Getting help at a Melbourne railway station can be difficult, when around half of them being desolate wastelands with no staff members to be seen. Those that do have somebody to talk to fall into two groups: ‘premium’ stations have staff present inside the booking office from first to last train, while ‘host’ stations have staff roaming the platforms for a few hours on weekday mornings.
My local station was one of the latter, having two nice ladies saying hello to the regular passengers each morning, and keeping everybody up to date regarding late running and cancelled trains. While the sources of real time train information available to them were often patchy, they did their best with the resources available to ensure everybody got to work on time.
Everything was fine and dandy until one Monday morning in late September, when the usual whiteboard with train information was replaced by a farewell message from the station staff.
My initial thoughts were around Metro Trains trying to cut costs (as per usual) but the truth for their disappearance was revealed the next day by an article in the Herald Sun‘:
Constant monitoring of CCTV planned on Metro train stations in bid to improve safety
September 25, 2012
Metro is trialling “continuous monitoring” of CCTV feeds from all train stations on the Craigieburn and Upfield lines in a bid to boost passenger safety.
And during the six-month trial, passengers will be able to reach control centre staff from any station on either line by pushing the red button on platforms.
The red button was previously for use only in emergencies.
“CCTV at every station on the Craigieburn and Upfield lines will be monitored continuously while the network is operating, providing improved customer safety,” Metro spokeswoman Geraldine Mitchell today mX today.
“Control room officers at Broadmeadows and North Melbourne will also be able to provide added assistance during times of disruption or delay by providing long line announcements to every station along the Craigieburn and Upfield lines.”
But during this period Craigieburn line stations Newmarket and Ascot Vale will no longer be staffed for ticket sales in the morning peak.
Mitchell said that under the trial, our staff who worked at the stations from 6am to 10am on weekdays would be redeployed to the Broadmeadows control centre.
(The above emphasis is mine)
Some of the ‘facts’ given by Metro in the Herald Sun article are rather dubious. For a start station staff at Newmarket and Ascot Vale never sold tickets to passengers as there was no booking office available to them, and long line announcements are nothing new – control room staff along the Craigieburn line were already making them on a regular basis, each morning advising passengers that every single Craigieburn-bound train was running about 10 minute late out of Flinders Street.
Over the next few days, posters advertising the CCTV monitoring trial appeared along the Craigieburn line:
Another change was the masking of the ‘emergency use only’ message on the intercom units with a sticker detailing their new functionality:
After staff were removed from Newmarket and Ascot Vale the amount of useful information given to passengers has nosedived – both locations lack LED screens showing train departures, so there is no easy way to find out how far away the next train is. When station staff were around they kept a whiteboard up to date with a list of cancelled trains, and regular announcements over the PA system give passengers useful titbits such as letting a late running and crush loaded train depart, as the empty train behind it was just two minutes from arriving.
Today the only information that passengers get at unmanned station is from the insipid ‘talking brick’ – push the green button hoping to find out how long until the next train arrives, but instead you spend the next five minutes listening to the stopping pattern of the next three trains to arrive and the tedious ‘if travelling with Myki remember to touch on and on and on and on‘ message, with the minutes until departure found somewhere in between at a barely audible volume.
The only thing worse than listening to the stupid box go through the spiel is when you get a busy tone, because everybody else on the network is also trying to find out where the hell their train is – a far too frequent occurrence in the past few weeks.
After a few days of putting up with the green button, I had a brainwave: is Metro Trains contractually permitted to withdraw staff from railway stations in Melbourne? A look at their Customer Service Charter found the following:
Every weekday morning Metro will commit to providing staff at 22 Host stations meaning more than 80 percent of our customers will start their journey at a staffed station.
Did Ascot Vale and Newmarket fall into the 22 host stations they committed to staffing? I found more promising lead in the Melbourne Metropolitan Train Franchise document signed by Metro Trains Melbourne and the State of Victoria.
6. Staffing of Stations
(a) Each Premium Station must be staffed at all times when trains are scheduled to call at the relevant Premium Station (including for a reasonable period of time before the first and after the last scheduled train). Staffing at these times must be sufficient to cover operational and customer service needs.
(b) The Franchisee must ensure that at least 2 staff are providing customer service every Weekday between 7am and 9am at the following Stations (each a Hosted Station):
- Ascot Vale
- Hoppers Crossing
- Middle Brighton
- Moonee Ponds
- Noble Park
- North Brighton
So it seems that Metro Trains is required to provide station staff at Ascot Vale and Newmarket stations each morning, or they are breaking their contract with the State Government.
It is possible that Metro actually went to the government and said “we want to remove station staff from two stations for a six month trial – is that okay with you” but I haven’t been able to find anything supporting this theory – then again the management of public transport in Victoria is a Byzantine empire that doesn’t publicise any of their decision making process, so the lack of public information is not proof of anything.