Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy New Year

Every year, a bunch of absolute bastards get together and squeeze blood out of a stone in order to get services running overnight for New Year's Eve. Rules are truly thrown out the window in order to accommodate such a massive demand. I will tell you now - every shift is absolute shit. Starting at all hours of the day and night with every driver rostered to work isn't nice. Working on a stinking hot night with squillions of passengers isn't fun either. Failing to learn from mistakes in the past doesn't help the situation either, but that's not as bad as it used to be.

Yes, working on the trams sucks everything on NYE. When turning up to work, every driver checks out their shift to see if they're in the city at ground zero when the fireworks finish. Some years, a Matrix-style bullet dodge happens, but with most years you seem to end up in the shit with everyone else. Here's what often goes wrong:

1. As soon as the last firework finished, everyone runs to that first tram like it's a life raft on the Titanic. Why? Because nobody wants to get stuck with that massive crowd. But this is silly because trams are running all night. If you relax, take your time and wait 30-60 minutes, the crowds tend to disappear quite quickly. Yes, we all want to go home, but unless you want to crush yourself with a tram full of desperados, give it some time.

2. Due to the loading, doors malfunction and trams can break down. I've had the pleasure of having a door become defective on a trip out of town and yes, it's never the front door. Depending on how drivers approach it, you can get abuse or support. If you end up causing door problems, you can catch the tram behind. We're running all night long, and very frequently for a good period of time after NYE. Having repair crews who are only able to fix certain classes of trams posted at key points shared by many classes of trams is pretty shitty, too.

3. Ground staff who haven't worked late with large crowds for 12 months can make or break a night. While most of the support staff can be awesome, there are a few who just aren't suited to the task. They lack patience and skill. We often see staff all yellow-vested up who we've never seen before, which is always a thrill. And posting huge numbers of staff at quiet areas is just plain stupid. Staff need to be able to move around and go to where the work is required. This comes down to inadequate supervision.

4. After the event, drivers need to inform their managers what was great and what failed on the night. It's the only way to do something about it. Bitching about it to fellow drivers won't magically solve the problem (in fact, it makes it worse). Write a report about the good and the bad, and suggest some solutions. The same goes for members of the public. If something could be improved, let the company know. Fire off an email, give them a call, but do something. Same goes if something was awesome. It's nice to know our efforts to make it smooth go noticed (We usually get a stock letter from the CEO saying well done, but it's always the same).

While I'm sure everyone has their own stories of NYE hell, there are plenty of things that can be done to make the last night of the year bearable. If I don't see or speak to any of you on the night, have a safe New Year's Eve and all the best for 2013. If the myki apocalypse doesn't kill us before.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lutte contre les feral

First off the bat, you'll be pleased to know that police have caught up with two of the lovely specimens who threatened the lady on the bus. Being fans of public transport, I'm sure you've already seen the footage.
Unfortunately, if you've been using public transport recently in the post-PM peak times, you've probably seen stuff like this. Eight hours in the cabin, I know I've seen it. Drunk, aggressive behaviour, usually targeting people who won't fight back (something that real men don't seem to bother with) and being so aggressive that people fear intervening. I've seen it both on and off-duty and the thing that seems to bother me is the fact that these people seem entitled to abuse others openly and without fear of anything. I've stopped my tram before to address passengers similar to these. I've refused to move until they're off. The tough part is that very rarely do I get support from other passengers. I don't blame them though - at least I'm getting paid to do it. However, the sad thing is that if I don't do anything, these people would waste no time complaining.
If stuff happens, coming forward as a witness helps so much, as it has in the bus case. Leaving your details with staff bolsters the case against the offenders. Don't be afraid to call 000 if things look like they might get ugly. I've called on my mobile regarding a vandal scrawling on my tram and the cops appeared right away, no questions asked. If they can turn up to Mr Texta Douchebag's crimespree, don't be afraid to do it. In fact, I encourage it. The only real way to improve safety on PT is to boost those stats that pollies and cops live and die by. Letting this stuff slide is not only condoning it, but it sends a message to Spring St that everything is OK on public transport and no further action is required. Or worse, our stats are down from last year, let's shit-can the PSOs. Not only do we want ferals off public transport, but we also want our public servants to know what happens on buses, trams and trains. If they actually used public transport, this might not be needed as much.

