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A Tunnel Vision Is Not The Answer  

As we have said on numerous occasions, public transport is a service industry that operates in a very competitive market, so the key to improving transport outcomes is to focus on improving customer service – not building more tunnels.

As we have said on numerous occasions, public transport is a service industry that operates in a very competitive market, so the key to improving transport outcomes is to focus on improving customer service – not building more tunnels.      

Like many things, there are no magic fix solutions but we have a pretty good idea what people want from a public transport service and it pays to listen to the customers. Emily Day’s article in The Age, Wednesday 7 September titled “V/Line has a serious disconnect problem” raised concerns about the lack of wifi on regional trains, a concern shared by many readers but the readers raised other issues which VLine management and politicians should reflect on and address. The majority of respondents rated the VLine service poor.  

Some of the more general comments included

  • Trains in Australia are a joke (or “rubbish”) compared to so many other countries around the world
  • V is for “Very Ancient” Line
  • We travel “first class” which would have to be the worst “first class” anything in the world.

And more specific concerns such as

  • If your trains mostly run on time you’re definitely not on the Gippsland line. Our trains, when they run, rarely get to destination on time,
  • Service passed Geelong is chronic and has been for decades…. services still cancelled at Geelong because they can’t manage their time-table efficiently.
  • On the Bendigo line it’s a 50-50 chance that your train will be replaced by a bus
  • Wi-fi would be ideal – but in the interim, I’d settle for clean windows at least to enjoy the view!
  • Back in the 1990s, you could buy a chardonnay from the bar on the old clunker trains. I miss that.

Whilst these responses may not be a representative sample they do raise important issues that should be treated seriously and justify further investigation.  Many are the direct responsibility of VLine and are the kind of problems any smart service business would address as a matter of urgency if it wanted to stay in business.  Some of these should not cost a lot to fix. The fact that they remain a concern is a reflection of management quality and its mindset. Clearly there are service issues which are more difficult to fix. Many reflect a broader systemic problem that pervades public transport generally. They also reflect government policies and priorities and the way government spends our taxes today.

Improving customer service was the focus of TfM’s annual forum in 2019. A summary of  public transport service issues in terms of ranking and observations is provided below.          

Public Transport Customer Service Issues

Ref charts provided by Prof Graham Currie summarized roughly in tabular form below. Service issues below are listed in priority order from travellers’ perspective.

Service Issue General RankingPT Issue Importance  PT Issue Importance (on scale of 3.5-6.5) Note: all scored between 6.4 – 5.6)  PT Issue Performance (on scale of 3.5-6.5)  
1Safe at night6.4           Highest4.5   worst – very poor
2Reliability6.3      Second highest5.2            poor
3Frequency6.255.0            poor
4Safe during day6.45.4
5PT available where and when needed6.15.0            poor
6Deal with disruptions quickly6.24.5           V poor  
7Get to stops/stations  5.0
8Quality of service6.04.5           V poor
9Make connections6.05.0            poor
10Available on weekends6.25.5 
11Get information about PT 5.3
12Disruptions don’t happen often6.04.8      Very poor  
13Meet costs5.95.0         poor
14Information to plan journey6.05.2
15People I care for can use it safely6.24.6         Poor
16Available at night5.85.0
17Ease of buying/using a ticket6.1 5.1
18Over crowding5.9 
19Staff courteous and friendly 5.8 5.1
20Physical access5.85.9 
21Can make trips to new places on PT 5.75.0
22Travel time compared to car5.74.3    V poor

Source: Currie G Delbosc

A (2015) Variation In Perceptions of Urban Public Transport

Between International Cities Using Spiral Plot Analysis


No 2538 on pages 54- 64  


Based on these surveys the most critical customer service issues listed above are also ranked lowest in terms of customer satisfaction ie 

  • safety, particularly at night
  • reliability
  • frequency

TfM has argued for a long time that an affluent first world country like Australia can afford to run a world class public transport service and should make the effort to learn from countries or cities that have established themselves as examples of world best practice.

During the early days of railway history in this State, the railways were professionally managed and delivered a service that was comparable with the best in the world. But railway management was not complacent and made regular trips abroad, to the US, UK and the rest of Europe to study international developments and ways in which these could be applied to improve local performance. There are also lessons that can be learnt from other service industries that have established themselves as models of excellence in their field.  

This should be carried out in an environment which promotes constant learning, a desire to keep improving to remain relevant and strive to achieve and maintain best practice. This should also be a matter of pride but at this stage, based on recent feedback from Emily Day’s article, there appears to be little this government should be proud of and must be demoralising for VLine and other public transport staff who have to respond to complaints on a regular basis.

In summary, quality of service is critical. There are many aspects to this but at the end of the day that is all that really matters, because serious short falls in this means you are no longer relevant and should be out of business. For a government service with community service obligations it shows little respect for the needs of the community it is supposed to represent.  

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