Media Botch

Apr 30, 2013

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

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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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