Monday, August 30, 2010

Privatising ACTION buses

Last Friday the Canberra Times published an article on the Auditor Generals report into ACTIONs inefficient and money wasting management practices. This sparked a flurry of angry letters to the editor - several suggesting that privatisation of ACTION, or spending public transport money on MORE ROADS would 'solve' these problems. Today, I emailed the following:

Dear Editor,

Readers suggesting that improving public transport by privatising ACTION or even better – spending money on more roads, completely miss the point. The aim of public transport is to deliver people from where they live to where they work.  ACTIONs main problem is that it is a local bus service and a mass transit service, taking passengers across Canberra on increasingly congested roads - a not insignificant distance of some 50 kilometres. Your own reporter discovered this can take over three hours.

To improve public transport and travelling times, a modal shift is required – to light rail. Rapid transit between town centres on grade-separated routes will slash travelling time. Park and ride nodes would act as hubs for local bus services. The ACT Governments own consultants recommend light rail, point out its economic benefits and suggest that it would attract patronage. The issue is funding – Mr Stanhope refuses to consider funding this infrastructure unless someone else pays for it.

Continued reliance on buses for public transport in Canberra is counter productive. It drives passengers off public transport and into cars, often carrying one person and then sitting idle in a car park for nine hours a day. Provide a reliable, frequent and attractive alternative – light rail, and this trend will be reversed. Privatising ACTION or building more roads as a solution to Canberra’s public transport problems makes as much sense as putting a saddle on a fish and riding it to work.

Damien Haas

Chair, ACT Light Rail

New ACT Light Rail website

Websites come and websites go. One thing which is certain is that technology marches forward, and sometimes those out on the trailing edge of technology get caught out. The ACT Light Rail website is hosted using Wordpress, but the version of Wordpress we have been using has become outdated and difficult to maintain.  
The old ACT Light Rail website front page.

If you go to our url you will see that we have now upgraded our Wordpress version, and in the next few weeks we will be putting up our new website with the new theme, and with updates on ACT Light Rail lobbying and activities which have occurred since August 2009. Embarrassingly, thats the last time the old website was upgraded. 

Fortunately, our old website has been stored for posterity at the National Library of Australia's 'Pandora' project, and will be linkable into the foreseeable future. Public transport lobbying can be  hard slog at times, but i'm glad that the effort that we have put into keeping the idea of light rail in the public mind , and the corporate knowledge of that lobbying effort will be available for future public transport lobbyists to use.

UPDATE: (from Jonathon Reynolds) The previous iteration of the website was created using a very old version of the Open Source CMS platform Joomla 1.3 that had been highly customised and was showing stability issues and proving very difficult to add to and maintain (hence the hiatus in article online). Several attempts had been made to successfully migrate the data intact to the latest version of Joomla but to no avail. A decision was finally made to bite the bullet and start again using Wordpress 3.x which should offer higher data integrity, stability and security.

If you have suggestions on what you would like to see on the new website, please leave a comment. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

1999 to 2010. No vision on transport issues in Canberra

Today’s ( 29 August 2010) Sunday Canberra Times carries a story on cabinet deliberations of the Carnell Government in the 1999/2000 period. Two of the items ‘exposed’ are still relevant to the residents of Canberra who suffer from the same stunted thinking of today’s ACT Government. Nothing in politics has changed from 1999.

The first one concerns the predictions that traffic coming out of Gungahlin would cause traffic problems and congestion as Gungahlins population increased. Cabinet were told in 1999 that duplicating Flemington Road would cause ‘rat runs’ (they did it anyway). The government were told about the congestion problems with inadequate roads and increased construction and still permitted building without adequate road infrastructure (let alone public transport infrastructure) in place.

The second, and of even greater interest is the revelation that Bishop Austrans were ‘enticed’ to set-up in the ACT, with some vague promise by the Carnell government of payroll tax refunds. Its not totally clear what other promises were made. The article also mentions that a Civic, Airport, Parliamentary Triangle circuit was mooted. Its not entirely clear how far along these discussions went, but Bishop Austrans never moved to Canberra and the Carnell government was strongly anti-public transport in general, so this part of the Canberra Times story really requires further explanation.

