How to Convert your Honest Customers to Criminals in 3 Easy Steps


sigh It never ceases to amaze me as to the stupidity of large corporations, particularly governments. Everyone not living under a rock will be well aware of the RIAA and MPAA’s recent approach to increasing revenue – i.e. to sue anyone they can prove listened to music they publish.

Of course, lucky me being Australian means I’m to date immune to such silliness, since the prosecutions haven’t quite made it out to our little island yet – at least, not in any numbers. Nonetheless, it seems others have been watching the RIAA with admiration, and have devised crackpot schemes of their own.

This is the part where I say “It all started when…”.. but that would be misleading… this has been building, as the sum of many events, for many years.

For as long as I care to remember I’m relied on public transport to get around. And all was well. Unfortunately, the last few years I’ve had to rely on it more than I would like – while originally it was just the school bus twice a day, which was essentially a charter and always ran (and on time), in the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of summer work… which means out of the house by 7am so I can enjoy a couple of hours of public transport to work, and again in reverse at night. This would be all good and well, except it very rarely was.

I first really started on “public” (non-chartered & school) transport when I went to uni in 2002. I would travel down from uni to my old home to see my girlfriend, and back, each weekend. The trip entailed two trains and at least one bus (with either a 20 minute walk or another bus thrown in). It should have taken about 2.5 hours maximum. In reality it frequently took four… trains would be late, cancelled, etc…. in fact, for a long time there was a period from around 7-8pm on Friday nights where there was not a single Frankston line train… the number of times I would arrive just moments (literally seconds, in some cases) after the previous Frankston train left, to be stuck at Flinders street for more than an hour… grrrr…

But this was only once a week, and I was forgiving for the most part. Things weren’t too bad most of the time, and the novelty of public transport was only just starting to wear off.

Fast forward to the end of 2003, when I was working out near Tullamarine Airport, and staying with my Aunt in Elwood. There were some serious storms lashing Melbourne, lasting for several days. Lots of flooding, bits of lightning, the whole bit. Some train lines were actually damaged by flood water (I believe the Hurstbridge and one or two others). But not the Sandringham line, which is the one I used twice a day at that point. Nonetheless, inexplicably, trains on that line were suddenly being cancelled in droves, and the few that were running were extraordinarily late.

Numerous times (as in, at least half a dozen that stand out) two or three trains were cancelled in a row. At five in the afternoon, during the peak rush. And through some attempt at universal comedy, when a train finally did turn up – some hour or more later – it would be just three carriages. Three carriages. Three whole carriages, carrying at best 200 people each, for more than a thousand people now stuck waiting on the platform. And that’s just at Flinders Street, let alone the other four stations in the city loop. As you can imagine, there was some level of crankiness at this.

Nonetheless, for reasons beyond my comprehension, I continued to buy tickets every day, and never really voiced my frustration. Well, not to Metlink or affiliates, anyway. There was no compensation ever issued, not even an apology. The official line, I believe, was that the line had been effected by the storms. Funny how there was no visible damage to anything along that line. Even at the worst of the storm, where parts of Glenhuntly road were two or more feet under water, there was no evidence of disruption or damage to the Sandringham train line.

But anyway, I digress. The point is, ever since that storm, public transport in Melbourne has gone to shit. The next summer I worked in Mulgrave, catching the Frankston train up to Chelsea or Edithvale, then a bus up Springvale road. Now the bus itself was a disaster, but then, Springvale road is horrid at times. I was often late by half an hour or more, but, you can’t expect too much when travelling along a congested road like that. While I hated the dodgy commute along that stretch, it is very hard to fault the bus company – they are at the mercy of the traffic they are part of.

Such excuses hold no water when it comes to trains, however. Why it was that my desired train each afternoon was cancelled just about every other day has never been revealed. How Connex (or Bayside Trains, or whoever ran it at the time) could justify their claimed 95%+ punctuality was never explained. I think it must involve quantum…. certainly it makes no sense by the traditional laws of this universe.

Anyway… yet another shitty summer of bullshit service – or lack thereof – and another cranky but honest me, dutifully buying tickets each day, wasting away my money. Now, by the end of this I was skipping the odd ticket or two, if the train was unduly late or cancelled. But by and large, I was still a sucker.

Then there is Yarra Trams. My god what a glorious company. I’ve caught the tram pretty much every weekday since the start of this year, 2005. Down a dozen stops or so to uni and back, sometimes twice or more a day. Now unfortunately in my first week of this, I was still entirely jaded from my summer experience with the Frankston line trains. So I choose not to buy any tickets, requiring first that Yarra Trams prove they deserved my fare. Ironically enough, they did seem to, for the first few weeks at least. Unfortunately for me, my timing was poor – and so I was collected up all nice and pretty by one of the marauding gangs of ticket inspectors (there were about 14 in this case, from memory… for a total of about 9 people on the tram). I confessed I had plenty of change, had chosen not to buy a ticket, and hadn’t been doing so all week. And I was on my way.

