cancelled and overcrowded; there are none near where they live; the closest private bus service doesn’t run at night or on the weekend; and it doesn’t cater for shift workers or for people working on weekends or at night. Every one of these problems can be resolved.

More people would want to use public transport if it was more convenient than using the car. Since petrol prices started to rise rapidly in 2007, people have been switching from cars to public transport to travel to and from work. But the system hasn’t been able to cope. But when more resources are put into public transport, as happened during the Olympic Games in Sydney and the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, there was a big rise in patronage.

Patronage on the V-Line country services has roughly doubled over the past year due to a 20% fare cut, increased services and new carriages. These examples clearly show what is possible. The public transport system, as it exists, isn’t a real alternative for most people. The Socialist Alliance is calling for the billions earmarked for the Eddington “plan” to instead be invested in public transport.

We need an extension of services, new services and an increase in their frequency. Thousands more staff should be hired, new rolling stock purchased and the necessary infrastructure put in place. As a safety measure and to encourage greater patronage, all train stations should be fully staffed.

We also say public transport should be free, and it should be publicly owned and operated. There should be a moratorium on road building: maintain the roads and keep them safe, but with peak oil and climate change, vehicle usage must be massively downgraded in favour of public transport and rail freight.

As state and federal governments — Labor or Liberal — tend to go with the interests of the big oil and automobile industries, we have to organise to demand our views are heard and our needs met. Only a broad-based movement that demands serious action on public transport and stands up to the road lobby will be able to force governments to take the necessary action.

Socialist Alliance is helping build such a movement. Along with climate action groups, we are active in the campaign against the Victorian desalination plant and against the push for more freeways. Only mass collective action can force the government and the energy industry to phase out coal and shift to renewable energy.

Sue Bolton and Ben Courtice [This article is based on a position paper adopted by the Victorian Socialist Alliance state executive in May.]

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