So why aren’t off-peak railway frequencies better? There are only a couple of possible excuses that come to mind: firstly, that patronage levels would not justify it; and secondly that it’s too expensive. The government uses ‘lack of infrastructure capacity’ as an excuse, but if a line can handle x tph during peak, then there is no reason to assume that that line can’t fewer services off-peak.
Let’s deal with patronage issues first. Patronage on the Melbourne train network has been growing strongly for some years now and is up to about 170 million trips per year. Off-peak growth has been strong enough to shame Connex into running 6 car sets all day on some lines. If that’s the case, then why is improving frequency so important? The answer lies in the relationship between supply and demand. Now a neo-classical economic analysis of a perfectly competitive market tells us that demand is a function of price, and is independent of supply. Of course, changes in demand would affect supply through the price mechanism – but this is an indirect relationship. However, the market for urban public transport is a natural monopoly, and demand for public transport is a function of the supply of public transport services. If someone wants to catch the train, but the service is too infrequent, the chances are that they will drive, because as a consumer they are unable to send an effective price signal to the monopolist public transport provider. However, if a sufficiently frequent and attractive service is provided (supply is increased), more people are likely to use it. This is the concept of induced demand. Price is also important (just look at the patronage increases on V/Line since fares were slashed 20%) but if we want a significant increase in the modal share of public transport – which is purportedly government policy through Melbourne 2030 – the government needs to start increasing the frequency of services across the board.
Cost is another potential hurdle. More drivers would be required to run the extra services. Currently, Connex need just under 700 drivers to maintain the existing schedule. Now I don’t pretend to have worked out how many drivers are required to increase services to the level I’m talking about; but for arguments sake we’ll assume it would need a 50% increase in the number of drivers. Lets say those extra 350 drivers are paid $65,000 per annum – we’re looking at only $22.75 million per annum. Even if the number of drivers were doubled (which would be unnecessary), that’s still only $45.5 million extra spending a year. Training costs are going to lead to higher costs in the first couple of years, and train maintenance and electricity use will also increase. But that’s really virtually no money when compared to total public transport expenditure and is definitely affordable. But the bigger question is can we not afford to improve services? Large sums of money are expended on the train system, yet outside of peak hours the government is failing to maximise its return on its investment. Given that public transport creates significant positive externalities such as lower pollution vis-à-vis car use and increased public amenity; as well as a reduced need for the government to fund the alternative – expensive road projects. The fixed costs are already high, but the marginal cost of providing better services off-peak is miniscule – surely we as taxpayers should demand a better return on our investment.
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