But lets go back to 1999. Gungahlin in 1999 was mainly just Palmerston and a burger van in the town centre. Its real growth only came post 2002. Even in 1999 traffic was heavy in the ‘peak hour’ with Gungahlin Drive and Gundaroo Drive being the only real roads in and out. These roads were, and continue to be, jammed solid during peak times, even with the Gungahlin Drive extension (single lane, as is ACT Roads penny pinching way) in place.

The inability to properly construct access roads to a new town of 30,000 people is something that the Carnell Government should always be remembered for, but the Stanhope Government has continued its ‘small vision’ approach since it was elected. Its preferred solution is to construct single lane access roads, and then several years later perhaps upgrade them to dual lane. A single vehicle accident on these roads blocks traffic completely.

A proper planning approach would be to firstly build proper dual lane road access in and out of a new town with multiple access points, and with connections to other major roads. Starting off with single lane and then upgrading continually for ten years is a ridiculous waste of money. Flemington Roads is at present being upgraded again, with roads surfaces laid down, torn up and re-laid again. Several times as each annual upgrade plan is funded.

‘Bigger’ vision would be to build proper mass transit infrastructure like light rail to link major employment, education and residential centres. This would allow transport-oriented development around the light rail network, and delay or negate entirely the need to build or upgrade roads.

The Carnell government could have built light rail from Gungahlin to Civic in 1999 – a much better idea than a fanciful Civic, Airport, Parliamentary Triangle loop using a proprietary transport technology. Many years of stress free commuting and guided transport oriented development would have then followed. The GDE may not even have been required.

Sadly the Stanhope Government will repeat this farce in Molonglo. In a submission by ACT Light Rail on the Molonglo Development it was noted that the ACT Governments own advice to itself is that at each stage of its development, the access to Molonglo via Parkes way will be at capacity. 18 months after the submission, and with a proposal also put forward by the Greens, no real commitment to improve access or public transport in Molonglo has been announced, apart from some vague promise to run a bus route in and out. The outcome of congested roads and endless upgrades is predictable.
 Bishop Austrans passenger vehicle, 9 to 18 passenger capacity (promotional photo).

Now lets look at Bishop Austrans. As a public transport solution it has advantages and disadvantages. The Bishop Austrans system is a driverless small vehicle system, which is summoned on demand and can run 24x7. It has a capacity of nine to eighteen people. Driverless vehicles would certainly solve the problem of frequency, as staff numbers in and out of peak times would not vary. Theoretically the system could operate 24 hours a day. Sadly, the Bishop Austrans system is yet to be installed in service anywhere. Driverless vehicle technology can work well, and I have used it in places like JFK Airport in New York (and even this system is light rail capacity in size) but I do not know of any large scale rollouts of this technology.

The article also mentioned that a Civic, Airport, Parliamentary Triangle circuit was suggested. Such a small circuit would justify a small carriage such as the Bishop Austrans. The toylike Sydney Monorail that serves the tourist trade is an example. Larger capacity required to serve as a rapid transit system from say Gungahlin to Civic and then onto the Parliamentary Triangle, would require larger vehicles than Bishop Austrans. How anyone viewed a system that consisted of vehicles carrying 18 people as suitable for Canberra is beyond me.

To place this in perspective – ACTION buses transport 30,000 passengers a day (2002 figures), in buses with 60-120 passenger capacity. You simply could not replace a barely functioning and unpopular bus network with a proprietary small vehicle replacement. Somehow the practical issue of dealing with volume and frequency and a summon on demand system remained theoretical. Apart from a small test track, Bishop Austrans remains on paper – 10 years later.

