I remember many years ago, probably
in the 1960s, the BBC did one of those street
polls on a topic of the day. It concerned the
safety of air travel, and the reporter put the
question to an archetypal little old lady who
answered: "If God had wanted us to fly, He
would never have given us the railways."
Where's that little old lady now
the Victorian Government needs her?
Given its less-than-impressive
performance during the recent hot spell, the railways
— and the trams and buses too, for that
matter — remain somewhat on the nose. The
service might be back on line, as it were, but
it's still hardly an ideal way to get around.
Melburnians' preference for driving
to work rather than catching public transport
is leading to gridlocked roads and delays that
cost the local economy $2.6 billion in lost productivity,
it was reported last week.
So what's the solution? How does
the Victorian Government bring people back to
Well, if they ask me (and, sadly,
they don't do it enough), it's simple. The concept
of catching public transport has to be fun, it
has to be interesting. It has to be sexy. OK,
OK, stop laughing, this is serious. And it can
In more than 25 years of selling
everything from caviar to meat pies, I have found
that a key to getting people interested in a product
is to have celebrities drape themselves all over
One of the first things I would
do to sell public transport is get famous people
on board. And not just any famous people. Good-looking
famous people you wouldn't expect to see sitting
next to you on a train or bus. Interesting people,
accomplished people. Rich people.
First off, I'd have an advertising
campaign. Something like: "You never know
who you'll sit next to on a bus."
I'd have two people on the way
to work, their faces hidden by newspapers. When
they stand up at their stop you'll see it's Shane
Warne next to John Buchanan, Bill Lawry next to
Tony Grieg, or Eddie McGuire next to John Elliott.
I'd have Sam Newman lining up
to buy a ticket for himself and his latest girlfriend,
and asking for a senior and a student concession.
I'd have the hierarchy of Victorian
business filing on to a city tram; Ron Walker,
Lindsay Fox, Sol Lew, Bernie Brooks and Don Argus
with their Age and Financial Review under their
Once I had people's attention,
I'd follow part two in my tried-and-true formula:
Give people a free taste of something
and if they like it they'll come back for more.
One day a week for a month I'd
have Free Transport Day.
I'd have more of those celebrities,
dressed as bus conductors, walking the aisles
taking donations for charity and giving away products
such as confectionery and celebrity magazines.
Nothing like a bit of chocolate and gossip to
start the day with a smile.
I'd encourage singalongs and maybe
even a happy hour, with free drinks on Friday
Sound gimmicky, tacky and over-the-top?
Then we're on the right track. People said the
same thing about a bloke called Richard Branson
when he started promoting his Virgin Atlantic
He took on British Airways and
won — then turned his attention to the British
Branson reckons no idea is too
silly if it brings results. Which is why I'd like
to see morning radio shows broadcast from buses.
Talk about a captive audience.
What about buses painted in the
colours of the AFL districts in which they operate?
Imagine catching a black-and-white-painted bus
in Collingwood and watching highlights of great
Magpies matches on closed-circuit TV. (And for
Richmond supporters who get on along Punt Road,
we'd show a replay of the 1980 grand final.)
The form of public transport that
should be easiest to promote is the tram. Selling
trams to Victorians should be like selling fish
to seals. Trams are to Melbourne what trolley
cars are to San Francisco and black cabs are to
London — except in Melbourne, you can sometimes
understand what the driver is saying.
I'd push the nostalgia angle.
Show old black-and-white footage of trams taking
Victorians to footy games and the Melbourne Cup
back in the 1880s and 1920s, then morph into colour
showing them doing the same thing in 2007.
And while I'm at it, I'd make
sure those ads make it very clear that trams are
unique to Melbourne. Sydney and Brisbane had them,
and they melted them down for scrap. Ignorant
But much as an inherent dislike
of New South Welshmen and Queenslanders can stir
the loins of any red-blooded Victorian, there
is another topic guaranteed to raise interest
and tug at the heart-strings — the environment.
Trains and trams are as green
as a St Patrick's Day parade.
I'd bring out Al Gore for a TV
campaign in which he pleads with all Victorians
to leave the car at home and take a tram —
and threaten to hit anyone who doesn't with his
There is a scientific equation
that can be used to work out exactly how much
carbon dioxide is emitted into the environment
by one car travelling one kilometre at a certain
speed at a specific time of day.
I'd work out exactly how much
carbon dioxide is not emitted by a person catching
a train or tram instead of driving. (Actually,
I'd let Al work it out, he's good at that sort
of stuff.) We could have a huge thermometer on
the side of the casino, showing just how much
we are saving each week.
Even better, we could start outing
car drivers by publishing their photos —
maybe even force them to watch back-to-back matinees
of An Inconvenient Truth as punishment. Too much?
Yeah you're right. Even Richard Branson would
find that cruel and inhuman.
One thing Branson would tell us,
though, is that if you want people to buy your
product, it has to be good. It's no use giving
people a free taste of something if it turns sour
on them. Even Jennifer Hawkins in a short conductress
uniform giving away choc-tops won't turn a car
driver into a rail passenger if the train is crowded,
smelly and hot.
Public transport has to be upgraded.
New seats, closed-circuit TV showing news bulletins
and sitcoms, and ample free security parking next
to stations. The cost? By comparison with that
$2.3 billion, peanuts.
But even with all those innovations,
we still need something spectacular; something
so eye-catching and downright contagious that
it turns public transport into a craze as all-pervading
as the latest TV sensation.
I speak of reality train travel.
I'm thinking of a title such as Commuting with
the Stars or Big Busser.
Imagine it: a live TV program
featuring a selection of celebrities, sports stars
and the odd Channel Seven personality, all on
a train from the outer suburbs to the CBD, hidden
cameras and microphones catching every conversation,
Each week, based on viewer votes
and a secret ballot among competitors, one pair
of contestants would be voted off the train at
the next station.
Can't you just see host Daryl
Somers, dressed as a train driver, pushing his
cap to the back of his head and, almost choking
back the tears, saying: "And the passengers
who won't be continuing with us to Flinders Street
are — Steve and Terry Bracks."
And if that doesn't bring the
crowds back to public transport, nothing will.
Max Markson, of Markson Sparks,
specialises in public relations, celebrity management
and event organisation.