Monday, April 04, 2005

It was this or get an AK-47...

While some may argue that having a whingeing blog is probably worse than what might happen if I ran amok at Flinders Street Station, this just might keep me out of jail.

So what's this all about? Glad you asked, let me explain...

Connex is the company that runs Melbourne's metropolitan rail services. My especial target is the Sandringham line, usually the worst performer of the 15 or so lines that make up the network.

"Perception is reality" was one of the many glib phrases my ex-boss used to regularly use. Well my reality is that I have never had a full week of the train that I want to catch running on time. Let me rephrase that somewhat inelegant sentence - I don't believe that of the ten scheduled trains that I would wish to catch in any given week, all ten have ever run as scheduled. Ever. In over four years of commuting on the Sandringham line, my perception is that at least one train per week is either delayed or cancelled.

That's probably a pretty bold call, so to turn my perception into reality, I plan to keep a diary for a while and we'll see how often Connex can deliver me a full week of reliable services. Yes, I know that's a little self-centred, but isn't that the whole point of blogging?

I very regularly catch the 07:14 from Ripponlea to the city - Flinders Street. It's generally not too bad. Getting home is where the real problems are. I like to get home in time to have dinner with my family, so I aim to catch the 17:38 unless something keeps me back at work. Unfortunately, Connex does not seem as keen on getting people home as it does getting them to work! The Sandringham line trains during evening peak hour are a complete lottery. Everything about them seems to be random. What platform? Will it run this evening? How late will it be? Will they tell us what's going on? Will the prior train have been cancelled so we're all jammed in?

Perhaps I should give some context for those who are unfamiliar with Melbourne trains. People from large cities may not recognise that we have timetables, they would be more used to the notion of regular trains every few minutes - you just turn up and wait for the next one. Melbourne's metropolitan network is more akin to a national network - fewer trains and a set timetable. The main problem with this arrangement is that during peak hours each train is generally pretty full, even if there are reasonably frequent trains. The Sandringham line has a train every ten minutes or so during peak times. So you'd think that if one is cancelled it's not long to wait until the next one arrives. True. Except you may not be able to get on board. Even worse, if it ends up being just a few minutes late, you get some of the passengers showing up for the next train who'd like to get on too! So a not uncommon occurrence is to cancel the 17:27 then the 17:38 runs about five minutes late, so you get end up with all the frustrated 17:27 passengers, all the 17:38 passengers having to share their train with these infiltrators and then half the passengers who would've otherwise been catching the 17:49, all trying to jam into one train. And very few are prepared to say "no worries I'll just wait for the 17:49" because they have no confidence whatsoever that it will arrive!

Now do you see why we're getting annoyed? Well I'm not finished yet - perhaps you should grab yourself a coffee?

By now you've probably concluded that Connex would have trouble organising some hanky-panky in a bordello (thought I'd better clean that one up) and you'd be right. But this inability to simply run trains according to a timetable, however outdated that notion might seem, is only part of the story. It's the lack of communication that is really annoying. How hard is it to tell us what's happening with our trains? Surely there's a bloke in a control room somewhere who has a pretty good idea where all the trains and drivers are at any given moment. Well mate, if the 17:38 to Sandringham is still at South Yarra at 17:35, guess what? It ain't departing Flinders Street at 17:38. So why, why, why won't you just give us this information? I can't even begin to contemplate that they don't know where their trains are, so the only logical inference is that they are deliberately choosing not to tell us.

To support this conclusion, here's another piece of information. At many stations they have some nice 1970s technology - TV monitors on the platforms. These tell you the next scheduled departure from that platform, the destination and which stations the train is stopping at. At most of these stations, with the exception of Flinders Street, they have two pieces of timing information - "Scheduled" and "Departing". So the train is due at 10:43 and it's departing in three minutes. How good is that?! But Flinders Street station management choose not to provide the "Departing" information. Why? Because they don't know? No, I can't accept that they don't know, so we have to conclude they're deliberately not telling us.

For further support of the proposition that they don't want us to know what's going on, have a look around for some station staff to ask. Flinders Street is arguably the centre of the Melbourne rail network. A huge old building with thousands of people constantly passing through. Yet there is no information centre to ask about the trains. There are a few staff at the ticket barriers who rarely have any clue about what's happening. There are a few people selling tickets who are equally ill-informed and that's about all you'll see. How on earth a visitor is meant to find out anything about getting around the Melbourne train network I don't know. Certainly not from the central railway station.

Hidden away behind an anonymous door over in one corner of the main station entrance is the door to the Stationmaster's office. Not something you'd stumble across. You open the door and there's an equally anonymous set of stairs around the corner. If you venture up these stairs you find there is a "customer service" area. It's usually empty because nobody knows it's there. Unfortunately these people seem to be mainly interested in something other than customer service. I'm not sure if I've figured out what their primary role is, but it doesn't seem to be anything to do with running the rail network, since they're generally not very well informed about anything that I ask them.

Is that enough background? Chances are that if you've read this far you're a like-minded disgruntled commuter so you already knew all this, in which case you've probably skipped it too!

Enough of the background. I'll try to add some more insight into Connex along the way – for example the SMS timetable where you can pay for them to provide you information about how badly your trains are running; the compensation scheme whereby if their network performs even more abysmally than usual, a person paying $1,939 a year is given a rebate of a daily fare ($12.40); how "on time" is defined by these Orwellian people as arriving at the destination within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time; how they adopt bully-boy tactics to try to silence legitimate protest from disgruntled passengers. OK, OK, I'll stop there!


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