Just training: PSOs at the Victorian Police Academy. Photo: Wayne Taylor
While travelling in Europe a few years ago, I was struck by two things that highlighted the mean and increasingly violent state of Melbourne's public transport. Firstly in London, the fine for travelling without a ticket was relatively low. Despite a one-way Underground trip costing £4, an eye-watering $10 back then, the fine was only £20. Five times the cost of a ticket, as opposed to the fine that I had received shortly before leaving Melbourne, which was closer to 50 times the cost of a ticket at about $180.
The reason, I had forgotten to validate my ticket, an excuse that the ticket inspectors were unwilling to believe. Secondly in Paris, I was approached by a group of ticket inspectors, who realising that I didn't speak French, kindly asked to see my ticket in English. When I explained to them that the ticket machine in the station where I had taken the train wasn't working, they quickly conferred between themselves, wished me a nice day and sent me on my way.
I saw the article in The Age online, entitled ''Teenage girl 'body-slammed' at Flinders Street Station''. In the accompanying video, a 15-year-old girl is picked up and dropped to the floor head first by a ticket inspector, after an altercation in which he grabs her and she slaps him.
Instead of being shocking, the video only inspired a sad and by now tired disappointment in Melbourne's public transport system. Immediately I was reminded of another altercation, this time at a tram stop outside Victoria Market about three years ago. As he got off the tram, a somewhat drug-addled man was approached by several ticket inspectors who asked for his ticket. The man decided to ignore them and walk off, at which point an inspector grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against the tram stop barrier. As the tram I was on began to pull away, he was held down and restrained by several inspectors, I didn't see what happened next.
The use of reasonable force is permitted for ticket inspectors, they have the power to detain anyone without a ticket until police arrive, should they fail to give their personal details. Despite disagreeing in principle with the idea of anyone other than trained police officers detaining members of the public, this doesn't sound unreasonable.
Fare evaders break the rules, they should be fined and the fines should be enforced. Yet a fine should be as far as it goes, assault isn't part of the deal. An Ombudsman's report from 2010, the same year as the altercation I witnessed, and a particularly disturbing incident in which two commuters were pushed from a moving train, highlighted the improper use of force and lack of training for ticket inspectors. The inspector responsible for pushing commuters from the train was also found to have been hired despite previous criminal convictions. Apparently not much has changed. A 15-year-old girl, a minor we should remember, being body-slammed would indicate that the culture of violence among ticket inspectors hasn't subsided.
It's important not to demonise ticket inspectors, most of them simply do their job, while some are extremely courteous, helpful and reminiscent of the old tram conductors. However, incidents such as these erode public faith in the public transport system, and lead many to intensely dislike ticket inspectors.
In another incident I experienced, an elderly gentleman on the train was asked rather aggressively by inspectors to turn down his radio while listening to the football. Quite within his rights, the gentleman declined to do so, he wasn't bothering anybody except, apparently, the inspector.
Despite not having identified himself, the inspector then screamed at the man, who in turn lowered the volume of his radio out of fear. Respect for authority, not fear, should be the reason we comply with transport rules. It is difficult at best to respect those who are capable of verbally abusing an old man, let alone any of the other abuses of power committed by ticket inspectors.
A small amount of compassion shown by transport officials will not lead to a mass conversion of commuters into fare evaders, but instead restore some of the faith that has been lost in public transport. It is time for the government to rein in those who abuse their power, and implement serious reform for ticket inspectors.
Harris Lawrence is a graduate at La Trobe University and a frequent public transport user.