Wednesday Mar 06, 2013

Why Privatizing Public Transport Does Not Work

I spent some time today with the nice instructors and students at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Venlo, in the south of the Netherlands. For several years already, the university has standardized all their Java courses, assignments, and exams to be done through the free and open source NetBeans IDE, thanks to its out of the box support for, in particular, Ant based projects. I went through the freely available "What's New in NetBeans IDE 7.3" slide deck while focusing, of course, on the many new HTML5 capabilities in the IDE.

On the train journey back, I was reminded of how privatizing public transport does not work:

  • In the morning, in Amsterdam, I had bought a return ticket from Amsterdam to Venlo. On the return journey, at the station in Venlo, I found that there were several blockages and delays in the train route I would normally have taken from Venlo back to Amsterdam. But, guess what? The alternative route I had to take included a section (from Venlo to Roermond) operated by Veolia Transport. "So what?", you might be thinking. Well think about this... I was not able to use the return ticket I had bought that morning in Amsterdam. It was not a valid ticket for Veolia. Instead, I had to buy a new ticket from Venlo to Roermond, operated by Veolia, after which I could use my original ticket from Roermond to Amsterdam.

  • This reminded me of a very similar occurrence at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Imagine you're a tourist and you arrive at Schiphol and you want to catch the train to Amsterdam central station. There are several automated sale points all over Schiphol, where you can buy your ticket. The first question you get when you press a button, or even before that, on the automated sale point is: "Do you want to travel with NS or with Fyra?" The latter is Fyra, yet another transportation company (famous for mess ups with the new connection between Holland and Belgium), while the former is the Dutch national train service, i.e., the government controled train service, the one that brought me from Amsterdam to Venlo and then from Roermond to Amsterdam. But, if you're a tourist freshly arrived at Schiphol, how on earth are you supposed to make a decision about whether to get to Amsterdam central station via the NS or Fyra? All you want to do is get there, you don't want to choose which of the two services to use, despite the fact that exactly that is supposed to be wonderful "because now we're giving freedom and choice to train travelers everywhere", especially since the whole trip takes about 10 minutes, so how much value can one service have over another? And even more especially since you're given no clue whatsoever about how you're meant to make that choice.

But, worse than the two examples above is the fact that it doesn't make any difference to any of these services that these ludicrous situations take place. It makes no difference to them. Why? Because the cost of the above problems is low to passengers, including me. E.g., I only had to pay 2.70 EUR for my trip between Venlo and Roermond, while the discomfort of tourists at Schiphol is also not very high. Neither the tourists nor me myself are going to get extremely upset, just slightly annoyed, in the greater scheme of things.

So, the cost of fixing the problem (i.e., coming up with shared protocols, for example) is higher than the cost of the inconveniences described above. And that's the REAL reason why privatizing public transport does not work. 


Geertjan Wielenga (@geertjanw) is a Principal Product Manager in the Oracle Developer Tools group living & working in Amsterdam. He is a Java technology enthusiast, evangelist, trainer, speaker, and writer. He blogs here daily.

The focus of this blog is mostly on NetBeans (a development tool primarily for Java programmers), with an occasional reference to NetBeans, and sometimes diverging to topics relating to NetBeans. And then there are days when NetBeans is mentioned, just for a change.


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