Here’s a thought, via a possibly dodgy analogy: public transport is like a computer. It needs both hardware and software to function properly.
Hardware — right of way (tracks/roadspace), signalling, stops and platforms, vehicles, stabling.
Software — how do you operate it? Timetables, routes (particularly for buses, which can be easily changed), traffic light priority, staff.
People often forget that infrastructure alone won’t do it. A train line is of limited use unless the trains come frequently.
It’s amazing for example when reading in Wikipedia about a city’s rail system, that it often talks in detail about the lines and stations and fleet, but often doesn’t mention anything to do with operating hours or service frequencies, which are absolutely fundamental to how and whether people can use the system to get around efficiently.
Roads aren’t really like that. They can tweak the road rules and the traffic lights, but fundamentally the authorities supply the hardware. The users bring some of their own hardware (their vehicle) and software (decide when they travel, and which route).
But public transport needs both hardware and software working well to be really useful.
Of course just like in the world of computers, the hardware/infrastructure may impose a limit on the software/service that can be provided. Which means when buying or building the infrastructure, you need to plan what service will be provided on it, from day one and into the foreseeable future.
Hardware tends to be a once-off cost, aka Capital Expenditure (CapEx). Splash out for infrastructure, then in theory it lasts forever… It doesn’t really — maintenance is important. One rule of thumb I’ve heard is that for road infrastructure, 1% per year of the initial cost is needed for maintenance.
Software (in a transport context) is a recurring cost, aka Operating Expenditure (OpEx). The cost of running the train needs to be paid each time you run it: power, vehicle maintenance, and often the biggest component: staff. This is a bit different from the world of computers, though many software vendors now offer per month or per year licencing options, with free upgrades included, and in the world of the cloud, Software As A Service is getting very popular.
To stretch the analogy perhaps too far, public transport software (timetables) needs regular upgrades! Hardware too, but less often.
Who’s better at what?
I’d be cautious about generalising, but if you had to, you might say that each of our two major political parties are better at one or the other.
Labor seems to be better at hardware. Since about 2005 they’ve funded numerous upgrades to stations, got started on removing lots of level crossings, upgraded trains (ever notice how the Comeng fleet rarely breaks down in the heat nowadays?), expanded train and tram fleets, extended lines, even initiated an entirely new line (Regional Rail Link).
But Labor have been very cautious on upgrading timetables in recent years, perhaps because it often means changes that benefit many may also (slightly) disadvantage specific groups of users — to the extent that some of the new trains are sitting doing nothing waiting for the next change — while the fleet expands, it’s now been more than two years since the last major train timetable change.
Even minor tram route changes have been postponed, though the Metro rail tunnel is likely to force their hand.
The Coalition seems better at software. The 10 minute train services on the Frankston, Dandenong, Ringwood (the latter weekends only) and Newport (weekdays only) started on their watch (though the timetable change process may have started under Labor).
The Coalition also initiated PTV and their role in co-ordinating train and bus timetables, something which has since rolled out across many areas of Melbourne. Back in 2009 this was a memorable blind spot for Labor, though by 2010 they were acknowledging the problem.
But when the Coalition has been in power in recently (2010-2014), they haven’t done as much as Labor in terms of hardware. During that term, they ordered some new trains, but I’d struggle to think of other major public transport infrastructure they initiated. They successfully managed projects like South Morang rail and Regional Rail Link, but they’d been started by Labor. Southland station went nowhere. Their 2010 pledges for rail to Doncaster and Rowville resulted in studies that virtually ruled them out. Avalon airport rail link never happened. They made promises in 2014 for a rail tunnel and Melbourne Airport rail, but were voted out.
One could perhaps theorise that a deep-seated traditional conservative principle is coming into play: making the most of the assets you already have.
You don’t have to look too hard to see these generalisations fall down. Labor presided over the extension of trains and trams to 1am on weekends back in 2006, and this year have introduced Night Network, both of which make use of existing infrastructure to extend service hours — they also did numerous train timetable changes last decade, including moving weekday Werribee trains out of the Loop to make better use of the infrastructure, and did a massive review of bus routes in 2010, though most recommendations were never implemented.
The Coalition in their 2010-2014 term kicked off the Ringwood station upgrade, and funded some level crossing removals, giving us brand new stations at Mitcham and Springvale.
Without services, PT is nothing
Ultimately you need both the infrastructure and the services to be up to scratch for public transport to be useful.
Hopefully both sides of politics are getting better at both. Investment in better hardware is important, but so is tweaking the software to make the most of the available hardware.
Service quality varies widely across the network. Sometimes for good reasons related to demand, but sometimes just due to accidents of history.
Waiting at Melton station on a weekend? It’s 60 minutes between trains. At Mordialloc? 10 minutes.
A line on a map, or infrastructure on the ground means nothing unless the timetable is up to scratch.
And those of us who advocate for more public transport need to remember — services are just as important as infrastructure.