Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why working on the trams is awesome

I know. It's been two weeks since my last posting. I've been pretty busy. My tweets have slowed a little too. I'm tired, but I'm still here. You know how when radio "personalities" go on holidays, they drag out the "best of" highlights because they're too cheap and scared to try anything different? Well, I've got some posts here I wrote a while ago. One of my followers suggested that I post the highs and lows of being a tram driver. Seeing as the Queen is here, I think I might start with the highs.

If you went by the media, working in public transport is some sort of awful, faceless nightmare of never-ending failure, abuse, violence, waste and political meddling. Rarely are there any "good" stories - perhaps a singing tram driver or something similar, perhaps even a political stunt here or there. However, after several followers expressing an interest in the industry and a lack of positive posts here, I thought it would be time to let you know what gets me out of bed each day.

The pay
Yes, the job pays well, and even though you don't say it during interviews, the pay is good. For a job that requires a license and a month's training, it pays very well. This is a reason why you have a lot of diversity amongst drivers - it beats driving a taxi hands down. We still have penalty rates for Saturdays (time and a half), Sunday (double time) and the epic public holidays (double time and a half - yes, 8 hours becomes 20 - half a week's work in one day). 

Plenty of annual leave and RDOs. There's also the flexibility of the roster. First sign on is after 4am usually and the last tram rolls in around 2:30am on Fri/Sat, so there's plenty of different start times. Also, we have 2 days off out of 7, except it's not always Mon-Fri. Sometimes you can have Sat Wed off. Our weekend begins on Sundays for some reason that's never been made clear to me. We have special diaries made to account for this. It's weird.

When you're out there on the road, you don't have a supervisor lurking over your shoulder. Yes, the vehicle is monitored and each passenger could be a potential complaint, but you're effectively your own master. However, with this freedom comes responsibility. The only time you really see a manager is when you're in trouble or they want something. 

Job Security
Yes, it's a secure job. One of the often-told stories is that you can only sack yourself. There is a strong union presence and while at times it feels like a closed shop to the extent that it's almost extortive, it's good to know there's a certain level of security. Transport Ministers come and go, companies running the system might come and go, but drivers are always there. You can work there for a year, or fifty. 

Unique Icon
Yes, it's a unique skill set that's pretty useless outside of inner-Melbourne, but each day you come to work, you get the chance to drive a major tourist icon. The locals might think it's terrible, but the tourists can often make your day. And don't forget to wave at the kids who always seem captivated by trams. In case you've been living under a rock, public transport is big news. 

The stories
Every day you hear them. About the car that flipped in the city. The taxi that almost hit alighting passengers. The junkies arguing over bills. The bum who smelled like death. The football crowds. The collisions. The dramas. The protests. The delays. Every driver has a bunch of stories that would fill a book. You see stuff that people won't believe.

Leave that shit at the gate
Once you've finished that shift, that's it. No work to take home. If you want to work on your day off for a bit of extra cash, you can if you want. If you want to work overtime, you can if you want. You can chase the cash or do the minimum. Either way, it ends at the gate. Unpaid overtime doesn't exist.

Helping people
It gives me a real buzz being able to help people out. The locals tend to take this for granted, but if you've ever been a passenger helping out a tourist, you'll know what I mean. Announcing a requested stop can bring out all sorts of appreciation and it makes my day. Knowing a few words of some different languages can also surprise people.

Seeing Police dealing with Dickheads
There's something special about seeing the thin blue line catch a douchebag. Given that we deal with so many of them on the road, there's little sympathy from us when some idiot has been pulled over. Sometimes I play a little game I like to call "guess the offence". Sometimes I make them up. It's all fun and hope that the lesson's been learned.

The Kids
Yep, kids get on and they think you're the shit. They wave at you from mum's arms like you're Santa. Yes, some dogs bark, but every single kid loves trams and I always try to wave back at them. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What They Don't Tell You During Training Part 3

OK, last post I got a little upset and ranty. Now and then I, like most passengers, get pushed to the point where I lose my trolley. One tweeter suggested I take a holiday (I would if I could right now!), but I stepped back and took a deep breath. I've decided to return with the last installment of the magical knowledge you don't find out until you've spent some time on the rails. I've got some drafts of various issues and other such stuff waiting to get posted, but if you have a question or issue that you want explored, tweet me or leave a message here.

