Reports yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald and Channel Seven (see below) suggest that the NSW government is seriously considering free train travel in Sydney before 7AM in an attempt to reduce morning congestion. The cost of doing this is the lost revenue, not just of the commuters who switch from after 7AM to before 7AM, but also for all the commuters who currently travel before 7AM. A trial is expected to be held some time next year to see how effective such a move would be.
The rationale behind this move appears to be to get some sort of congestion charging on public transport. Currently, there are discounts for return tickets purchased after 9AM, so free travel before 7AM would effectively make travel between 7AM and 9AM more expensive relative to the shoulder periods which currently enjoy much more free capacity to take on additional passengers.
Melbourne introduced such a scheme in 2008 in which any train trip completed by 7AM would be free. By 2009 just under one quarter (23%) of commuters travelling on trains before 7AM had made the switch to the free service, having previously travelled after 7AM.
The move wasn’t universally supported, with Melbourne’s Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) pointing out that three quarters of commuters travelling before 7AM were already willing to pay. Why then, they argued, would you forgo revenue that could be used to improve the train network elsewhere when it would not provide a significant benefit?
The PTUA also raised the problem of not including free travel on buses or trams during this period. Under Melbourne’s integrated ticketing system, you buy tickets for 2 hour periods which entitle you to unlimited travel within a certain zone. If you need to catch a connecting bus or tram, then once you pay for you bus/tram ticket the train costs you no extra (unless you are crossing from one zone to another).
The other significant difference is electronic ticketing, which Melbourne currently has, but Sydney is not set to get on its trains until 2013. By requiring you to tag on when you enter a station and then tag off when you exit a station, the system is able to give you a free trip if you tag off before 7AM, or charge you the standard fare if you tag off after 7AM. This gets around the problem of not knowing whether you will need to buy a ticket in the morning or from having to queue up to buy a ticket in the afternoon. (Melbourne does retain paper tickets, and I’m not sure if you can get free travel on these. Perhaps someone could let me know in the comments section below?)
The change in Melbourne was accompanied by a strong push to encourage employers to allow their employees to adopt more flexible work hours. This would definitely help, as would the government taking a lead in offering such options to the public service. I could also see those in the construction industry or shift workers, both of which tend to start work early, making the move from driving to taking the train as a result of this move. This would mean on-road congestion as people make the shift from cars to trains and more revenue from the tickets for the return trip on off-peak trains with spare capacity.
Ultimately, the decision on whether this is worth the costs depends on what you consider the alternatives to be. If the alternative is to effectively do nothing, and allow the train system to hit capacity, then this is a very expensive way to get more people on the trains. If however, the alternative is a costly expansion of rail infrastructure (new tracks, more trains, etc) in order to obtain additional capacity, then this plan to give free travel before 7AM could achieve the same outcomes for a lower cost, and would certainly be a better stop-gap measure than the recently touted metro proposal being tossed around recently.
I remain cautiously optimistic on free travel before 7AM and look forward to seeing the results of any trial.