The Victorian Government’s decision to dump both Connex and Yarra Trams in favour of MTR and Keolis respectively must come as something of a surprise to many Melburnians. Whilst stripping Connex of the chance of further involvement in Melbourne’s increasingly congested and unwieldy rail network was a forgone conclusion, Yarra Trams’ loss of the tram contract represents an unexpected turn in the wild ride that has been the management of Melbourne’s public transport system since trains and trams were privatised in the dying days of the Kennett government in 1999.

The move is set to take some pressure off otherwise besieged Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky as the state government faced mounting pressure over its handling of public transport. Passenger dissatisfaction had become so widespread that letting Connex go was the only available course of action, but Yarra Trams’ grip on the more popular tram system was publicly considered to be far more secure.

Ultimately however, the decision to change operators ought to be considered in the broader context of where the government wants to take the system and how privatisation fits into that picture.

Serious questions need to be asked about why operating costs have increased so substantially in the years following privatisation. The government attributes the increase in operating costs largely to the surge in patronage over the last five years, but with patronage far outstripping service growth (which commuters see every day in the form of increasingly crowded trains and trams) means that there are many more people buying tickets for a given number of services than there were a decade ago. Add to that several above inflation fare increases and there is a clear case that costs should be decreasing, rather than increasing in the sector.

Melburnians would also be wise to question whether the current system of incentives reflects what they value in a public transport system. A system of fines and bonuses based on whether the trains run late or not is all very well, but fails to consider the bigger question as to whether the timetables against which late running is assessed actually represent an adequate level of service.

A key characteristic of successful public transport systems throughout the world is their ability to provide frequent and reliable services which have fast end to end journey time and are time competitive with the car. Much of Melbourne’s public transport system fails to do this on paper yet alone in practice, and this is the real problem with Melbourne’s public transport. Until that is resolved, the issue of whether taxpayers pay Connex to put their stickers on the side of a train will continue to be what it has been all along – a sideshow.

Read more of Phin Ziebell’s public transport analysis at