It was months later before I got the infringement notice in the mail. I wasn’t all too impressed, but I could only concede I was at least partially at fault – if nothing else I was misplacing my anger at the trains, inappropriately and unfairly to Yarra Trams. From the second week onwards (after this first incident), I bought tickets, just like I used to. I now have a nice stack of some 150 or so to date (only two thirds of the way through the year, too). So I wrote back to the Department of Infrastructure (DOI) and apologised, and offered them a compromise. I would pay for all the tickets I had not purchased that week, including the government subsidy that Yarra Trams would have received from those tickets. Now, I should also have provided for the costs associated with issuing that notice, but at this point I didn’t (I did later however, although at time of writing there has been no response to that offer).

While waiting for a response from that first letter, I had the great fortune to be caught again without a ticket, while travelling into Melbourne for a friend’s 18th (which was at Manchester Lane incidentally, a very nice jazz bar). The problem, you see, was not that I wouldn’t buy a ticket – but that I did not have sufficient small change to do so.

For those not familiar with our trams here in sunny Melbourne, the machines on them only accept coins (even though they sell tickets costing up to and over $5). They also issue tickets that are immediately validated. Thus you cannot buy tickets ahead of time. Now, I knew I was going to pass through Parliament station in the city, where there were machines that accepted notes. So, I wasn’t stressed about it – I’d get into the city, buy my ticket, and all would be well.

Unfortunately, the DOI is very much against common sense such as this. Their official opinion is that I should not have ever stepped on the tram – I should have told my friend to get stuffed and not gone to her party. That or walked – it couldn’t be more than five or six hours each way. How kind of them.

So anyway, I was pleasant to the inspectors, who reciprocated in kind, and all was well. I was stressed about the possible implications of the infringement, but common sense said quite simply that it would be worked out with a minimum of fuss. Once into the city I purchased my ticket, as intended. (incidentally, I discovered that there weren’t any trains from Parliament to Flinders street at this point – only 8 or 9pm on a weeknight – and so I wasted nearly an hour getting down to the bar…. perhaps I should have noted this Omen).

Of course, only a few weeks later an infringement notice arrives. At least they’re getting prompter. I wrote back and stated quite simply that I had always intended to buy a ticket (as stated to the officer at the time), I did buy a ticket, and here are the serial numbers etc from it.

It was at this point that things started to go wrong. See, really I should have coped the first fine on the chin and paid it, if only to get it over with. I’m still against the arbitrary $150 sum on principle, since it’s clearly not at all related to actual expense or losses of the company in question – they get a flat $20 regardless of what the actual infringement was – but… all the stress that’s resulted isn’t worth it. Which I’m sure the DOI is well aware of, and relies on for their little racket to run smoothly.

Anyway, another few months later, while all this was still in limbo waiting on a response to my letters, I got caught again in an almost identical situation. The ticket I needed was just under $5, and I didn’t have nearly enough small change, but had about $50 in notes (including a $5 note, which would have done nicely). I’m still waiting on the infringement notice for that one. On recent precedence, it should be arriving any day now. I’ve grown tired of being pleasant with them about all this, so I look forward to writing my reply to that one.

So the problem now is that I’m facing at least $450 in fines for ultimately $11 of ticket evasion (of which they’re only officially concerned about $2.20). Not to discount all the stress I’ve been under as a result, which has been very poorly timed and seems to be visibly detrimental to my health (the last few weeks I’ve been unable to shake a flu-like illness, which is extremely uncharacteristic for me). And then there’s all the time I’ve wasted dealing with it all. And that’s the ultimate irony, isn’t it – the wasted time. That’s what all this started with. They persist in wasting my time with their unacceptable service, and have done literally for years. If I paid in advance for a taxi, and it turned up two hours later, I’d demand my god damn money back – and probably more. I wouldn’t expect to be charged an additional $150 for the privilege of them being pricks.

But in all this, the most interesting thing was the response I got back from the DOI. They dealt with my first two letters together, since they basically ignored everything I said anyway. I suspect they never even read the letters, since their reply seems to be oh so much standard boilerplate. I’ll post the exact text at a later date when it’s available to me (not at home as I write), but to paraphrase, they stated that my honest and good intentions were not in question, but the Law is the Law, and they want all my money.

