There have been various attempts to privatise public transport in Australia over the years. The latest, Bass and Flinders’ fast ferry service between Manly and the city, starts today. It looks promising. Some ingredients for success are there – they have one route, a popular one; they operate during peak hour, so won’t have to cross-subsidise; they have newish ferries that should be reliable (and the limited running time helps there too); and commuters can use a smartcard, saving time and hassle.
The best thing about it is that there will be zero government subsidy for the service, and according to the Transport Minister, the government assumes no risk or responsibility for “fare levels, patronage, reliability, customer information, timetables and ticket sales.” Straight away, that makes it better than the terrible JetCat, which needed an additional massive subsidy of $35.80 per passenger trip. The lack of price caps or enforced loss-making routes is refreshing to see, because although such a move is sheer common sense, it is not the norm in these situations.
There are potential problems, of course. The contract was completed very quickly, necessarily so, and that means the preparation hasn’t been the most thorough. The boats aren’t brand-new, aren’t all the same kind, and one has had problems before. Also, Bass and Flinders only have a short-term contract, so can’t make any big investments in their fleet.
Weighing up the pros and cons, I’m optimistic that this privatisation – however limited and temporary – is going to be a success. I could easily be proved wrong. Hopefully not, and with any luck it will act as a model for further privatisation of our sclerotic public transport system.