Take care out there!

41. Every second you've been able to make up while you're running late will be taken away several times over by the accident around the corner, the glacial light sequence you've complained about for four years, the slow tram you've caught up, the rubbish truck, the genius who sends out the track cleaning car during evening peak, the horse-drawn carts, some random protest, a broken down car, the emergency vehicles parked 1.6cm over the yellow line and anything else that can happen. It sucks, but it's not a race. Drive calm, in control and claim the overtime.

42. Emergency people such as police, ambos and firefighters are awesome.

43. There are douchebags working at every depot. You can transfer as much as you want, but you'll always find them. More to the point, they'll always find you. They're the ones that always beat your cool stories, try and take your good shifts, won't stop talking, steal food from the fridges, steal anything that's not nailed down and treat passengers like shit. They make life difficult for everyone and every workplace has them. Don't ever help them with their computer problems, otherwise you'll be popular with everyone who's not "a genius with solving computer problems". 

44. The only good thing Jeff Kennett ever did for trams was to paint taxis yellow - makes them easier to see. And the people who buy second-hand taxis drive them like they're taxi drivers. Oh, and if you're wondering about the good taxi drivers in Melbourne, all three of them always seem to be on holidays.

45. "Baby On Board" means "I put other lives at risk because I drive like a shithead". It's true, and the reason? Many late nights taking care of junior. It makes sense, but it doesn't absolve them from being responsible or thinking twice before getting behind the wheel.

46. The vast majority of accidents are the fault of motorists. If you're involved in one and the motorist says they didn't see you, hide your disdain and anger with a facade of knowing and understanding. Put it down on the accident report though.

47. You will learn to hate people using iPods and iPhones. For some reason, their conversations and playlists are supposed to protect them from physics and make the rest of the world look out for them. Oh, and when it comes to emergency announcements, they will expect you to cater for their willing decision to exclude themselves from the world around them. Blame these people for Steve Jobs getting cancer. And subsequently dying.

48. The ultimate contraceptive device is driving a tram full of school kids. If you could somehow bottle and market this little slice of hell, you could make billions. And the Pope would approve.

49. People who are beautiful aren't always smart. People who dress smartly aren't always either. Don't be fooled by this camouflage.

50. You will notice that Stop and Give Way signs are used for decoration on side streets. Gong a car breaking the law here and alert them to a potential accident, and they'll slow down, give you the finger, then put their phone down to put their seatbelt on. You'll also notice that you are the only person on the road who sees speed limit signs. However, you will laugh at every piece of shit the police manage to pull over.

51. Any major entity, be it the company, VicRoads, State Government or Department of Transport has the power to screw something up in no time. Try to get it rectified, and you'll have several birthdays before anyone even looks at it.

52. You will soon learn to predict the behavior of motorists based on the stickers on their rear windscreens. Or the business their vehicle belongs to. You will feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix discovering his amazing powers. Only it's not so amazing and the soundtrack is much worse. You will curse the day you learn this magic and they won't make sequels about it.

53. If things get too serious, I recommend a regular visit to, and search "fail compilation" in youtube. You'll feel much better seeing other people fail.

54. The moment you work out that weird smell is actually vomit from up the back of the tram is the same moment it goes from mildly unpleasant to "I'm about to add to that". You will also encounter all manner of liquids that get on seats and floors. Treat it like the blood from "Alien".

55. You will find new shoe boxes on your tram. You will find old shoes in them. You will work out what has happened and wonder why these lazy idiots can't find a bin, or even bother to keep a spare pair of old shoes in the house in case. It's because they're dicks.

56. You will get out and offer to help for every pram, suitcase and shopping jeep and the passengers will appreciate it. The one day when you wake up with a shit back from a bad sleeping position is the same day they turn on you like some dodgy workers comp story on a current affairs show.

57. You will drive for hours and hours before anyone comes up to let you know the ticket machine is broken. Thank them and report it. However, the second someone claims to have been shortchanged,  they will spend the next twenty minutes bitching about the ten cents change they didn't get as if you stole it from their grandparents.

