Bring on the track stars

Bring on the track stars, by Max Markson - 18th March 2007
(Credit: The Age)

All we need to increase the popularity of public transport is a few celebrities, a reality TV theme and lots of free stuff.

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 public transport?

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 be done.

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 it.

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. Sorry Sam!

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 arms.

Once I had people's attention, I'd follow part two in my tried-and-true formula: free stuff.

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 afternoons.

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 flights.

He took on British Airways and won — then turned his attention to the British rail system.

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 savages.

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 Oscar.

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, every aside.

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.


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