South Yarra station ramps

Private operator, private profits

My blog’s RSS feed has been having problems. This has also affected some email subscribers. I think I’ve found the problem, so hopefully both are working again now.

Just a quick post:

The Age and Herald Sun reported yesterday that Metro Trains Melbourne made an annual profit of $29 million, on $786 million of revenue — despite still regularly missing punctuality targets.

I’m not sure the fact that they’re taking a profit is really a surprise. They’re a private company, and they wouldn’t be in this game otherwise.

Is the 3.6% profit high, or low, for a company earning $786m in revenue per year? I dunno.

Of course, if Metro misses targets, a lot of the blame should really be on the poor state of rail infrastructure – owned by the government. Upgrades are finally happening, but that follows decades of neglect.

I think the broader question is whether the taxpayer is getting value for money overall from the train network (regardless of whether the operator is private or public).

I’m particularly concerned that there’s such a huge amount of infrastructure/fleet investment (capex), as well as the fees to the operators (opex), but the service provision still has a strong concentration on commuter peaks.

This means that a lot of the assets are only being fully used for a few hours a day, despite strong travel demand at other times (both on the roads and on the trains).

Sandringham line, Saturday lunchtime

A moderate increase in opex would provide for all-day high frequencies (eg most stations with trains at least every 10 minutes for most of the day) that make much more effective use of the overall spend, and better match current travel demand by making the system so much more useful for people.

How much money are we talking about? One estimate I’ve seen is $100m per year. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same cost as the 2015 fare changes that capped zone 1+2 fares, and introduced the Free Tram Zone.

While people welcomed the two-zone discount, it’s not clear if it made a big difference to patronage. The Free Tram Zone benefits CBD motorists, and crowds out fare-paying users – it might be a good example of what Chris Hale wrote in The Age last year: a public dollar frittered on fare discounting is invariably a waste, whereas that same dollar invested in better off-peak service gets great results.

And any increased spend on services would be offset by additional fare revenue from increased patronage, of course.

The idea that trains only run every 30 minutes after 7pm (and 20-40 minutes in daytime off-peak/weekends, despite crowding) is just crazy for a city of 5 million in the 21st century.

It’s high time it was rectified.

Android tram

Is Google recording your conversations without you knowing?

You’ve probably heard about the case of the Amazon Alexa smart speaker that recorded a conversation and sent it to someone.

Amazon has been forced to explain how Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to an Echo user’s colleague without their knowledge. A Portland woman identified only as Danielle revealed the odd series of events in an interview with local TV station Kiro 7, claiming that an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and sent the recording to an employee of the husband. — The Verge

I haven’t got any speakers in my house that record. (Some of the newer Sonos devices can do it. Mine can’t.)

And I don’t think I particularly want any.

The other week, probably triggered by the EU’s GDPR legislation, I got an email from Google suggesting I do a privacy check.

I had a look, and digging around found a page on Voice Activity.

To my surprise, this has dozens of voice recordings, going back about 18 months.

Google voice recordings

Apparently the Google app on my Android phone (actually my current phone and the previous one) has semi-regularly decided I was trying to attract the attention of the Google Assistant (normally invoked by saying “OK Google”), and started recording, then saved the recordings in the cloud.

I can play the recordings. The sound quality isn’t great, but you can make out the words. In none of them did I actually want the Google Assistant. They’re just random conversations with people.

You can turn the option off (well, you can pause it). Which I’ve now done.

It’s good that you can access the recordings, and change the option.

But I wonder how many people don’t know that Google is recording snippets of conversations and saving them on their servers?

Check yours via this direct link, or go to myaccount.google.com and then choose My Activity; Activity Controls; Voice & Audio Activity (where you can also Pause the feature).

Note: the Google App is also available on iOS, so it’s worth checking even if you have an iPhone, not an Android… And of course Siri has similar functionality.

Anonymous hacker (by Brian Klug)

Beware of fake email bills – and how the corporates are letting the side down

There are warnings of fake Telstra bills being sent by email.

They look like the real thing. The only clue that they’re not is that the View/Pay Bill button goes to a non-Telstra web site.

The lesson here is: check where the link goes. If it doesn’t go to an address that is clearly on the company’s web site (telstra.com), be suspicious.

…Which is why I’ve been asking South East Water about their email bills.

Those look legit, but the payment link goes to ippayments.com.au — in fact it’s worse — it goes first via a URL forwarder edmconnect.com.au (with a very long path/querystring)

So my simple question to them was: how is anybody meant to know this is legit?

Their response:

That I think shows a misunderstanding of the question.

IPPayments might be super secure (PCI compliant suggests that it is). But how does a punter know that?

They were still clearly not getting my point, so I persisted.

Still completely missing the point.

Okay, try another tack… provide an example of a company doing it properly:

No response. Radio silence.

Perhaps they finally understood; perhaps not.

It’s frustrating, because if you register for their online portal, you can make payments through that. You go to southeastwater.com.au and end up on southeastwater.secure.force.com — which I do recognise — it’s Salesforce.

Ideally they’d use a subdomain. Subdomains allow a company to delegate part of their web site to another one, for instance their online payment gateway.

If they can’t do that, they should direct users to their main web site, and have them click through to the payment gateway from there, so people at least can have some confidence that the web site they enter their credit card into is actually authorised by the organisation.

Paperless billing, using online instead? Great. But with so many scammers out there, corporations really need to make it easy for their customers to know they’re safe.

(Lead photo: Anonymous Hacker, by Brian Clug — Creative Commons. I love a hacker stereotype photo. ‘Cos all hackers wear masks when they’re working, in darkened rooms. I bet those screens are showing fast-scrolling green-screen character interfaces.)

Update 11/6/2018: I noticed that Optus also use IPPayments, the same payment gateway as South East Water, but Optus uses a “secure.optus.com.au” subdomain.

Grass

The Last Post (of the year)

One last post of miscellaneous stuff to mark the end of 2017.

Grandad

My Grandad was born on this day in 1924. He passed away on Boxing Day, just shy of his 93rd birthday. Being one of our UK relatives, we didn’t visit him much, but we did manage to see him during our UK trip this year. RIP.

Some blog stats

Total blog posts for 2017: 120 excluding this one.

Total comments for 2017: 1276 up to 6pm.

Most popular posts, by number of comments, are all transport posts:
Continue reading “The Last Post (of the year)”

It’s August! I’ve got a new blog template

Eagle-eyed readers would have noticed I’ve put in a new blog template.

The intent was to provide more space for photos and table data. The old template (and most like it, in fact) squash them up even when displayed on a big desktop screen.

See any problems? Leave a comment.

Also, I’m interested to know what’s better: a rotating or random header image, or the same one each time (for easy recognition)?

Issues I need to fix:

  • Comment numbering has disappeared. The usual method of fixing this isn’t working yet.
  • The Google ads are turned off for now. Sorry, but I’ll be switching them back on. Will try not to make them too obtrusive.
  • A change earlier in the year to HTTPS has broken a bunch of pictures in older posts. — fixed

Reminder: At present I’m posting a mix of new blog posts, and backdated Europe trip posts.

Cardiff Bay: Pierhead building and Millennium Centre