A connies con

In another case of opinion masquerading as journalism, The Sunday Age yesterday led with a story headlined ‘It’s time to bring back the connies’. By ‘connies’ they mean tram conductors.

This is a story that periodically crops up as slow-news day nostalgia in the Melbourne media, but this one uses ‘research’ commissioned by the newspaper to bolster its case. The net cost of $12 million a year is based on some very optimistic assumptions about higher fare revenue, through reduced evasion and increased patronage.

It’s true that conductors would encourage dishonest tram users to buy a ticket. But conductors would reduce revenue from honest tram users who want to buy a ticket but cannot. The main problem with the tram system is peak-hour overcrowding. You simply could not get to the conductor most of the time to buy a ticket – particularly in the very long newer trams with narrow passageways above the wheels, which would make it difficult for conductors to walk up and down. It’s hard enough for passengers to get to the validating machines sometimes, but at least there are lots of them and they are near the doors.

Just like there are people who still prefer to line up between 9.30am and 3.30pm Monday to Friday to see a bank teller rather than use an at ATM at their convenience, there are people who prefer transactions with conductors to a brief encounter with a validating machine. Mostly lonely elderly people with too much time on their hands, I’d suggest. For the rest of us, conductors are just a nuisance, interrupting conversations and making you fumble around for your wallet after you have already sat down. And if trams are already overcrowded, how does an extra person on board help?

If there is a spare $12 million a year, spending that money on some extra capacity in the system would be a much better investment than an expensive exercise in nostalgia.

21 thoughts on “A connies con

  1. That’s a good point Andrew. I also think it’s unrealistic to expect that even on a less-than-packed tram, conductors would be able to go up and down the entire length within such a time to check every passenger. I suspect fare evasion would become an even more tempting sport than it is at the moment. It would also blur the line between the function of checking tickets and fining evaders – in fact, would fines ever be imposed if a passenger could claim that a conductor had never asked to see/offer to sell a ticket? If conductors were expected to fine and possibly apprehend people, they would also need to be trained in such conduct and probably travel in twos or threes as inspectors do at the moment.

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  2. These ticketing systems must be very expensive to buy and maintain, and then more millions for conductors – obviously it would be better to just make public transport free.

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  3. Rajat,

    You’re spot on. I have heard from somebody who works for one of the tram companies that the reason we will never see conductors again is that the unions will not let them go on the trams unless they are accompanied by security guards. It makes sense when you think about how much cash they could potentially have in their bags and the potential for robberies. So the cost of conductors immediately doubles compared with the estimate used in the Sunday Age cost-benefit analysis.

    And while the stories about conductors are always peppered with rose-coloured memories of jaunty, salt-of-the-earth types who always had a smile for the old ladies and plucked 2 cent coins from the ears of small children, I reckon that the majority of conductors would be just like the ‘revenue protection oficers’ on the trams at the moment – surly, poorly-paid and prone to exercising any powers given to them in an arbitrary manner. So that’s a no from me, thanks.

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  4. After living in HK for a few years where automatic ticketing works, is extremely convenient (you can even buy watches with the chip in them, in case you have the habit of forgetting your card), and you can use it for almost anything (vending machines, supermarket groceries, tickets for almost anything, …), the real story I believe is how intensely useless all parties involved must be who are responsible for automatic ticketing. Perhaps we could employ the old conductors to lynch the people responsible for the mess which afflicts both Melbourne and Sydney.

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  5. Some good points made, but I the meaning of this is not clear to me:

    It’s true that conductors would encourage dishonest tram users to buy a ticket. But conductors would reduce revenue from honest tram users who want to buy a ticket but cannot.

    Are you referring those cases where people who want to buy a ticket and cannot are caught by a ticket inspector and subsequently fined?

    I know that this has happened to at least two people (it happened to my ex-flatmate several times), and while the tram company earns more in fines than they would otherwise, it still seems to me a rather unjust way of treating honest customers, and this would surely discourage a lot of people from using public transport.

    Anyway, not sure if this is what you mean.

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  6. Tim – At the moment, you can buy a ticket beforehand and all you need to do on the tram is validate it at one of the many validating machines. Under the proposed system, you would have to find the conductor and get his/her attention to validate.

    For those wanting to buy tickets on the tram, similar problems with either system: have to get to the conductor/machine that dispenses tickets, of which there is only one on each tram.

    Unless the tram is packed, or the machine is out of order, it is necessary to assume fare evasion. Otherwise fare evasion would increase as people spun bullsh*t stories about really wanting to buy the ticket.

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  7. “Just like there are people who still prefer to line up between 9.30am and 3.30pm Monday to Friday to see a bank teller rather than use an at ATM at their convenience,”

    Andrew, when you have to deposit a cheque, do you line up or use an ATM? I’ll bet you do what 99.99999% of the population does, and line up, because you don’t trust the ATM to credit your account properly.

    A preference for being served by people is not just about sentiment.

    Next time you try to buy a tram ticket by a machine that doesn’t work, and then run the gauntlet of the inspectors, you’ll change your mind.

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  8. Spiros – I always buy tickets beforehand, as any sensible regular public transport user does. Very few people have any need to go inside a bank on a regular basis because there is vastly superior technology available for routine transactions.

