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Media botch: has Fairfax gone off the rails again?

The Fairfax press likes to beat-up public transport. Here it shows how it can turn what ought to be a real positive for rail travel – the opening of a new station – into a PR disaster

A render of the now-completed Williams Landing rail station - is it just me or did the designers think they were doing Kings Landing? I'd be scared to get too close in case this H R Giger-like creature pounced on me

The opening of a new rail station isn’t a common event in Australian cities, so it ought to be a significant and newsworthy occasion.

Yet in this prominent page 3 story, Myki crashes at rail station opening, The Age reported yesterday that the opening of Melbourne’s newest rail station was ruined by the system’s hopeless ticketing system.

Here’re the opening three paras of the report:

As eager commuters headed to Melbourne’s newest train station on Sunday, they arrived to find the myki system out of order.

It meant that for more than an hour, passengers at the $110 million Williams Landing station couldn’t buy or top up myki cards at the counter or from the lone myki machine.

Minutes before the system crashed, Victorian Transport Minister Terry Mulder was talking up the Werribee line station, which will service Point Cook and future residents of Williams Landing.

The tone of the article wasn’t missed by the 137 commenters on The Age’s on-line version. The overwhelming majority condemned the government and the private operator for the shortcomings of myki and the rail system more generally.

Follow the link to be in with a chance of winning one of two copies of Where to ride

 

While there are indeed problems with myki, it’s worth taking a closer look at those three paras because they reveal the negative tone of the article isn’t justified. There’re a number of things to consider based on the information provided in the report.

First, it was a Sunday, when there are many fewer travellers compared to Monday to Friday. The Age describes Williams Landing travellers as “commuters” as if they’re on their way to work, but there’s no morning and afternoon peak on a Sunday like there is during the week.

Second, the system was down for a little over an hour. That’s undesirable, but to put it in context, services to the city from Williams Landing operate on a Sunday over a circa 16 hour span.

The first inbound train is at 7.32 am and the last at 11.32 pm. The last outbound train on a Sunday stops at Williams Landing at 12.48 am (Monday).

Third, customers weren’t prevented from touching on and off, only from buying a new myki or topping up an existing one. Passengers could still travel and they could still do it legally.

Purchasing a myki is something that’s done infrequently, either the first time someone starts using the public transport system or if their myki is lost or about to expire (they have a four year life). Topping-up is something that’s commonly done on-line or by telephone at weekly or longer intervals.

Fourth, it was the first day of operations. The probability that there’ll be teething problems is high and hardly unexpected.

Unless there’re serious consequences, this sort of technical difficulty is unremarkable and doesn’t come even remotely close to warranting a prominent position on page 3 (with a picture, what’s more!).

Yes, it was a minor embarrassment for the government, or at least it was after The Age published its selective interpretation.

And it’s even possible there was a first-time public transport user who couldn’t buy a myki for the hour or so the system was down, although if there was The Age’s reporter evidently couldn’t find him or her.

But in the overall scheme of things this was a minor failing with minor consequences. It’s the sort of ironical event that might warrant a tweet, nothing more.

The Age only elevated it to Armageddon status because, as the comments on its story show, its readers have an inexhaustible appetite for bad news stories about the city’s public transport system.

The real story at Williams Landing last Sunday was the opening of a new station. It’s not an ordinary station either – it’s a Premium Station. That means it’s staffed full-time from the first train until the last, has operating toilets, and the waiting area is air-conditioned (my local station has none of these).

It incorporates a taxi rank and bus terminal to facilitate inter-modal operations. The Minister says bus services will increase from 697 to 2,120 per week.

It also has 500 car parking spaces (more than Doncaster Park & Ride, or South Morang station) and dedicated bicycle storage facilities.

The Age acknowledges most of these attributes but only after it’s set up a negative context. Indeed it couldn’t stop itself – it  finishes the story by noting that “sections of the footbridge are protected by only a 1.5 metre fence”.

Only 1.5 metres? That’s curious, because mandatory safety fencing around swimming pools is “only” 1.2 metres.

There might well be issues with this station (e.g. $110 million!?) but The Age missed them completely. What it dished up instead was just a beat-up, plain and simple.