If you're going to report things to the police, vehicles may have to be stopped and doors opened as part of procedure. If things get violent, people have a means to escape and the police have a pin-pointed position to attend. Yes, offenders can escape, but they usually do so on foot. MAKE SURE YOU GET A DESCRIPTION. This includes age, height, clothing, hair, manner, (hell, even if he/she touched off might help). You can supply the vehicle number and notifying the driver that you've called the police would be helpful (as he/she can contact Fleet Operations who can then contact the police - two calls are better than one). It's up to all of us to start fighting back against these social cancers and let them know that we're a decent society that doesn't tolerate racism or threats.

Let me ask you this:
What happens if that girl was you? Being sworn at, abused and threatened. If more people stood up to these bastards, took their photos or video and reported these things to the police, they wouldn't be able to strut around as though the world owes them something. If you were that girl, you would want someone to help you out. Mind you, the person there that needs the most help is the occupant of the pram.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Public Holiday Services

Firstly, sorry. I've been slack and haven't had any entries here for about six months. Yep, pathetic. Well, I'm sneaking in a window, so make this count.

Public Holiday Services

A common and consistent complaint about public transport services is the lack of service on public holidays (and some major events). Staff, vehicles, whatever. It can cause long delays and added frustration, particular in the summer months, where a shandy or two can shrink fuses considerably.

As a general rule, most public holidays are treated equally. They end up running a Saturday or Sunday roster based on a rather flimsy assumption that demand will be around that level. Sometimes extra services are run. Often you'll see on the trams that the first tram will operate as per normal weekday, with the following tram kicking in at the usual time for Sat/Sun. However, experience in the real world will tell you that not all public holidays or services are created equal. Melbourne Cup is a classic example, where services from the city to the course might have extra services, but elsewhere they may be running to a Sunday schedule. 

But why not run extra services? Well, the main deterrent is price. Staff working on public holidays are paid at double time and a half, which can work out to be a very pricey exercise. Before you scream at union injustices and the like, consider that I've worked almost every Christmas Day for over a decade and every staff works New Years Eve. I can tell you now, 2.5 times my wages isn't enough to make up for the lost family time/additional drunken moron exposure). 
Maintenance and other ground support staff are often skeletal as well, so any problems can get blown out of proportion very quickly. So next time there's a delay on a public holiday, try to bear this in mind.

Rostering can also be a problem, with staff cooped up in an air-conditioned office coming up with marvelous schedules that look great on a screen, but suck on computer. We might get less running time in some parts due to the assumption that there's no passengers or traffic, or too much. For example, Saturday afternoon on Chapel St would normally see bumper to bumper traffic with plenty of time given to go from end to end. However, as it's a cross-city service, the number using it on, say Christmas Day, might be much less. So trams can end up with huge amounts of time, and little or no obstacles (passengers or vehicles on the road).

False Rage is a phenomenon where passengers waiting for a regular service become angry because trams operating on a special timetable or running out of service turn up and can't be used. While the regular timetable might be running perfectly, the mere sight of an empty tram running on tracks (regardless of destination) is enough to break out the pitchforks and torches. Just ask passengers waiting for a #70 tram next to Rod Laver Arena during the football. Hundreds of trams running backwards and forwards to the city, but nothing for Wattle Park bar the usual services. Often, trams returning to the depot will run out of service (as per instructions), so depots on that side of the city like Camberwell can cop abuse. This isn't really a public holiday issue, but it can appear if there's a large delay between services, and along I come moving a tram from depot to depot.

So what to do? I often submit reports about public holiday events. I include the good, the bad and the ugly. Forms get submitted and I'll never hear about them again. Recently, I've actually given up. I don't want any accolades - I just want an acknowledgement that the feedback has been received. More effort goes into following up a complaint from a member of the public. That might be something worth considering next time you have dramas on the road. Just remember to submit them to Yarra Trams via their website. Please note the time, date, route, tram number and any additional information that would help.