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  9. Yes, but most people rarely need to deposit cheques. If you want cash, ATMS are more efficient. If you want to do most other financial transactions, the internet is far more efficient. Similarly, conductors would add negative value for regular tram users and no value to most other users.

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  10. Spiros, I think he means alternatives to cheques. Personally I have substituted cheques for internet banking and find it much more convenient.

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  11. I buy a monthly ticket at the newsagency. For me, problems with trams, trains, and (to a much lesser extent) buses include rubbish, and the use of public transport by disruptive passengers (alcoholics, drug users, beggars, violent/abusive passengers) who have seemingly no respect for the other passengers, unwritten social codes, or the law.

    It is very frustrating that ticket inspectors never seem to be bothered by rubbish or abusive passengers, but rather simply target people who have infringed ticketing laws.

    In this respect, I have often thought, a continuous presence on board the trams or trains by a conductor would be quite useful, and maybe this is the cause of nostalgia for conductors.

    Conductors may not be viable for a number of reasons, but as a passenger and commuter I do resent being continually hectored and ‘educated’ by the government and transport owners as to my obligations on public transport, in a failing effort to target the small minority who occasionally make tram and train use a misery for others by spreading rubbish everywhere, or abusing us.

    Any solution to these social, rather than economic problems would inevitably boost numbers of public transport users and hence the revenue earned by Connex.

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  12. Tim – Admittedly I am not a daily tram user, but in nearly eleven years back in Melbourne I can recall only one seriously unpleasant experience on a tram, due to someone who clearly had psychiatric problems. He got off after issuing threats but not actually attacking me, but it was a case for police, not a conductor.

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  13. Unpleasant experiences are the exception and not the rule, definitely. I have encountered a few, usually at night. A workmate who uses the Dandenong train every day of the week has a few stories as well.

    Trains are generally the worst and so maybe the conductor rule would not apply in these cases anyway. The visible presence of the tram driver and the presence of other passengers in a tram probably has a pacifying and civilising effect.

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  14. Andrew, I think I’ve met the same guy. Tim, I agree that there do seem to be a lot more ‘disruptive’ passengers on trams these days and it would be great if they weren’t there. Somehow I can’t remember so much such passengers in my school and uni days and I’m not sure if it was due to the presence of conductors or just a smaller number of such people out in the community. There seem to be more beggars, etc on trams and city streets now than in the 1990s recession and I wonder if it is in part due to the closure of several psychiatric facilities in the ’90s.

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  15. Some weeks I don’t use the public system at all – other times I use trams and trains a lot.

    I always have about my person at least one 10 x daily trip tickets. Mostly I validate and check my ticket – often I don’t. Sometimes because I forget. Others times I can’t get to the machine and sometimes I revert to the sullen teenager stance. The latter is usually when I see inspectors harrassing people.

    I cannot see any need for inspectors to go around in packs of six looking and acting like undertrained bouncers at a beer hall.

    I do remember the old days of conductors. Not all were models of helpfulness. Many of them just sat up the front half asleep. Other harrassed schoolkids. Some just perved on young women. A few helped old ladies and mums with pushers. One delightful one on Glenferrie Road did juggling and jokes and magic.

    But one thing they did have which was important beyond the immediate revenue raising – they pretty much all assumed that you wanted to buy a ticket if reminded and given the oppurtunity.

    Bringing back conductors on every tram is a nonsense – for example St Kilda road peak hour trams don’t even stop at some stops because they can’t even squash one more passenger on . And I reckon most of us want an automatic system like HKs Octopus.

    One thing is clear though the conductors built up a wonderfull image of trams – even if not quite accurate – its this image that is important in carry over good feelings toward paying the fare.

    I’d scrap the horrible inspectors and replace them with roving connies who may pop up on various non full trams and help people and sell tickets and assume everyone had good intentions – I’m sure it would actually increase fare compliance by the overflow of brand goodwill.

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  16. That’s an optimistic view of Melbourne 2008 human nature, Francis. If you got rid of inspectors, more people would evade and many of those that did pay would resent paying and evade themselves. But I agree with you that most people would prefer an automated system that worked. I haven’t been to HK but Singapore’s system is great.

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  17. raj – optimistic – I dunno – people by and large will pay if they service is close quality to what they want, priced about right and convenient to pay. The hard core evaders will remain hard core – its the casual evaders like me who are the biggest revenue problem I think in Melb at least

    The other option is Beijing’s notorious bus ladies. Theres one seated about 3/4 way down on every bus, unhelpful and so fierce and dedicated they lean out the window and abuse tardy taxis, trucks or bicycles.

    I have puzzled a bit at why we couldnt just adopt the Octupus system here in Melb. Its great you can top up anywhere or online and also use it to buy things other than transport. It would go great in Melb to swipe going through the turnstile for a daily ticket and a coffee.

    I think I had heard that the problem in Melb is that the storage cards work ok on fixed turnstiles but have trouble on moving ones with multiple entry like trams – anyone know?

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  18. “The other option is Beijing’s notorious bus ladies. Theres one seated about 3/4 way down on every bus, unhelpful and so fierce and dedicated they lean out the window and abuse tardy taxis, trucks or bicycles.”
    .
    Sounds classy! I always love it when the tram drivers abuse passing cars for going past an open tram door. Do we officially pay for this entertainment as part of the ticket fee? Who cares!

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