Myki and the rail system more generally do have problems that need to be reported, but this story says more about the weaknesses of Fairfax than those of myki. It’s yet another Media Botch in the company’s relentless dive to the bottom.

Even News Ltd provided a less sensational report on the opening.

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  • 1
    Aenveigh
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    The Age has a serious problem with its transport reporting. The other day, it led with ‘houses wiped off the map’ for a potential – just potential – plan to widen the Dandenong rail corridor. As if VicRoads hasn’t acquired properties for road expansion for the past 50 years.
    The Age editorialises about the need for transport improvements, then sets up negative public opinion such that a) actually implementing the improvements is tough (ie as per article above, or forcing expensive tunnelling or whatever for a ‘no losers’ [except the taxpayer] solution) and b) credit isn’t given when due, discouraging further activity in the area.

  • 2
    Darren Vandenberg
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I read the article myself at the time, and thought it was hysterical. Wasn’t there a throwaway line about inspectors not being able to gang tackle a fare evader due to “only a 1.5m” railing on the overpass also. This opening should be a celebration for local residents and not a whiny complaint piece about a station most of us would love to use daily. Has anyone seen Thornbury station recently? Sheesh.

  • 3
    Strewth
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    “News Ltd provided a less sensational report” – well yes, because their article largely just regurgitated the government press release. Fairfax at least made an attempt at original journalism, even if their article jumped the shark on a number of petty issues. (“Only” 500 spaces? Lord help us. And the 1.5 metre fence thing is just silly.)

    I’m keener to know how the revamped bus network performs at getting people to the station from suburbs like Point Cook that had such woeful PT access previously.

  • 4
    Alan Davies
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Strewth #3:

    The Age’s story is “original” only in the sense that it offers a different slant. That’s what Andrew Bolt does every day. But its not “original” in the sense that it’s investigative reporting or that it’s important or significant. In this case the slant is just a beat-up.

  • 5
    Austin M
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    The fence issue had me laughing a bit and I think it might be a push from the union or such to stop the very rare and very stupid issue of object throwing … There would be thousands if not tens of thousands of crossings over freeways, railways and roads with fences lower than 1.5m. However due to a very limited number of incidents some people would have them all bordered up and caged over with all the associated cost, loss of passive surveillance and increased urban blight just to prevent a small number of stupid criminals. They probably drive around in bullet proof cars to prevent the rare incident of car jacking also. Sometimes seeking to engineer out all the rare and purest forms of stupidity makes you look damn stupid yourself. I’m just visioning the bridges of Venice now once this lot are through with them.

  • 6
    hk
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Does the reporting and sentimentalization of incidents in the PT system by The Age, in Melbourne reflect the attitude of journalists or sub-editors and editors? The was a period when, the reporting in The Age on transport news was well quantified and still gained the readers interest and feedback. Sadly this type of stimulating reporting on transportation and land-use issues appears to now be in decline.

  • 7
    melburnite
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Well, its a newspaper, and they generally rely on sensationalist headlines and stories. The Age is getting a bit more like the Herald in this respect, which is a pity. But i have noticed over 20 years that good news is reported in advance eg. ‘new station to be built’ but that is never followed up with more ‘good’ news like ‘new station opens’ – its not news anymore. So a negative story is a better story, even if it requires a lot of selective reporting. Lucky to get any story on the opening at all. And I bet that being a Sunday there was hardly anyone there.

    Mind you, I do think there should be more than 1 Myki machine – though if its staffed, does that mean staff will top up / sell a card ? Been so long since Ive seen staff at a station, or needed to buy a ticket from them, i dont know what they do.

  • 8
    Saugoof
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    That’s the major reason I stopped reading The Age, at least the website. The paper is a lot better than the online version and still reasonably ok. But the website is nothing but click-bait and celebrity fluff. The sad thing is that some 20 years ago I considered The Age to be one of the best newspapers anywhere in the world.

    The whole Myki saga has really become a self-supporting beast of negativity now. People see it as a hopeless system because they expect to see it as a hopeless system. That’s not to say that it hasn’t got issues or plenty of room for improvement, but for me it works way better than the old metcard system did.

