By Rhonda Dredge
Treasure Jennings loves the Sandy line. She catches it to work in the morning but likes to vary her times so she gets a different public transport experience each day.
“Public transport is the heart of a city,” Ms Jennings said. She should know. As Victoria’s Public Transport Ombudsman she receives all the complaints.
Since reaching a high in 2016, the number of investigations of complaints against authorised officers has been dropping, making travel to the city a less scary prospect for those who have forgotten to touch on.
The humanising of the ticket inspector role is a credit to Ms Jennings’ willingness to tackle the hard issues when it comes to passenger wellbeing.
Over the past four years, she has used some hard-nosed statistics and case studies to encourage a change in state policy, which saw the abolition of on-the-spot fines (also known as penalty fares) in 2017.
In the bad old days, authorised officers overstepped the mark in terms of “methodology and relationships with the community”.
In 2016/17 the Ombudsman investigated 68 complaints about officer conduct. In the last annual report that figure had dropped to 16.
“What I’ve done is reflect community sentiment,” Ms Jennings said. “My data said that the community thought the fare was unsatisfactory. The government was open-minded.
“The complaints were turned into a narrative that helped improve the system. I highlighted in a number of reports the difference between someone who forgets to tap on and someone who is fare evading.”
She now prefers to think of inspectors as customer service officers.
The change in the way the roles have been reframed is a credit to Ms Jennings and her office. Staff are on a first name basis with those who direct authorised officers for the Metro system and Yarra Trams.
“We work closely with Metro on authorised officer training,” she said, and the drop in complaints is a measure of community response to the remodeling of the roles.
CBD Newsreported in 2017 that authorised officers had sometimes bullied vulnerable passengers into coughing up a $75 fare or be liable for a more excessive fine down the track.
“The fare wasn’t fair. When I first started in the role I was very concerned with the way authorised officers interacted with young people and vulnerable people who are less likely to complain.”
Many jurisdictions have a system in which those who have failed to touch on can pay the fare to officers riding on the transport. The cost of $75 was at the “steeper end of the scale”.
The state government scrapped the penalty fare in January 2017 at the behest of the Ombudsman and also introduced a more lenient approach to those who were regular travellers but had made a one-off mistake.