58. If you happen to smoke, you will smell things at 1/10th of their true smell and the smells will be truly awful. When you quit smoking, you will wonder how the bowels of hell managed to fit in your tram and you will return to nicotine with open and loving arms.

59. There is no massive shortage of indicator lights across Melbourne. The city is just plagued by lazy dickheads.

60. If you get bored, play a game called "guess the offence". You see a car pulled over, try to think of the most amusing, yet plausible reason for that to happen. Maybe the guy's driving an awful car or having a Ray Martin "pink business shirt" poor choice of fashion day. Either way, it's one small straw to keep insanity off your back.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics and Public Transport

There's been some interesting articles in the news of late regarding fare evasion on trams. Firstly, there was this article relating to the chances of getting your ticket checked on trams. 

Apparently the Transport Minister has "expressed his frustration at Yarra Trams about the loss of millions of dollars in revenue through high fare evasion...". This appears to be some sort of code for "we've spent millions of dollars and years preparing your contracts using very expensive lawyers which monitor trams down to the second, but we don't actually have any solid rules relating to the rate of inspection, so I'll just wag my finger at you in the media and do what every Transport Minister is expert at- pass the buck". This also adds to the confusion to the public, who now may think that either Yarra Trams runs the ticketing system or is trying to cut staff who inspect tickets (neither of which are true, but the subtlety of it all is from years of this crap).

You might notice over time that the various authorities, namely Metlink, are experts at campaigns to clamp down on fare evasion. If one were to perform a cost-benefit analysis on their work over the years, one would arrive at the conclusion that while we spend money, fare evasion is increasing. For an industry where money for basic infrastructure is sparse, it's amazing how much gets sucked into useless campaigns which make the suits and media types happy with the free lunch at the launch, but have not seen any impact. It would be interesting to go back over the years and see exactly how much money Metlink have spent on these campaigns and compare them with the rates of evasion. 

Then there are the questionable statistics. Apparently fare evasion can be monitored down to 0.1% accuracy, as there's been reports over the years about the rates decreasing.

Here, back in April 2011, it was 13% and Metlink Chief Dale Larkin said "inspectors would be checking as many tickets as possible from this week".

Here, October last year, yet another warning about a crackdown.

Here, in September last year, Metlink estimates fare evasion at 10%.

Back in July 2008, this article seemed hopeful. However, note the Metlink stats of fare evasion: 1996: 1.7%, 2000: 25%, 2006: 14.2%, 2008: 10.1%. The classic line in the article however comes from the Metlink Chief:

"...the return of tram conductors would not cut fare evasion to its previous levels because around 20% of the fleet's trams are now several metres longer than the older models"

Excuse me? Longer trams cause fare evasion? There's no explanation as to how this truly scientific method actually works or where this has been proven. It's just the usual "dodge, duck, dodge, duck" method of dealing with the media. Just looking at those basic stats over just a short period of time, you can see that fare evasion is climbing, especially in the last six months. 13%-20% is a huge leap worth millions of dollars. If I was responsible for a campaign to turn this around and in charge of millions of dollars of advertising and education and this was the result, would I expect to retain my job? No. But Even before Andrew Bolt and GASP, the Bolt Syndrome* has been perfected by public transport over many years.

*recently Andrew Bolt was found publicly guilty of racism, however his various employers are retaining him. Obviously this is condoning his illegal acts. If a regular person was found guilty of racism at their workplace, would their employer show such support? Same goes with GASP "customer service". This is the Bolt Syndrome: retaining and in some cases defending the actions of an employee which, to the ordinary person, has acted in a manner which would usually require termination.

Anyway, it seems interesting that they can measure fare evasion at such accurate amounts. Or is it? There are no counters on every tram, so right off the bat, the numbers are a guess. Those people you see sometimes at major stops with clipboards only operate during restricted hours, so again, take a guess. The rate of booking fare evaders is hardly scientific, as you get many runners as well as those who require the presence of a uniform to "remember" their ticket. At some point, in order to come up with these magical stats, the kind that managers and politicians rely on to make policies and spend money, someone has had to guess or make an estimate. This same logic is applied to patronage across the system, too. What a waste of time and money all this is.