The shit thing is that these public holidays happen every year. Yes, issues like first-time myki users might blow out problems now, but Anzac Day, Australia Day and New Year's Day happen every year (even though some passengers find this a shock). It feels like every year the same stone is wheeled out and from it a wheel is supposed to be invented. The lessons from previous years don't often seem to have been learned, let alone incorporated into a constantly-improving service. Now there's a novel concept!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Now and then I'll check out #yarratrams and see what the general mood is across the twitter PT network. Usually it's bad, but this morning something caught my eye. It happens to come from George Salpigtidis (@salheraldsun), the Sports Photographer for the Herald Sun.

"Shouldn't @yarratrams indicate b4 stopping. Not when doors open? Why can't ALL stops be painted #visibility #notrocketscience #safety 1st"

Cue a rather brief discussion where I bet the author had been driving and failed to stop, using his tweet to mask blaming someone else in the name of "safety". My response did include "If you don't like driving with trams, buy a Melways". This is my response to anyone who bitches about being stuck behind or held up by them. If we drove down every street, these complaints would actually make sense. Instead, it's just a lazy motorist having a moan. I can't confirm if the author is a motorist or a tram passenger, but either way he's brought up an interesting point. 

There is no obligation for trams to let cars know they are stopping. In fact, as far as I know, no vehicle is subject to this requirement. It should be patently obvious a tram is about to stop, as it will SLOW DOWN. Tram stop or not, a tram slowing down is a pretty decent indicator that there is someone using the tram, or there's a reason to stop up ahead. Most motorists don't need anything more than this to let them know what's going on, although we've all seen the special cases where one person in a car is willing to risk the lives of others in order to pass.
That said, as I driver I'm one of those who activate my hazard lights as I'm slowing down to let others know I'm stopping. This is COURTESY, not road law. For our indicators to be activated in this way, it has to be done manually. Many drivers don't bother, because a slowing tram SHOULD mean slowing cars behind. When the tram stops and the doors open, the hazard lights are activated automatically. By this stage, vehicles behind have stopped. That is, the drivers who are awake and attentive to their environment.
It has been requested numerous times that hazard lights should be connected to the "Next Stop" light/button to help motorists out. This is a great idea, as it's easier to see those boarding than those alighting. But there's the rub: the presence of pedestrians is the greatest reminder to those less intelligent that they must stop. 

The requirement to stop is completely up to the motorist, and as a good rule, if the trams slows down, so should the other vehicles. If that's simply too complicated or demanding on the small-minded, selfish motorists out there, they are free to use the millions of kilometers of roads out there that don't have trams on them.

Over the years, I've got out of my tram and given a dose to cars that don't stop. I've had time to get out of the cabin and slap their windows as they pass - yes, they're that stupid. I don't do any of this anymore, as it's not company policy, nor have any passengers backed me up. Reports to police need witnesses, and I can do the right thing and make the tram late by getting details, or I can stay on time. I can stay behind after work and complete the paperwork during unpaid overtime, or I can leave the job of traffic enforcement up to the police themselves. In short, the system we have as tram drivers is designed to deter reporting at every stage.

One common defense is ignorance of the law (Queensland don't have too many trams). To a certain point it's fair enough, however if you go tear-assing past a stationary tram, surely you would expect people to be around. Do they slow down? No, very rarely.

Back to the author. The question of all stops being painted is an interesting one. Various attempts across the system to make things consistent and safe have failed over the years. Looking along Sydney Rd, Brunswick, you will see red paint on the road where there are tram stops, indicating to cars that this is a stop. Why wasn't this adopted across the entire system? It's true- some tram stops are poorly signed. However, going back to my earlier statement, a tram slowing down should be the only indication that's needed that something is going to happen. But then what about an incident between stops? Yep, covered. A TRAM SLOWING DOWN IS ALL YOU NEED TO HELP YOU. If you need more than this, you probably shouldn't be operating a motor vehicle. 

