01. A Free Ride

  1. 01. A Free Ride
  2. 02. Railroaded
  3. 03. The End of the Line
  4. 04. Dumb Luck
  5. 05. A Bad Review
  6. 06. Happy Trails
  7. 07. The Idiot Police
  8. 08. A Wet Dream
  9. 09. Cycling Nemeses
  10. 10. Damn

I love a free ride.

At the moment I am riding a V/Line train, first class from Melbourne to Warrnambool, Victoria— free! You could be doing the same.

Two days ago, I had little in my calendar for the coming week. Then, a series of screw-ups caused a tremendous number of persistent, repeated delays, delays which will plague V/Line passengers for weeks, if not months, to come.

First, much of the V/Line train fleet, particularly the relatively newish Vlocity model, was determined to lack round wheels. This was attributed to normal wear and tear, nevertheless has caused all sorts of technical and philosophical difficulties. Those trains had to be taken out of service, leaving many trips replaced by buses which proceeded tediously through traffic, finding their way to train stations just far enough off the major thoroughfares to make the journey painfully slow.

Then, it was discovered that the same model, even the few that had round wheels, had developed the nasty habit of failing to trigger the boom gates used to stop vehicular traffic at metropolitan railroad crossings — “level crossings”, they call ‘em — a stunningly dangerous development. The remaining Vlocity trains were banned from the metropolitan network.

If you were lucky enough to get a V/Line train (and not a bus), unless it was a fifty-year-old clunker, it would eject you at the edge of the metropolitan train network. From there to compete your slow and tedious journey you’d have to make your way on the metropolitan train network.

A VLocity Train

In light of these unsavoury events, as “compensation” to all Victorians, V/Line announced that for the next week, all its trains would be free — for everybody! This was an opportunity not to be missed. The fifty-year-old clunkers, which are still operating on the longer routes to more distant destinations, are quite comfy. I was making reservations on the phone the instant I heard about it.

Now, and for the next week, Frank Lee and I will be riding the rails. We’ll be taking care of some business, revisiting some old haunts, checking a thing or two off the wanna-do list. This includes cycling a couple “rail trails” — former train lines turned into dedicated cycling trails. Victoria is has an extensive network of these, so we are taking our bikes along, as V/Line permits. One free ride to another.

So far, the tickets we have booked would have cost around three hundred fifty dollars. It is a bit strange that we are being so generously compensated for an inconvenience we did not suffer. V/Line commuters would have suffered most, but the very nature of commuting usually involves holding a job, leaving them in no position to take advantage of the compensation. How are my free trips compensating them?

Compensation is a central tenet of Australian society. Anyone who has seen the iconic film “The Castle” (a gem about a mythical Aussie Battler taking on the powers that be) might recall the phrase “on just terms” in the Australian Constitution. Basically, it means the government can’t take anything from anyone without compensation.

Melbourne's Southern Cross Station
Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station

This has had some bizarre consequences. For example, the Victorian government is considering privatising — leasing, really — the Port of Melbourne for thirty years. This will raise a couple billion dollars, money they say will be used to build overpasses or underpasses at some of the more problematic of Victoria’s level crossings, of which there are about a thousand. It came up in discussions that if somebody built a competing port, the government would need to pay compensation to the lessor, as the value of the Port of Melbourne would have decreased. Anywhere else in the world, this sort of thing would be assumed as a commercial risk. Here, it is grounds for compensation.

The government of Australia’s Northern Territory — mind you, this is a federally-run territory — tendered and leased the Port of Darwin to a Chinese outfit now alleged to have all sorts of connections with the Chinese military. Famously, at a recent chat, President Obama leaned over to Prime Minster Turnbull and asked something along the lines of “The next time you’re going to sell a port to the Chinese where I’ve got twenty-five hundred marines stationed, would you mind giving me a heads-up? I’d rather not learn about it in the New York Times.”

On its face, that seems a reasonable request. It is re-assuring that the American security and intelligence complex, who some fear will establish a worldwide oppressive totalitarian regime, couldn’t even track down the tenderers in a public tender. America is paying a lot of money for that regime. Australians would expect compensation for such a failure.

It would be un-Australian of me to decline this compensation. So ride I will.