Another interesting section of this article is the response from a Yarra Trams spokesman:

"A Yarra Trams spokesman said it had stepped up the number of inspections recently in line with Metlink's fare evasion crackdown - but did not say why fewer tickets were checked this year. Metlink said the crackdown was effective because monthly fines had increased across the network by more than 50 per cent."

The number of inspections has been stepped up recently? So what was happening before? As a tax payer and tram driver, I'm pissed. As a tax payer, the government is supposed to oversee this sort of thing and ensure that money handed over to private companies in this manner is accounted for and well-spent. As a driver, my working day is documented down to the minute. We get fifty seconds deviation at timing points and are under constant scrutiny. Our tables have been cut and chopped up so much that any recover time at the end of the line is almost always chewed up by late running. We literally spend hours and hours working non-stop in traffic. It would be nice if this performance was expected of everyone else working in the industry, including our union, the RTBU.

The second article is similar, but there are some rather interesting points if you read between lines here, folks. Bear with me.

The article states that the rate of evasion across the entire network of trams is 20.3%. Again, nice to have such a specific number. Twenty point three. However, the most interesting point comes at the bottom of the article, where the Yarra Trams spokesman makes some rather tasty information:

"Yarra Trams spokesman Colin Tyrus said the government was responsible for ticket inspector numbers on the network, with about 165 currently patrolling trams.
He said plain-clothes patrols had recently been increased, and announcements warning passengers of routes being targeted had been introduced. ''The vast majority of commuters … know they have to have a valid ticket and they do and they don't gamble on whether or not they'll be checked.''

Firstly, there's the famous "buck-pass", stating the government was responsible for ticket inspector numbers on the network. Wait, didn't we have the Transport Minister the day before wagging a finger at Yarra Trams for the rates of fare evasion? Who is responsible here? Don't bother wasting your time with such an important question, as this is standard operating procedure for public transport news. Here's how it works:

1. Newspaper digs up something unsavory, usually via FOI. If not, it gets released by whomever just in time to make Sunday's paper - the day with the least circulation. It's deliberate.
2. Comments are gathered from various sources, such as Government, Metlink, Yarra Trams, Public Transport Users Assoc. and RTBU.
3. At some point, someone will "pass the buck", blaming one of several targets: the previous government, the water-tight contracts (which, by the way, appear to contain very little about ticket inspectors!), the union, the staff. It's very rare that someone will respond directly or someone actually be named, as these "threats" are nothing of the sort. See below:
4. If the issue lasts longer than a day (which it usually doesn't), the buck may be passed again, but only in a way in which nobody directly is blamed. It's careful, well-crafted, and no more dangerous than the paper it's written on. Nobody gets hurt, the public are tricked into believing there's "conflict" and everyone wins. 

The second interesting point is the increase in plain clothes patrols. This IS news, but it's another one of those shitty tricks. When the recent version of Yarra Trams came into power, some genius saw plain clothes inspectors as damaging to the brand and had them removed. Everyone wore uniforms. Low and behold, fare evasion has increased and millions of dollars have been lost because of it. Fucking genius. If I pulled a move like that and cost the company millions of dollars, would I still be employed? No. Anyway, this "increase in plain clothes patrols" is not really an increase, it's just things going back to how they used to be. A bit like re-inventing the wheel - something which public transport is so expert at doing. This increase is the same as me taking out all of your teeth, giving them back, then telling you that you now have more teeth. And you can't claim it on Medicare.

The sad part about all this is that these clowns are all paid very well for their efforts. They will happily slurp from the trough of tax-payers and watch as the system is slowly ruined at a glacial rate: slow enough for nobody to really notice. Millions, if not billions of dollars are pissed away on re-branding, re-negotiating contracts, re-franchising, and so on. In this great system, everyone gets paid and nobody's accountable or responsible. The running of the system is fragmented into so many pieces, there is nobody there to oversee it, not even the Transport Minister. Each have their own narrow little world which they take care of, and that's it. The people who lose out? Front-line staff, the travelling public and tax-payers. This system, with the way it's been set up, cannot be changed from outside, and will not be changed from the inside.