Finally, I'm quite used to the Herald Sun making assumptions about things, especially public transport. If you're going to use your employer's name in your twitter name, it's difficult to defend your tweets as "your own". Making assumptions about public transport and then bitching about it is not the sign of an educated person. Next time, try ASKING why things happen: you'll find that many of us are much more helpful. If you're still wondering why I dislike the Herald Sun, feel free to read up some of my earlier posts about Andy Blume. What he did was wrong, but the process of his dismissal and the poor standard of "journalism" displayed was far worse.

SPECIAL THANKS: @JohnDonegan1826 for adding his voice of reason to our little discussion. You accusation about the author's post-retirement activities was spot on and made my day.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Roster Red*

In response to a question by @chapzboy, I'm posting a brief blog here about rostering. I don't know a hell of a lot about it, but I had posted an article in The Age about Train drivers getting upset about a new system. My beef was that the Tram division of the RTBU made no noise at all when the tram system turned to the modern age of computing in order to roster. Now that a similar, if not identical process is being used on the trains, the RTBU decides that train drivers are far more worthy of fighting for than us lowly tram drivers. Where was the anger and protest when Yarra Trams moved to HASTUS years ago? I happen to be supportive of the union movement, but it's been a membership of continual disappointment.

Drivers on standby? Driver shortage? Who can I believe?

Years ago, the tram driver system underwent a major change, involving a move away from a manual timetabling of services to computer-based. Yes, it might sound silly being dragged into the 20th century (yes, the twentieth), but as you might know, PT world moves at a much slower rate than the real world. So what happened?

1. "As Instructed" virtually disappeared from the roster. As Instructed, or AI, refers to a period of time where the driver is essentially on stand-by at the depot if something goes wrong or trams need moving, etc. If a driver is running late to work, you can grab someone AI and get them to start the shift and sort it out when the late driver arrives. Hours and hours of this time was removed from rosters because the thought of someone actually sitting around the depot doing nothing (even if it was waiting for a problem) seemed to irk people who use KPIs in place of real-world experiences.

2. "Spares" followed a similar path. A Spare driver is someone who is AI for an entire shift. If someone doesn't turn up, they're there to get the shift done. They can work a whole shift, or bits and pieces. The good old days would have sometimes up to 6 spares. These days, you're lucky if you see two. Reason? Same as before - you simply can't have people sitting around "doing nothing". Too bad if your tram becomes defective and there's no staff available to get another. You just have to suck it up and wait.

As a consequence of these changes, more drivers were spending more time on the road doing more work. That might appear to be a win for passengers, and in the short term it is. Long term, drivers miss out on a chance for a break. Head office don't seem to realize that spending all day on the mean streets of Melbourne is pretty tough, especially in Summer when that sun belts it in. Add to this the problem of when things go wrong and there's not enough staff to cover the work, it becomes problematic at best. Let's look at a scenario:

It's after the evening peak. You want to get home. The tram you're on develops a problem and has to get back to the depot to get changed over. Unfortunately, there's no spare staff, so the driver has to boot you off, berth the tram, find another, prepare it (ten minutes if they go by the book) and bring it out. By this stage, you're wet, pissed and probably on the tram that was behind your original. Yarra looks bad because we can't seem to organize a beer in the pub. However, the loss of time, inconvenience to passengers and fines for late running are apparently not half as important as saving the cost of having someone around. Yes, the depot starter can try to bait a driver on meal to help out with some overtime, but if you're working longer on the road, the temptation to say no is overwhelming. Even before the starter offers you 15 minutes and this magically gets cut to 5 on payday.

Yarra will argue that Spares and AI still exist, however the number of spares has been reduced to the point where it can take one driver off sick to lose that spare for the entire shift. And AI? It's a joke. What the hell am I supposed to do in two minutes before my meal break begins?

Now I don't deny that using technology with a problem like rostering is a good idea. Hell, even just thinking about writing up a timetable for one line makes my head hurt. However, when you employ technology to rationalise the system to the point HASTUS has, you're beginning to edge into causing problems of your own. And who has to put up with these problems? Yep, frontline staff and passengers. So next time you're tram doesn't turn up, feel free to consider that this may have caused it. Oh, and feel free to send a letter to the RTBU tram division and ask them why this wasn't worth fighting years ago, but the train division feel so strongly about it now.

