Metropolitan train punctuality at destination by rail line, Melbourne. Percentage of services on-time for 12 months to end August 2014 (source data: PTV)

Reporter Adam Carey gives this thoughtful account in The Age today of how he missed the Napthine Government’s media conference yesterday on the proposed redevelopment of Jewell station.

He says it’s because the train he was catching to get to inner city Jewell station, where the announcement was made, was cancelled by the train operator.

What happened to Mr Carey is an all too familiar experience for Melbourne train commuters:

It was 7.50am – the middle of the morning rush – when I and about 80 other people on the platform were told the next train had just been rescheduled to become an express service and would not be stopping for us. Trains run every 20 minutes on the poorly serviced Upfield line so there was a stampede for the gates as scores of commuters sought other means to get to work.

There’s an irony there of course, but it’s also an object lesson in the perverse incentives sometimes created when corporations and governments doggedly pursue hard targets in the name of efficiency and customer service.

The problem is the train operator, Metro, routinely cancels services so it can push up its stats on punctuality. Under the contract with the Government, this entitles the company to multi million dollar bonuses.

Mr Carey says its practice of skipping stations “is now an embedded method for sticking to the timetable”. And it’s been very successful.

Metro has hit its target of 88% of services on-time for the last two years. It can cancel services and skip stations “with impunity because (the Transport Minister) Mr Mulder has said it is permissible in the interests of better overall punctuality”. (1)

Metro’s practice puts me in mind of a hypothetical taught in business schools. The version I heard concerns the pilot of an early morning business shuttle in the US who’s about to take off when he’s informed the coffee won’t arrive for 30 minutes.

This is a serious problem because the airline markets itself on the quality of cabin service. The pilot knows business travellers demand coffee at 6 am and many are paying a lot for the privilege.

The question is: should he delay the flight until the coffee arrives? The correct answer is no; business travellers value their time much more highly than the absence of coffee.

Of course they’ll be cranky and some might complain vociferously, but it’s far more important to them that they get to their destination on time.

Metro’s practice of skipping some stations means the service is punctual for some travellers but doesn’t run at all for others, like the unfortunate Mr Carey. The former are lucky today, but next time it might be their station that gets bypassed.

Commuters want the trains to run on time of course, but when it comes to a choice between a late train or no train, they’ll go for the former. They want certainty; a late train can be an inconvenience, but one that fails to stop as expected can potentially be a calamity. As Mr Carey says:

Someone alongside me on the platform this morning might have missed a job interview or a crucial business appointment.

Then there are also the travellers who can’t get off the train at the bypassed station.

Both Metro and the Minister say the system is meeting the agreed definition of on-time running (such as it is). But  when it’s achieved by skipping stations or the city loop it seems to be more about helping Metro’s bottom line and the Government’s political credibility than helping customers.

Mr Carey’s experience is not unusual, as the comments on his article attest. The problem is endemic; I’ve suffered skipped trains and so has every member of my household.

Metro’s behaviour underscores what’s a perennial problem with targets; players can fixate on them and ignore negative consequences.

Wiki has some classic examples, like the program in Hanoi which paid a bounty for rats handed in to the authorities. The unintended consequence was that instead of exterminating wild rats it provided an incentive for producing more rats (by farming them).

In the same vein, there’s little advantage in having trains running on time if they don’t pick up or set down passengers.

More frequent trains would lessen the impact of bypassing stations. Improved infrastructure, like signalling upgrades and grade separations, would make the network more reliable.

But that all takes time; what’s needed now is better performance reporting and a review of perverse incentives.

I also suspect that while most travellers want improved punctuality, they value certainty even more. They don’t want stations bypassed ever.

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  1. The definition of ‘punctual’ is generous. In its Customer Service Charter, Metro says: “We will provide a reliable and punctual train service. Our target is for 88% of trains to arrive within five minutes of their published arrival schedule and to deliver 98% of all scheduled services. We aim to exceed and continuously better these targets”.