Yesterday the Minister for the Obvious Lynne Kosky blamed underinvestment over a long period of time for the virtual meltdown of Victoria's public transport system. And that was BEFORE the temperature reached 43.4 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) IN THE SHADE - it hit about 60C (140F) on the train tracks, causing them to melt and buckle.
Like most Melbournians I am in a pretty grumpy mood at the moment but I've been fuming about the state of our public transport for years now. I'd have a bit more sympathy for Lynne Kosky being scapegoated over the trains if she wasn't simply the latest in a long line of government ministers who had put public transport in the too hard and too expensive category. Even if you don't care about the environment, a well-maintained public transport system makes good economic sense - but only in the long term. Most politicians can't see past the next election. Public transport use has jumped 30% in the past few years due to increases in the cost of petrol - and would be higher still if it were reliable. The economy is rooted, more and more people are giving a damn about the environment and demand for public transport is only going to increase. So how about a few extra dollars for improving and maintaining and fixing and extending Melbourne's rail network?
In my job I get to talk to a lot of engineers and here is the sorry truth about our rail network. Much of the infrastructure is over 100 years old and being held together by the engineering equivalent of band aids and string that were never supposed to be long term solutions. Engineers who actually understand how these things work say the fact it hasn't all fallen apart completely is a bloody miracle and testament to the ingenuity of their predecessors. Our trains are made of components that were originally designed for the cooler German and French climates where it is reasonable to engineer tolerance to a temperature of 35 degrees because the climate is cooler there. In Melbourne you can pretty much guarantee at least a couple of weeks in summer of temperature exceeding 35-40 degrees.
Every day we hear about how the economy is in free fall and the governments need to bail out yet another industry or sector. Now here's an idea. Instead of bailing out a sector that is in global decline (sorry auto-makers), how about pouring some of that cash into the rail system? The engineers and technicians and tradespeople currently working in the auto industry have the intellectual aptitude to be cross-trained in the skills needed to build and maintain the tram and rail network - surely it makes more economic (not to mention environmental and political) sense to do this?
I'm not saying it would be easy; it needs a committed leader with a strong conviction and plenty of imagination and charisma to move us out of a state of inertia. But these people do exist; it can happen. I'm heartily sick of all the economic doom and gloom stories in the media. Why can't we turn this economic downturn into an upturn? The simple fact that we are all buying less unnecessary cheap crap is already having a positive environmental effect. If the government invests in decent infrastructure it will all be in place for when the next upturn arrives. And even if that time is beyond the next election, the masses are less likely to revolt if they can reliably, safely and financially move from A to B.