How many managers does it take to drive a tram?

Back in February 2015 industry magazine ‘Rail Express’ interviewed Clément Michel, chief executive of Yarra Trams, on the subject of rail safety. (here is an archived version)

Z3.229 skewed across the tracks on Elizabeth Street, just north of La Trobe Street

Clément Michel became CEO of Yarra Trams in November 2009, when Keolis Downer took over control of the franchise from previous operator TransdevTSL, and had this to say about his time in charge.

During my time at Yarra Trams, the number of employees has increased by almost 200. An ongoing program of leadership development means the organisation now has the managerial structure in place to enable employees to do their best work.

Every employee is now clear about who their manager is and what their role requires, while managers are able to add value to their employees’ work and provide the necessary support and leadership.

He then made a very interesting revelation regarding the number of managers employed by Yarra Trams.

An example of the change in managerial and safety leadership can be seen at the eight depots in relation to the more than 1,200 drivers who keep Melburnians moving.

The creation of the role Team Manager, Drivers changed the ratio of manager to drivers from 1:140 to 1:40. This means that drivers now receive regular feedback and coaching from their manager about driving skills, performance, safety, customer service and wider business updates, while also providing a direct channel to recommend improvements.

Keolis Downer has introduced more than 70 team manager roles during the past three years in order to increase the level of safety support to its frontline employees.

Bolded section is my emphasis.

Some simple maths suggests that the number of managers supervising the tram drivers at Yarra Trams has increased from nine (one per tram depot?) to thirty – more than three times that of five years ago!

Add the 70 additional team managers now on the payroll, and the number of ‘Chiefs’ will soon start outnumbering the ‘Indians’.

So what is going on?

I’m not a tram driver and I’m not a manager, so I don’t know what the optimum number of management type staff that a safe and efficient transport operator is supposed to have. However adding 100 managers to an organisation with only 1200 front line staff seems quite extreme, especially given that before the change, trams were not running off the tracks on a daily basis.


The increasing role of management at Yarra Trams is also mentioned in this article from Informa Australia – Yarra Trams’ safety journey: Why knowing one’s accountabilities is critical.

Parallels from other industries

A recent article in The Conversation introduced me to a report by the The Australia Institute on electricity privatisation – it suggests that management outnumbering those doing real work is not a new thing:

The number of managers in the sector has grown from 6,000 to 19,000 from 1997 to 2012, a rise of 217 per cent. This has seen the ratio of managers to workers change from one manager to every 13 workers in 1997 to one manager for every nine workers in 2012. In contrast to this, there was a much smaller increase in the group of people who are directly involved in producing electricity.

They suggest that in the electricity industry, the growth in managers is a consequence of privatisation and the split of electricity entities into much smaller units, each requiring their own management and administration team.

Can you see the parallels with our privatised public transport operators?

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12 Responses to “How many managers does it take to drive a tram?”

  1. Transportguy says:

    The same sort thing has happened with the buses, since the Transdev take over, there is now much more managers

    • Marcus Wong says:

      I wonder how that will turn out for them – though in the Transdev case, the company made up of a number of smaller operations.

      • Transportguy says:

        The number of managers at Transdev is much more than pervious operator. There is manager for all sort positions, the pervious operators never had.
        All these extra managers have seem to bring little benefit, with things only get worse not better in many areas of the business

  2. Andrew says:

    Micro management. I hope the company sees a return on such a huge investment in management, but I doubt it. It appears to be many many chiefs managing too few Indians, no pun intended.

  3. mich says:

    In the electricity industry, there was a huge downsizing around 1990, when it became apparent that the growth in demand was levelling off, and the industry expansion which had resulted in a new power station every five years, was no longer required.

    So the growth since 1997 might be partly a “rebound” from that downsizing.

    Also, in the electricity industry prior, nearly all of the management were engineers and many did not have the title “manager”.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      The ‘management were engineers but didn’t use the title’ is an interesting one, and is probably found in many industries. In my workplace we have a situation with two streams of leadership: people leaders (aka conventional managers), and technical leaders (aka engineers).

  4. Jason says:

    Another naive approach, because I also have no experience with transportation industry staffing, is to consider the difference between how well a university lecturer may get to know each of their students compared with a high school teacher. Back into the workplace, I’m sure it means better compliance to mandatory training, incident reporting, career progression opportunities etc. Also, I’m sure that the nature of tram driving means that the drivers don’t have extended opportunities in the depot to catch their manager, who might be tending to the needs of one of 140 other drivers, or a more senior manager or even support staff.

    I think that there really isn’t enough information given to make a judgement!

    • Marcus Wong says:

      As someone also who doesn’t work in the field, I am curious as to how often a train / tram / bus driver needs to talk to a manager – it is easy to look back with rose tinted glasses to the ‘good old days’ and say things we better, but I don’t have any hard data on that front.

      Public transport operations have changed a great deal since the government days – a common complaint by transport enthusiasts is that companies now use psychometric assessments when hiring new staff, instead of the old way of working your way up from the ground floor. A case of sour grapes by those rejected, or is there some truth in it?

  5. Mahendra says:

    Interesting topic Marcus. My dad is a Tram Driver. Never before have I seen him quite as stressed about work as over the past year or so and he freely admits to this.

    He says the new managers were brought in as being meant to “support” drivers in their roles but even before they started, people knew this was corporate-speak. He told me that they are mainly there to micro manage and pressure drivers about how much sick leave they take, late running of trams, and collisions they have with cars.

    But he also told me that since the new structure was put in place at his depot (which is one of the larger ones in the system), things are more chaotic and disorganised than before, and there is only one admin person looking after the roster and other things, not two like they had before and apparently that person is so overworked because there used to be two people doing it.

    In December and January, he said they always introduce a special timetable because of the increased traffic in December and less in Jan, but this time, they did a big cut to the journey times (the amount of time taken for a trip) starting in December and right up until the end of March. He said it was so stressful, because at one of the busiest times of the year the running times were actually reduced below normal and there were so many trams running late. The performance of his depot was really bad over the past few months he thinks.

    The thing that surprises me is that they seem to be blaming drivers for trams running late, when this is all down to cars parked on streets causing traffic jams (on-street parking like Sydney Rd, Lygon St etc), and traffic light sequences that favour cars more than trams and don’t give the trams enough priority…

    I hope something changes soon because while he still loves his job, it is awful seeing him and his friends at work so stressed.

  6. James A says:

    I heard Clement Michel speak at a presentation just recently. He also noted the increase in managers, rationalising it by pointing to the decrease in tram collisions and accidents. Apparently the managers are there to provide continuous training and support to drivers, for example, in avoiding collisions. This is simply anecdotal evidence, but over the past few years, I feel that drivers are a lot more cautious than they used to be, slowing down and making the assumption that car drivers are likely to do something stupid around them.

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