*There's a fleet operator who makes announcements now and then over the PA system. He has trouble with the word "Rostered". It ends up sounding like "Roster Red". Feel free to tweet me if you know this!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fare Increases - The Confusion Continues

I trust everyone's had a great time over the past few weeks, what with work holidays, kids off school and all that other stuff. Drivers had a fair amount to contend with, including the sad passing of Lenny Bates, a legendary driver whose career spanned longer than most people live. 

Anyway, I've been hearing plenty of complaints about the recent rise in ticket prices and it seems like it's a bit of an annual bitch and moan. I hate the rises mainly because they often get treated like some sort of political tool. It always makes the news and it's never good. The party in power always blames the previous party and so on. Well, it's time to put on those cabin-like glasses and have a look at it from another angle.

Trams use electricity to run. The price rises in electricity are something trams are not immune to, so there's an increased cost right off the bat. And if you're wondering, the power bills we get run into the millions of dollars. Various other things increase in cost, such as spare parts (which are becoming more and more like "sparse" parts for the older trams). Then there's also the spares for newer trams ($6000 windscreen anyone?). Already this is an expensive process before we include other issues such as human resources (yes, we get pay rises too, but the RTBU is not always clear about what it's in exchange for until it's all been signed and sealed). Sadly, public utilities such as power and public transport must be run at a profit by private companies, so there is that added to it as well. However in the case of PT, are these profits generated directly from fare increases? Or are the punctuality bonuses part of it too? With Metro, the train operator, these bonuses have been few and far between, so my bet is that fare increases across the board would be a factor, the size of which I can only speculate.

As for the rises themselves, who is behind it all? Back in the ignorant days, MX seemed to think that Connex was behind each and every rise. Depending on the source, various places reported rises in such a way that it portrayed the operators as behind it. I find it difficult to recall a bus being used as footage for a news item, as buses aren't really the attention-grabbing hot potato that trams and trains are.
Anyway, it's not obviously clear, but the Transport Ticketing Authority seems like the culprit. The government minister and Department of Transport would also be involved, but if you read any articles relating to this issue, you see classic political public transport role-playing. For example, this article involves both Liberals and Labor and the buck passing begins. "It's the last mob" "No, we budgeted for it" and this goes on for about a day until the media lose interest. Sure, the Transport Minister appears to be taking a hit, but this disappears when the specter of "cutting services and maintenance" rears it's head. Useless comments as these are bound by contracts between the government and operators and would be super-expensive to break or even vary. However, it's classic PT buck-passing - "I was forced to do this by (insert variable here) and we have no choice". Bullshit. Bull. Shit.

The other aspect is the type of whinging PT fare increases seem to bring out of the woodwork. Apparently many people think that PT fare rises should automatically bring about a similar increase in services, improvement of vehicles, or miraculously friendlier staff. Using this same, painfully ignorant logic and applying it to my power points at home leads me to a rather pointless argument with am outsourced call centre operator. It's unreasonable to demand 8.6% more electricity (or 8.6% improved electricity, whatever the hell that is), so why does this logic only really seem to apply to PT?
The rage against PT fare increases and the expectation that services will rise at a similar level has only really existed during privatisation. The fact that fares on trams and trains appear to be "voluntary" doesn't help, but I'd say much of this can be blamed on the process of privatisation. We were promised so much in terms of service improvements. In some sort of ideological orgasm, the free-market was going to be forced onto a profitless public transport system that held no place for "competition" as such. Conductors and station staff would go, along with their horrendous wage bill. Never mind that they were the collectors of fares. I digress.

Over the years, the evils of private public transport have become painfully obvious and on the whole, the general public are much better educated about who does what. However, when it comes to fare increases, the buck well and truly stops with the government in power at the time and in particular, the Transport Minister. If you want to complain to anyone, I suggest you send an email to this guy:

Oh, and he also happens to be Minister for Roads as well as Minister for Public Transport. I'm sure that works out just fine.