Fare enough: A systems view of ticketing and fare evasion on Melbourne’s trams, from bell-punch to myki

Scratched record

In 1989 the Cain/Kirner State Government was in financial crisis, after the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria (SBV) and Tricontinental, the merchant banking arm of the SBV, together with the failure of the privately-held Pyramid Building Society. One of the areas that contributed to the hemorrhaging of money was the ever-increasing subsidies to keep Melbourne’s public transport operational, and the State Government was desperate to achieve savings. It was estimated that annual savings of $50 million could be achieved by the abolition of tram conductors.

From M&MTB days it was well known that staffing costs made up approximately 65% of the operating cost of Melbourne’s tramway system. The abolition of conductors and use of one-man crews offered the opportunity to achieve major savings. The only problem was that this initiative would require a radical change to tram ticketing,

At the time, scratch lottery tickets were a popular method of gambling. These were colloquially known as ‘scratchies’, due to the requirement to scratch off thin foil coatings from the cardboard ticket to reveal the gambler’s winnings, if any.

The gambling industry had invested heavily in technology to prevent forgery of scratch lottery tickets, both through the difficulty of reproduction of the cards themselves, and inclusion of authorisation numbers hidden behind foil as an additional security feature.

The State Government took the novel approach to introduce pre-paid tickets using the same technology, whereby passengers were responsible for validating their own tickets. These tickets would not be available on trams, but purchased at various retail outlets such as newsagencies. Depending on the type of ticket, validation occurred by scratching off the month, day and time of first use of the ticket.

Selection of non-validated scratch tickets. From the FOHTD collection. Selection of non-validated scratch tickets – Adult Daily for Zone 1, 3 Hour Concession for Zones 2 and 3 and Concession (60 Plus) Daily.
From the FOHTD collection. Image by Russell Jones.

While conceptually an attractive solution for the State Government’s problem, the introduction of scratch tickets encountered a number of difficuties:

  • The public perception that the level of service was to be reduced by the withdrawal of conductors established a negative relationship with the introduction of scratch tickets. This is an important consideration as conductors fulfilled functions other than collection and issuing of fares, including providing information to passengers, safeguarding passengers boarding and exiting tramcars, and assisting the elderly and infirm to board and exit trams.
  • Industrial action by tramway employees resisting the introduction of scratch tickets reinforced the public’s negative perception. The Public Transport Authority (PTA) handled the industrial relations aspect of the introduction with the delicacy of an elephant walking on eggshells, through its inability to negotiate effectively with the union, and requiring all employees to sign a document requiring them to comply with management direction. The result was the scratch ticket dispute, which left trams abandoned in the streets of Melbourne for thirty-three days in January-February 1990, The State Government and the PTA was forced into an embarrassing backdown, retaining two-man tram crews, and displaying the weakness of their position. This failure was a major contributing factor to the change of government at the next State election.
  • On their introduction, scratch tickets could only be purchased from specific retail outlets, and were not sold by conductors on trams. These outlets were often inconveniently located, or had restricted opening hours, leading to a perception of reduced facility. Additionally, there was no cost benefit for the public to purchase scratch tickets, as they were sold at the same prices as standard tickets.
  • The State Government was attempting to engineer a change in human behaviour, by forcing tram passengers to pre-purchase tickets and perform their own validation, when there was a perceived loss of utility – a difficult objective. Due to the low rate of ticket inspection reinforced by a disaffected workforce, the public also perceived there was little chance of being caught in evading fares. Many drew the conclusion that the resultant cost-benefit equation did not support the purchasing of fares.
  • The later limited introduction of one man trams in February 1990 was a contributing factor to an increase in graffiti and vandalism, further increasing the public’s belief that service and facility was being reduced by the State Government’s actions, and establishing a willingness to punish the Government by refusing to purchase tickets.

The State Government was successful in changing the behaviour of Melbourne’s travelling public, but in an entirely undesirable although not unpredictable direction. The end result was the establishment of a fare evasion culture, creating an intractable problem with which public transport operators are still struggling, twenty years later.

In short, the introduction of scratch tickets was bungled in almost every possible way, serving as a stellar example of how not to implement a revolution in public transport ticketing.

Scratch tickets were finally phased out at the end of December 2001.