It should also be remembered that around this 1999 period, bus industry boosters in Canberra and ACTION management were heavily promoting guided bus technology. The heavily pushed system of preference was the European Civis guided bus system. This troubled proprietary technology is promoted as bus rapid transit. Yet it features all the disadvantages of buses and none of the advantages of light rail. Fortunately for Canberras rate-payers and public transport users, this has now fallen out of favour. 
 Promotional photo of a 'hands free' guided bus. 

Canberra does not need to trial new technologies to solve its transport problems. It can easily invest in a proven, off the shelf technology and have it up and running in less than twelve months. The Stanhope Government commissioned a consultant to examine light rail and it reported that introducing light rail would not only enhance the public transport system, promote increased use of public transport – but it would also boost productivity. After reading this report, the Stanhope government concluded that the report said light rail was too expensive. The report said no such thing, yet it’s a claim oft repeated by the Chief Minister and never challenged by the media.

Following this discovery that public transport infrastructure would require more than a sign on a pole saying ‘bus stop’ the Stanhope Government then made a submission to Infrastructure Australia requesting 2 billion dollars. No engineering plan was submitted, and no real costings were provided. The submission guidelines were not met, and the bid was doomed before it was submitted. Professor Paul Mees recently advised that the costings were out by a factor of at least three. It is no surprise that two years later no word has come down from Infrastructure Australia advising that the ACT will get its money, or that it hasn’t. The whole subject has just been ignored. By saying that a light rail network will cost 2 billion dollars, and Canberra cant afford it on its own – the Stanhope Government neatly handballs the issue to someone else.

Realistically, no transport network is funded to be fully constructed in one funding cycle. A sound approach would be to identify one or two logical starting points that could be funded over a 2 to 5 year period. These routes have already been identified by the consultant engaged to prepare the Canberra Transport Plan (due first quarter of 2010, six months ago). This could cost as little as 200 million dollars, or 40 million a year for five years. This is achievable and would make better reading in the 2020 Canberra Times report on schemes funded by the Stanhope Government.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

MyWay - the RFID ticketing system for ACTION

Canberra is fortunate in that the entire public transport network is one large zone. It hasn’t always been that way; it used to be three zones until four or five years ago. Having one zone makes implementation of a new ticketing system fairly painless. Purchasing and using a ticket needs to be an idiot-proof, pain free endeavour. Ideally, it should be easy to do and having only one zone makes purchasing the correct type of ticket for your journey a lot easier than on other public transport networks. We are fortunate we wont ever see the Sydney ticketing debacle – where separate tickets are needed for each leg of your journey if you transfer from bus to train to ferry, or the Melbourne Myki debacle where a ticketing system has somehow cost 1.8 BILLION dollars.

The present ACTION ticketing system is based on decades old technology, which is no longer serviced by the original manufacturer. Replacement units have been bought from other public transport companies, which have decommissioned them, so that the ACTION fleet can continue to use it. Frequently one will board a bus and find a hand drawn sign across the ticketing unit advising that it’s broken, and the trip is free. This loss of revenue must cost ACTION a not insignificant amount of revenue each year. 

Im sure that 'Going your way' and 'MyWay' are not coincidentally named.

Back in April 2010, the Chief Minister, who is also the Transport Minister, issued this media release:

Roll-out of ACTION's Smartcard technology begins
The technology supporting ACTION's new $8 million Smartcard ticketing system is being rolled-out on buses ahead of a trial of the system in late August, Chief Minister and Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, Jon Stanhope, announced today.
Mr Stanhope said the Smartcard would be available later this year and allow Canberrans to travel on buses without cash.
"Canberrans can look forward to a new ticketing system that is fast, easy and flexible," Mr Stanhope said. "It will offer bus users a reusable and rechargeable card for travel on all ACTION buses, helping to cut queues and travel times across the network.
"The Government is on track to deliver the start-of-the-art ticketing system by the end of this year."
Mr Stanhope said the Smartcard uses a microchip that is picked up by a reader without taking it out of a wallet or purse.
"The Smartcard can be preloaded with money over the internet, phone or at card facilities across the ACT, eliminating the hassle of carrying coins and purchasing individual tickets on a bus.
"A one-use ticket will continue to be available for casual users and tourists.
"Users will be required to tag-on and tag-off their bus, which will significantly improve our capacity to monitor passenger trends and make adjustments to our services.
"The Smartcard system is an important part of the ACT Government's investment in developing a more efficient and user-friendly bus network."
Mr Stanhope said the new ticketing system would retain the current flat fares structure.
"The automated fare system will ensure passengers pay the lowest available fare each time they use an ACTION bus."
Since this announcement a few other details have emerged. DownerEDI have been publicly announced as the tender winners, and the system will be similar to the Perth SmartRider system. The current single zone system is to be retained. 

