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Fundamental need to understand the business

Good transport policy must be based on a sound understanding of the transport service, particularly by the public service whose responsibility is to provide frank and fearless advice and a willingness of the Minister to listen.

Good transport policy must be based on a sound understanding of the transport service, particularly by the public service whose responsibility is to provide frank and fearless advice and a willingness of the Minister to listen. Whilst this may sound obvious, too often this is not the situation and is highlighted recently in a policy decision by the Minister in relation to catering services on Albury V/Locity service, with a critical response quoted below.

From Ben Carroll .. (in a written response to a CUSTOMER who had the temerity to enquire re Albury V/Locity and the elusive catering services)

“With regards to the configuration of the new standard gauge VLocity trains, the three-car modular configuration enables the greatest flexibility to scale up services with peak demand. This is better for the environment and provides a greater cost benefit to the taxpayer. When the Albury services consist of six cars, they will not operate with two buffets open simultaneously. One buffet will be open for part of the journey, with the second buffet to open for the second part of the journey, using the same Conductor.”

Quoting from a critical observer “Interesting, but lacks an understanding of how the buffet car is operated and its value to travellers. Implementation means one person will have to do multiple stocktakes counting “teaspoons” in both buffets (which typically takes 15’ to open up and another 15’ to take stock and close). So on the Up journey, the buffet will actually be open from Chiltern to Violet Town, then in the second set from Avenel to Donnybrook if you are lucky”. Our cynical observer continues:

“I can see the VLP blurb now ” The 0630 Albury – Melbourne service will have on-board catering arrangements which V/line has especially arranged for your travelling inconvenience.
1. Customers boarding at stations between Albury and Euroa in the trailing 3 carriages are requested to defer their hunger until Chiltern and be sure to have made all purchases by Violet Town. Those in the leading 3 cars – see below re BYO arrangements.
2. Customers boarding at stations between Euroa and Seymour in the leading 3 cars are asked to defer their hunger and purchase their refreshments only between Avenel and Donnybrook. Those in the trailing 3 cars – see below re BYO arrangements.
3. All customers joining at any station in either section of the train are offered the added convenience of bringing your own refreshments which may be consumed at any time. V/Line do hope you enjoy the flexibility these unique on-train catering arrangements offer !!!”. And further…..

“All totally avoidable if we had 6 sets as 4 car consists (seating 230) with one buffet car which would have been cheaper both capex wise; and opex wise than a mix of 3 & 6 car sets”.

With respect to environmental benefits, these could be increased by improving the quality of service to encourage more people to travel be train instead of car or coach supported by a marketing plan that encourages more people to travel off-peak. It would also improve VLine’s financial bottom line. The more important question is how will this service operate in a zero-emission world? How will the locomotives and other operations be powered? By electric power, or hydrogen? How will this be achieved in an environment in which energy, materials of all kinds and finance will become increasingly constrained? None of this will happen overnight – it needs a plan but time is running out. The carbon budget to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees will, at current trends be exhausted within six years and ten years to limit it to 2 degrees.

Sadly, none of the concerns raised about the buffet operations are rocket science, just plain common sense which is often lacking and reflected in poor or misguided policy. Sadly this situation is not confined to transport and occurs in all tiers of government. Much of this is a reflection of a civil service that has been run down over a long period of time, increasingly fragmented and lost much of its expertise and corporate memory as a result of contracting out to businesses or consultancies in the private sector. It is further weakened by restructuring, increasing politicisation and substitution of permanent employment with contract arrangements which can encourage advice the minister would like to hear, instead of frank and fearless advice which the minister may sometimes not like to hear and risk compromising the renewal of the employment contract.

There is no suggestion that parties involved in the situation outlined above did not set out to provide the best possible outcome. It is most likely another example of system failure which made this difficult. This has occurred with only minor consequences and can be easily rectified but there are many situations in which the community pays a huge price for poor policy decisions. There are no simple single fix solutions unfortunately. Addressing this requires fundamental system change and reform which is becoming increasingly urgent, particularly in response to the bigger environmental challenges confronting us now.

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