Melburnians complain bitterly and constantly about their public transport system. This can strike a newcomer as strange, because Melbourne has a pretty fabulous public transportation network. If you spend enough time here, you come to understand that Melbourne has such a wonderful system because nobody here thinks it is anywhere near good enough.
Melbourne came of age during the latter half of the nineteenth century in the throes of Victoria’s gold rush. For a period it was the richest city on Earth by many measures. Unlike its kin in New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania, Victoria had little in the way of convict roots, and was consciously eager to demonstrate that by behaving “more English than the English”. Amongst much else, that meant they needed to have trains, and lots of them.
Victoria asked her older brother, New South Wales, what kind of trains she should have. New South Wales — lazy, drunk, incompetent and penniless as always — was nevertheless brimming with advice. “Build a broad gauge system!” NSW insisted, “That’s what we’re going to do — as soon as we get on our feet.”
Broad gauge railways are an expensive proposition. They require broad gauge trains, which are big and spacious and can carry huge loads. Like an eighteen-year-old coming in control of the family fortune, Victoria had more money than sense. If that’s what Big Brother was going to do, well, it just made sense for Victoria to do the same.
So Victoria built one of the world’s premier broad gauge rail networks. Flush with cash, speculators built hundreds of kilometres of railways, linking virtually every hamlet to its capital, Melbourne. Many lines never had any chance of commercial success, many more saw only short-term success before abandonment. The result is a state criss-crossed with long, flat, straight, abandoned right-of-ways, some with complex bridges and other expensive infrastructure intact — perfect for cycling trails.
To no one’s surprise, except perhaps Victoria’s, we are still waiting for New South Wales to get on its feet. Even Queensland to its north outdid its eldest sibling, building a narrow gauge network from the meagre proceeds of its agrarian economy. Out of necessity NSW grudgingly scrounged up the money to build railways, largely spurs off its little siblings’ rail empires, connected where necessary by a patchwork of its own lines. But the prodigal son built its lines in a third width which had become known as “standard gauge”. Australia’s three largest states built rail networks completely incompatible with each other.
To a significant degree, the problem persists to this day. Today, Australian government officials regularly refer metaphorically to a “rail gauge issue” whenever confronted by bloody-minded disputes and differences between the states. That is pretty much a daily event.
During World War II, after promising to return to the Philippines while fleeing with his tail between his legs, General Douglas MacArthur made Melbourne his Pacific Headquarters for a time, even though more of the forces he commanded were based in Brisbane. It is said that he had something of a conniption when was told that to get soldiers or materials from Melbourne to Brisbane, they had switch trains not once but twice. At least! Changing that reality was the post-war impetus for the construction of Australia’s interstate standard gauge network, which remains a work in progress.
Victoria never got over NSW’s flip-flopping gauge treachery. Neither has NSW, come to think of it, but that is another story. This story is about Victoria. Melbourne went on to build a massive tram (streetcar) network which is now the world’s largest. It compliments a comprehensive broad gauge metropolitan commuter rail network that runs frequently and reasonably close to schedule, most of the time. When cities across Australia and America started the wholesale ripping up of tracks in the 1950’s, Melburnians would have none of it. Then as now, Victorians complained loudly about substandard service and demanded more. “The food is terrible, and in such small portions.”
You may have guessed that I am something of a supporter of public transport. I was raised using the American moniker, “mass transit”. That phrase conveys the cattle car mentality many Americans have about public transport. Moreover, as a former Catholic, the choice of words “mass transit” evokes cultish images of heavenly ascension or hellish descent, both of which are unhelpful exaggerations in the context of getting around our mortal coil. I will stick with “public transport”.
I worked in Victoria’s Department of Transport for several years, which was an eye-opening experience. With the exception of V/Line, a government body which operates the regional and country train routes, all of Victoria’s public transport has been privatised. “Privatised” in this context means the services are delivered by private companies who receive huge subsidies from the government, which continues to provide a high degree of oversight and political interference. Every now and then I stumbled across a conversation about privatising V/Line, an organisation fraught with financial and operational challenges. These conversations inevitably ended with a lot of head-shaking and uproarious laughter. I don’t think I am betraying any State secrets when I say that the phrase used most often to describe V/Line was “basket case”.
It is truly amazing how much time, energy and money can be wasted by a thousand hard-working, well-intentioned people strongly supporting the same goal. Suffice to say it is a fucking miracle that public transport in Victoria is as good as it is. Even V/Line, despite its commercial unviability, delivers a decent service. I take every opportunity to encourage Melburnians to complain, loudly, bitterly, publicly, constantly. It may be the only reason everyone doesn’t throw up their hands and give up. The truth is, I did.
I used to think public transport was good because it is cheap. I learned it isn’t — far from it. Or because it is green and sustainable. That’s debatable, too, when your electric trains and trams are powered by coal burning power stations. Or because it provides mobility to the poor. That’s only true until the poor neighbourhood becomes unaffordable when it is discovered to have good public transport.
The undeniably wonderful thing about public transport is that it forces people to deal with each other. Too many of us live life like pods in the movie “The Matrix”, immersed in our personal media preferences every moment as we travel from the home pod to the garage pod to the car pod to the other garage pod to the building pod to the office pod. On public transport one must acknowledge the existence of others, perhaps even talk to some of them, including persons who may be mentally ill, or physically disabled, or drug-addicted, or of a different race or religion or ethnicity or sexual preference or gender or class. It is humanising and broadening. It helps make society work. We could use a bit more of that.
There was no need to remind myself of this as we approached Warrnambool, the first stop on our Free Ride Tour. The woman sitting behind me was incapable of understanding that when she whacked the back my seat it caused me something of a disturbance. After about forty whacks — which was, after all, Lizzie Borden’s limit — I turned to have a quiet word with her. I’m not sure what I said, if anything, as upon seeing her, her grotesqueness left me speechless, jaw agape. Every patch of her exposed skin — thankfully, they were few and small — was cracked, red and scabbed over, or still oozing. Some white powder or lotion was evident — or was that leprosy?
Rather than a contagious flesh-eating disease, perhaps it was just a bad case of poison ivy. I will never know. Regardless, it took every bit of restraint I could muster to close my mouth without vomiting. Whatever her malady, I instantly realised she was having a far worse yesterday, today and tomorrow than I was. Complaints about seat-whacking seemed rather petty in the circumstance. I sat back down silently, wrapped my jacket around me, pulling the hood over my head. Warrnambool would be here before I knew it.
…When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.