'ACTION' features nowhere on the MyWay RFID card. 'Transport for Canberra' is a new unannounced (to date) body. They see you using B-Pay to top up your card balance online.  

The Chief Minister has also said that the MyWay cards could be used for paid parking, so it may be that a range of uses for the card outside actual public transport could be in store. The card, as shown to the public, is not branded ACTION, nor does it use ACTION colours. Perhaps this is due to future integration with the Queanbeyan public transport providers, as flagged in the Canberra Transport Plan, and also the subject of inter-governmental discussions. This is yet to be determined. It could also work seamlessly with a light rail system which would offer the rapid transit backbone that Canberra sorely lacks, and which impedes the take-up of public transport significantly. 

How will people purchase and put ‘credit’ on their electronic travel cards ? No doubt there will be an online facility offered when it ‘goes live’, and of course Canberra Connect could handle this task. The Myki terminals which are at every Melbourne railway station, also offer an indication to future usage. ACTION staffing of interchanges for ticket purchasing is already at very low levels, a MyWay machine could work around the clock. 

ACTION also recently leased a shopfront in the Civic bus interchange area that will house a MyWay information centre, and no doubt will offer card recharge facilities. This is a positive sign as it indicates that the trial is still on track. According to the ACTION website, they plan to trial the new card in two phases:
  • Pilot Test – During August and September 2010 ten buses will be fitted with MyWay equipment for a small-scale test to be conducted by ACTION staff and contractors.
  • Trial Period – During September–November 2010 a larger scale test of onboard equipment and the MyWay processing system will be conducted.
This should sort out bugs in the programming of the cards, and also allow people to become accustomed to a new way of buying and using their bus ticket. If there is one thing that is easily predictable it is this – people hate change, and there will be angry letters to the Canberra Times regardless of how logical or easy to use the new system appears to be.

It will also be interesting to see how people take to the new tag-on tag-off system. It is very different to current ACTION practice. It may also be problematic due to the ACTION practice of making everyone enter and exit the bus from the front door, except at interchanges. Making this inefficient system even more inefficient – some new buses have only a front door, and no middle door. These make boarding times much longer than they really need to be.

Fortunately an electronic interface ensures that the time taken by the driver to take money, issue a ticket and change, and then for the passenger to deploy the ticket is now done away with, saving 10 to 15 seconds per passenger, which will add up over a heavy peak hour. Perhaps the ACTION timetable will shift from the fiction section of life’s library to the non-fiction section.  

The card readers are already installed in some ACTION buses. This one is near a back door. Will ACTION allow people to board from the front and back doors, or is this a tag-off capable unit only ? 

The actual technology of tagging on and off using RFID technology is well proven, and available from multiple vendors. Forcing ACTION passengers to actually tag-on and tag-off may not be so easy, at least for a while. On the ACTBus website someone who has obviously seen some of the details posted the following (edited): 

“…the tag-off enforcement will be linked to the transfer system. In other words, you must tag-off if you intend to transfer otherwise you will be charged for a new journey. Which, of course, is exactly the wrong way to encourage tagging-off. MyWay will use the 'best available fare' method. Essentially you will pay for your monthly tickets in instalments: First you will be charged a single fare; then when you use it again the same day, you might be charged off-peak fare or another fare-saver. At some stage you might then advance to a weekly ticket and by week 4 you will be charged the equivalent of the monthly ticket at which point you won't be charged any more until one month after your first journey, then it starts again.”