You see, this is what happens when you create these bastardised amorphous blob companies, that pretend they’re private when it suites them – i.e. when their service is unacceptable to a reasonable public standard – and then that they’re public (i.e. government owned) when that likewise suites them – such as this case, where they have the legislated power to level a criminal prosecution. A criminal prosecution. As in, the one where if you lose you have a honest to god criminal record, which will prevent you being easily employed in future, travelling overseas, or ever likely working at any A-list companies, such as my own interest, Apple Computer.

“I see you have a criminal conviction…” “Yes, I didn’t buy a $2.20 ticket, although I did pay nearly a thousand dollars of compensation later. I like to be extra altruistic, you know…”

So, they want to ruin my life as much as they possibly can, over $2.20. And they’re really sorry, and really sympathetic and all, but you know – the Law is the Law.

So what are my options? Well, I’ve already done their “independent review” (yeah, right) and got their boilerplate response (which probably came directly from accounting). I could go to trial over it. Let’s see what the odds of that are, as I understand it. The trial would be in a County court. These courts do not have the power to override any written law. Their job is to interpret the law directly and apply it to the case in question to determine where the fault (if any) lies. Now, the government has done a real pretty job with their Transport Act, which governs all this ticketing crap. From the outset it was almost impossible to contest on pure legal grounds. Worse, a few years ago someone took the issue to the Supreme Court, where the laws *can* be changed and reinterpreted. Unfortunately, the judge at the time was apparently a real arsehole, and not only favoured the DOI, but redefined the law so as to be even more stupidly hard to contest. Nowadays, it’s considered pretty much impossible to fight the DOI. They effectively have near unlimited power to do as they please, and have demonstrated countless times they’re more than willing to disregard morality, common sense, ethics, the public good and their duty of care.

My only other option is to take the issue to the Public Transport Ombudsman, a supposedly truly independent entity (both from Yarra Trams and the DOI) with the legal power to overrule any decision. And that’s where it stands today – I’m about to issue my complaint to the PTO. However, given my previous experience with these “independent” ombudsmen, I’m not holding any hope.

Sidenote: the background on that is, I had god-awful telephone service from Australia’s government-mandated telephone monopoly, whereby I couldn’t even maintain a 300 baud modem connection for more than a few minutes… seriously. This persisted for years. They even acknowledged that there was a massive fault effecting [probably] hundreds of subscribers in my area. But they refused to fix it. I wrote to the appropriate ombudsman for that industry, and more than being ignored – I was actually told that if I pursued my inquiries and complaints, the ombudsman would launch legal action against me. At least, that’s how I interpreted their letter. I know it sounds crazy – even I am hesitant to believe I’m remembering it correctly – but I do remember re-reading the letter over and over again in bewilderment, not understanding how the hell the world could go so quickly to a hand basket. I wish I could still find that letter – it’s probably around somewhere; I never would have thrown it out knowingly. I should frame it as first testament to this great nation.

Anyway, at this point I’m pretty much royally fucked. No two ways about it. In the grand scheme of things $450 is no big deal. I certainly can afford to pay it, without enduring any “unnecessary hardship” – aside from the fact that it’s $450 of my hard earned money. Of course most of the damage has already been done, which is the stress and wasted time. The problem I have is that this is pure bullshit. I cannot in good conscience fuel their little protection racket, knowing that hundreds or even thousands of others like me will bear the harsher consequences if I capitulate.

The sad thing is, ultimately the joke will be on Yarra Trams, and Connex, and all others involved in Melbourne’s public transport. Because if I do have to pay for more than the first fine (which, as I conceded, is relatively fair) I’ll have only a few more options:

1) Move overseas and forget this whole god damn country. I’m going to work at Apple this summer as an intern, and if they invited me to stay or come back, at this point I’d be gone so quickly it’d make the DOI’s head spin.
2) Get a car and never use public transport again. Their loss in future ticket purchases will eventually outweigh whatever they steal from me now.
3) Keep using public transport and not buy tickets. I’m one of very few people I know who do buy tickets – most of my friends thing I’m sort of strange for doing so. It’s entirely trivial to avoid ticket inspectors and other means of regulation – I’ve done it sometimes simply because I don’t want to waste the time being held up by them. Within a few years I’d more than make back the money they took, and probably more.

[Note: I can also get at least $70 a fortnight from Centrelink via Youth Allowance or similar, which I haven’t done since the start of the year, since I don’t need the government’s support anymore and don’t feel right about accepting their handouts. I’d rather not go this route, however, since it’s the whole collateral damage thing… in my experience Centrelink have been quite nice, albeit tricky to work with at times.]

So, there you have it. How to turn a paying, honest, well-meaning customer into a [possibly convicted] criminal, in just a few short months. Well done, DOI & Metlink. Well fucking done indeed.

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