Adapting Melbourne’s public transport to ‘COVID normal’
Given Melbourne’s franchised model of public transport provision, who is best positioned to manage cross-disciplinary risks during a pandemic?
As much as we might wish otherwise, the responsibility for complex public policy problems such as controlling COVID-19 do not fall neatly within a single government department.
‘Joining up’ the endeavours of government departments has been noted as a problem for centuries. Vernon Bogdanor in his book ‘Joined up Government’ notes how the nineteenth century British state grappled with the problem of ‘coordination’.
Unfortunately, with COVID-19, arguably the lines of accountability between the different silos of the state have never been more complex.
If one adds to this the current practice of contracting out many fundamental public services to external entities, the issues become even more complicated.
Outsourcing the task of supervising quarantined travellers within a hotel to a security firm is ostensibly sound if considered from a logistics and oversight perspective.
Yet, as alluded to in the recent Victorian hotel quarantine inquiry, hiring a security firm to do this, and undertake biohazard containment, takes the task into the realms of public health management where extensive specialised training is required.
COVID-19’s causal factors are now well understood. The spread of the virus is linked to the proximity of individuals, the environment within which they mix, and the mobility of the whole population.
As these factors are contextual and play out at the interface of movement, health, economics, and politics, they need holistic management. One of the places these factors juxtapose is the field of public transportation - restricted spaces where strangers converge to move around a city.
In Melbourne, the fact that public transport is provided through outsourced supply chains, adds further complexities of contractual interface management, and ascertaining what can be reasonably expected from a contractor.
The state may set out its requirements in the franchise contracts, but the actual delivery of services on the ground is done through third parties operating under their own brand.
This creates a significant challenge for those responsible for managing and implementing the contracts to operate Melbourne’s public transport during COVID.
The public transport contracts are ‘performance’ based, with short and long term ‘risks’ allocated to the party that, in principle, is best capable of managing them.
Traditionally, such risks would include cost, patronage, punctuality (lateness and cancellation), comfort, and the role of planning the future network.
But in a ‘COVID-normal’ world who should bear the public health risk within a train, bus, or tram? The consequences of a late train do not compare to those of starting a COVID cluster.
How often should the cleaning of services occur and how, where, and with what frequency, should compliance be monitored? Should access to services be regulated to prevent over-crowding and what should be done when a passenger is visibly sick and breaking mask rules?
The list of potential interface risks is considerable, and it remains unclear as to whether or not the operator or the government is best placed to manage each one.
Moreover, even if a risk is deemed to fall at the government’s feet, which branch of government - health, transport, law enforcement, or a combination of all of them?
Beyond the immediate public-health challenges, COVID-19 has raised many significant questions for transport policy. Already, we are seeing changes in where and how people travel.
It is as yet not clear if large numbers of workers will work from home at least some of the time or whether the distinct pulses of peak-hour travel that have been the focus of decades of service and infrastructure planning will continue to be so important.
There is also a lack of clarity around how service patterns and labour needs will change, as the public grapples with concern around contagion and continues to shift travel away from collective modes to individual driving, cycling and walking.
It is extremely difficult for these issues to be managed with any certainty over the lifecycle of an outsourced contract.
New tram and train agreements are due in 2023, and one third of the bus network is due to be let by the end of 2021.
This will necessitate the existing contracts being COVID-19 ‘retrofitted’ which in some cases may require a need to return to first principles with the contract performance requirement being done by several arms of government.
Until a vaccine or treatment arrives, the next iteration of contracts will need to be crafted with enough flexibility to accommodate the uncertainties of a COVID future.
How they can be scoped, negotiated, and priced within a tendered environment where cost trades off against quality, is a critical issue. The procurement realm has shifted.
These issues are the subject of research currently underway at the University of Melbourne’s Transport Health and Urban Design Research Laboratory.
The work is examining Australian and international developments in planning, procuring and financing urban public transport services in a COVID future, noting how arrangements between operators and public transport authorities are adapting, and how the key agencies and contractors are working together.
For example, in the United Kingdom the need to ensure compliance with mask wearing requirements on buses has led to bus companies hiring security firms through a contract variation; this was not necessary on the trains due to the presence of conductors.
The overarching aim of the project is to make recommendations to how Melbourne’s future public transport contracting regime can benefit from measures being implemented elsewhere.
COVID necessitates a different way of doing things, and in battling the virus, as Melbournians have discovered, siloing is to our detriment.