What if you don’t have a MyWay card? What if you are one of the international tourists who wants to ride the fabled ACTION bus three hour trip from Tuggeranong to Gungahlin? The bus driver will still be able to sell you a ticket, but only a single trip or daily ticket. This is obviously designed to move people to purchasing a MyWay card; loading it with cash and making you use the electronic system.

Of course, how the long suffering bus drivers of Canberra will deal with the drug-addled booners pretending their creditless MyWay card is really in credit, will be another thing. I’m not sure this will stop beggars hustling for ticket money in Garema Place.

Although most people already use multi-trip or weekly/monthly tickets, the MyWay RFID card is a technology that people are familiar with and will be able to use and understand. Parents will know that their children will always have money for the bus, and that they will always be able to check the balance online. 

A 'Myki' terminal, at a Melbourne railway station. MyWay is similar technology, and logically these units could be installed at all interchanges, and future 'Park and Ride' facilities. 

As Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein ‘follow the money’ – and MyWay is no different. I have no doubt ACT government accountants are in favour of the MyWay system. It will cost each ACTION passenger ten dollars to buy their MyWay card, and then they must keep it in credit so that they can use it for travel (and whatever other future uses emerge).  The Chief Ministers press release announcing the contract indicated that the system would cost $8 million dollars to implement. If 30,000 people use ACTION each day (based on the 2002 PTFFS figure), that’s 300,000 dollars. If each of these people loads a $92.50 (monthly adult ticket) credit onto their MyWay ticket account, that’s a cool 2.7 million dollars in the first month.

Obviously, this ticketing system will pay for itself, and provide ACTION (or the ACT government) an instant 3 million a month that they will see relatively quickly, and not subject to percentages taken by newsagents and shopkeepers who currently sell ACTION tickets.  The current situation where rides are free due to faulty ticket machines, also sacrificing revenue, will also decline. This will obviously not turn ACTION into a profit generator, but it will enable the current grant that ACTION receives to provide services, to be spread a little further - perhaps into new buses or extending the REDEX system.

The new MyWay ticketing system is sensibly being based on proven technology, and being implemented by a company with a successful track record in these things. By not asking a ticketing system to do too many things (which was the problem with the Myki saga), or designing a system from scratch, this will ensure that the MyWay system will be rolled out across ACTIONS fleet fairly painlessly.

Any improvement in the public transport system should be applauded. By making public transport reliable, frequent and attractive, more people will choose to use it as their primary mode of transport. The time and administration savings that the MyWay system will bring about will translate into more efficient running, quicker entry and exit by passengers and hopefully buses that run according to their schedules. This simple improvement removes a source of stress, and will encourage more people to use the public transport system. 


On 30 August, the Canberra Times published an article pointing out how the outdated ticketing system is having a severe impact on estimating passenger numbers and revenue. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

You thought you had a small garage!

In my email I received a video file from fellow P76 fancier Neville Humphries, of this amazingly small garage. The car is some sort of Fiat, and although I dont know what country this is from, it appears European. 
The old chap parks up on the footpath and opens the garage door. Its a rolladoor, or a converted window shutter. Thats his lounge room window to the left. Looks like space is at a premium in Euroland. 
Back into the Fiat and carefully edging his way into the garage. He has 3 cm leeway on each side. 
His car is 1.49 metres wide, and his garage is 1.55 metres wide. To put this into perspective, I have a 3 metre wide carport and I worry about hitting the walls in my XF Pano and P76!
Reaches out of the car window to open the lounge room door. 
Carefully aligns car and lounge door so he can step out of his Fiat. 
And into the house where his bowl of borscht awaits. 
Of course he has his mates coming round to listen to the intra-european bocce finals on the wireless, so he puts his guest chairs up against the garage access door before going off to open a bottle of krupnik. 
I wonder how the old fella would park this Lamborghini Murcielago which is 2.058 metres wide. he might have to take out his lounge room wall!