Victoria’s unpopular public transport system has a new logo, with bright colours and a slick, modern “customer-focused” brand. The importance of rebranding, it seems, has not been lost on Melbourne’s new public transport operators who started their contract this week. In the next six months, $35 million will be spent by Metro Trains and Keolis, rebadging trains and trams with their jazzy new corporate design.

It remains to be seen just how much will improve with the new operators. Melbourne’s public transport is beguiled by inadequate funding, outdated infrastructure and a state government that likes building new roads much more than investing in rail. So while train and tram stickers and colours will change (three-tone blue on the trains to be exact), the fundamental problems may not — like the conduct of Victoria’s ticket inspecting authorised officers.

Authorised officers and fines make up the highest percentage of commuter complaints to Melbourne’s Public Transport Ombudsman.

Take for example, one recent case fought by a community legal centre where a young woman was fined by ticket inspectors for not having a ticket. The problem was not only was she waiting in line on a crowded tram when she questioned by the officers, but the girl very obviously had cerebral palsy.  A factor that left the authorised officers completely unmoved.  Her fine was later waived by the Department of Transport.

The latest report by the Public Transport Ombudsman shows 38% of its complaints are about fines and the conduct of authorised officers. Complaints about authorised officers nearly doubled in the past 12 months and have increased every year for the past five years.

Of the complaints, 31% were about intimidation, 22% about the use of force, the rest were largely about officers not listening or acting aggressively. One of the biggest cause for complaint was that officers travel in groups of up to eight and stand in a circle around people if they don’t have a ticket. It’s a certain indication something is going terribly wrong, if people feeling less rather than more safe with high numbers of public transport staff on their trains.

The Ombudsman told Crikey that with “better communication skills” officers could actually enhance people’s feeling safety on public transport — a novel idea indeed. His other major criticism is the lack of accountability, for example, authorised officers do not even have to make a log of an incident where they have had to use physical force. When authorised officers have detained or held commuters on the ground, they are known for telling passers-by not to watch, film or record the event and sometimes even refuse to give their name or identification. He says it is clear from the many allegations of assault that authorised officers need “about the use of force, including a clear and appropriate definition for excessive or disproportionate use of force”.

That statement appears to be a very understated way of saying high numbers of commuters are being unlawfully assaulted by people employed by their government. One wonders how many more incidents of “force” go unreported.

Youthlaw, an organisation that provides free legal advice and representation to young people in Melbourne, says as much as 20% of their case work involves fines and authorised officers. Currently the legal centre is representing a young person who says he was hospitalised after allegedly being kicked by authorised officers. Another case involves a young man who alleges he was pushed with  into a ticket machine after the officer refused to believe his ID card was genuine.

The youth legal centre has recently started a project called “campaign respect” specifically aimed at changing the attitudes of authorised officers. Last month, it surveyed 350 young people who catch public transport, with just under half saying they have felt threatened by the behaviour of authorised officers. Like the Ombudsman’s report, most complained of feeling intimidated — more than 30% reported “aggressive body language’,  34% “not being listened to”, 38% being talked over and 8% claimed to be victims of unnecessary physical force.

Youthlaw is calling on the new operators to make authorised officers to adhere to their own code of conduct, be given more discretionary power, stop their “guilty until proven innocent approach” and be given more thorough training.

While others, such as  the Public Transport Users Association, say authorised officers are granted too many powers under the Transport Act and until this is changed, the number of complaints will continue to escalate.

The extent of officer powers is certainly worth examining; there is also a strong argument to suggest ticket inspectors need these mechanisms to ensure they can be an effective deterrent to fare evasion. Indeed, the problem may not actually be the Act itself — but the massive gap between the authorised officers’ very extensive powers and their extremely limited training.

Officers are only required to undertake a one week Law and Procedure Course and three weeks of operator training, made up of classroom and field training. It’s remarkably inadequate training for someone who has state sanctioned power to arrest, detain, remove from a carriage and use “reasonable force” if they feel it necessary.

It is any wonder authorised officers often aren’t following their own code of conduct, at 47 pages — a few weeks is hardly enough time to memorise it.

An extensive review of the training and perhaps selection of authorised officers is needed.

“Metro will double the investment in training and development and will review all current practices to ensure we deliver improved customer service and a better overall customer experience,” Leah Waymark, corporate relations manager from Metro Trains told Crikey.

It’s hard to know exactly what that means just yet.  But let’s hope, it means more discretion, manners and common sense — and less aggression and force and certainly no more penalties for the severely disabled on Melbourne’s public transport soon.

Peter Fray

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