A columnist last week claimed the NSW government's swipe card transport ticket the Opal looked, "like a deliberate designed-in I-told-you-so catastrophe" and that "The only plausible explanation is that Opal is actually funded by the roads lobby". The comments tapped into a rich vein of easily accessible outrage that surrounds any public service being undertaken by the private sector.
Equally strong is the outrage that attends plans to have citizens self-serve in order to save themselves – as taxpayers – some cash. "Train stations without tickets? Is this some kind of joke?" asks the columnist.
As my husband likes to point out, many people over 40 can still remember when elevators had 'drivers'. The lift operator at David Jones would call out, "fourth floor – children's shoes" and we would alight to be personally measured and fitted for our new term Clarks.
Just as David Jones meets its customers' needs more efficiently today, so too can the state government. Ticketing is not a free service, even if the public sector does it. The business case for electronic tickets recognised that fixed assets such as ticket-dispensing machines have a limited lifespan and eventually have to be replaced with something – either new paper ticket infrastructure or new electronic ticket infrastructure. It also recognised the substantial taxpayer savings and customer advantages of a self-service model where customers can top up their cards online instead of missing their Monday train after tagging onto the end of a seemingly interminable peak-hour queue.
Train stations without ticket sellers? What a good idea. Instead, we can spend that public money on something we need more. Something we can't easily do for ourselves. Maybe health care, maybe schools, maybe some more bus services. Eventually train stations will not require staff and neither will trains. This should be embraced. The money we save on staffing stations will make a small contribution to the growing amount we will continue to spend on urban public transport.
For many years I was privileged to work in the rail division of the Ministry of Transport. The singular irritant of my otherwise excellent job was being asked almost daily, "Why can't Sydney have an Oyster card like London?" It was such a 'no brainer' that an electronic ticket was promised as far back as the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The previous Labor government managed on the third attempt in 2010 to get the ball rolling with the Pearl Consortium and incoming Minister Gladys Berejiklian has delivered it with characteristic diligence. The Opal will be rolled out in full by 2015 – exactly fifteen years after the originally promised delivery date.
The Opal card is a victory clawed from the mouth of persistent defeat. Finally, after 15 years we have a single card to travel the whole system. It is freed up from the constraints of weeklies and monthlies tied to specific geographies and journeys that assume a fixed pattern commute. In addition, we can top up automatically for ourselves and our kids from the comfort of our own homes. To my former transport colleagues, I say job well done guys – it's been a long time coming and deserves a big thumbs-up.
Cassandra Wilkinson is External Relations Manager at The Centre for Independent Studies.