    Now this is coming from someone who would have plenty of reasons to have a negative view of it. I work for a company that very narrowly lost out on building Myki some 6 or 7 years ago. If we had won it, I would have been the person designing it. The tender documents were massive but one thing that became clear even then was that the State Government was so scared of any negative backlash that they tried everything to make sure they wouldn’t give the opposition and media any ammunition. So rather than taking a bit of a courageous stance and building the system from a clean slate, the new system started off by having to do everything that metcard did. The irony of this is that the system became so complex and convoluted that this became the issue instead.

    In retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t win it.

  • 9
    John Webster
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    The Age is merely giving what its readers want.

  • 10
    lomlate
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Did I hear correctly that you could still buy/topup a myki via the staff at the station? If that’s true then this is even more of a beat up.

  • 11
    Krammer56
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    The frightening thing is we supposedly rely on an independent media to kep us informed of events and issues.

    However, when you reliase how sloppy/biased/misleading the reporting is on an issue that you know something about, it makes you wonder what other crap they are printing!!

    The Age’s wasn’t the only negative reporting on Williams Landing. One of the TV news (ABC??) duly noted the station had opened. They then interviewed a resident of Sanctury Lakes, who was whinging that the Government hadn’t seen fit to waste taxpayers money by running buses into that sprawling, low density, golf course/lakes communty.

    It no wonder we don’t have bold, visionary statesmen (or stateswomen) politicians any more – why would you bother?

  • 12
    Andrew Herington
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    The real issues about Williams Landing station from a design (and cost) view are much more interesting and reveal a lot about why infrastructure is becoming unaffordable in Victoria.
    The station is built a couple of hundred yards from where it should be (adjacent to the main road bridge) and is surrounded by acres of roadways (300 metres from the station) and ramps that are 160 metres long. This is needed to get up to the height selected for the main concourse which is 3 metres or so higher than needed to clear the catenary. Everyone has to climb up higher than needed and walk down the same distance – the alternatives are three flights of stairs or a lift. When you compare it to older stations you can see how user unfriendly it is. The recently released Station User Panel report layers on all these requirements that make stations less useable and accessible – all in the name of increasing accessibility!?
    Williams Landing is in the same mould as Westall and far larger public areas and concourses than are needed. The new Springvale station is a better example built under the Springvale Rd bridge so that it is accessible from both sides of the road by lift or stairs. The cost of $86 m for the station component needs to be compared to the new Adelaide Showgrounds station costing $16 m.

  • 13
    expka
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Seriously, Melbourne, stop complaining! As someone who lives in the area of Sydney which has no trains whatsoever, with a terrible non-integrated ticketing system, I cannot see why those in Melbourne complaining about myki. A new train station, too! So lucky!!

  • 14
    Skipp55
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Fairfax left the rails some time ago, and never got back on track… I o longer read any of the major newspapers….I used to read the Age everyday….. I never ear the Hun and never would

  • 15
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Agreed the article was pretty ridiculous, but it did what it was designed to do – attract clicks.

    Krammer56 – have you actually been to Sanctuary Lakes? To call it a “golf course/lakes community” makes it sound like a half-decent place to live. Last time I rode through it (about 12 months ago) it was a half-deserted half-finished wasteland dotted with expensive-looking houses but with exactly zero sense of ‘community’ that I could detect.

  • 16
    Krammer56
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Andrew – the height will be to allow for the pie-in-the-sky potential to one day run double-stacked container trains. This crazy standard is leading the sorts of absurdities you see at Willams Landing.
    I agree about the cost though!
    As for the location – if you check out the Willams Landing development plans (http://www.williamslanding.com.au/town-centre)
    you can see it will (one day?) be next to a large town centre and employment hub.

    Dylan – I was being generous.

  • 17
    Tom the first and best
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    16

    In fairness it is on the interstate rail route to Adelaide. On some other routes it is not sensible. The same process iflates the costs of new suburban rail links by requiring them to be built with the gradients for efficient running of long heavy freight trains (1 in 50) when Melbourne suburban trains already run safely on steeper grades (1 in 30 or thereabouts).

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