Heartless commuters

Image used without permission (but with thanks!), by David Fawcett.

Earlier in the week, while having lunch with Pablo and his partner (and a good time it was, too), I mentioned that I’d been meaning to blog about the shambolic state of Wellington’s rail network.

Without straying too far into Poneke’s territory, I catch the train frequently, and rarely does a week go by without some sort of unexplained service failure, mysteriously absent or egregiously late train — sometimes but not always replaced by a bus, or a random stop in the middle of nowhere for half an hour or so. I’ve spent a lot of time — weeks at a stretch — on trains, mostly in Asia where they’re cheap and reasonably comfortable, range in speed from 50 to 350 kilometres per hour and are often simply the most efficient means of getting around.

Let’s just say that almost none of these things hold true in New Zealand. And out of respect for the look of incredulity those two Aucklanders gave me when I mentioned the Wellington network, I won’t complain too much about it, but instead draw your attention to this incredible blog about the travails of taking twins on the Auckland trains. Now, I don’t care much for mummy-blogging, but this is serious in a country which considers itself to civilised and populated by friendly and open people:

So on Thursday night it was with resignation that I saw that most of the seats in the wheelchair section were taken. True to form, most of the passengers carefully ignored us, though if they had just squeezed up a bit there would have been room to lift a seat up and park the twins. Instead I put the pushchair in the doorway (carefully working out which door on the express train would not be used until my stop in Papakura) and sat on the floor. I’d been on the go for 11 hours already, and Finn was awake and fussy. I sat him on my knee and talked to him to keep him happy and quiet. I’m well aware that other people don’t want to listen to grumpy babies on their way home, so I work damn hard to keep them entertained.
The passenger operator for our carriage, an older Indian man, had been up and down the aisle without comment several times. Shortly before Manurewa, three-quarters of the way home, Finn got hungry. I started breastfeeding him, this being what you do with hungry babies. Suddenly the passenger operator freaked out. He finally asked the passengers to move, since we could not sit there! We had to move! It was for security reasons! We had to move now!
I asked him to wait two seconds, as I knew Finn was nearly finished. The PO pulled the pushchair with Vieve asleep in it away from me and the door, then left it in the middle of the aisle without the brake on, leaving me to try to detach Finn hurriedly and discreetly, stand up on a moving train with a baby on my hip, stop the pushchair rolling away with my foot, lift up a seat and secure it, and park the pushchair.
I was angry, but at least I had a seat, and the bubs were out of the way. And then the PO CLICKED HIS FINGERS IN MY FACE, stormed past and slammed the carriage door.
Apparently he went to get the train manager, as next thing I had another large angry man in my face. Who told me I wasn’t entitled to be on the train with my children.
When I challenged him on that, he backtracked to say that I was endangering my children by taking them on the train when there wasn’t room, and he would never take HIS kids on the train like that. (Presumably, if I’m allowed out of the kitchen, I should hang around in town until 8pm when the trains are emptier?)

One thing about trains everywhere I’ve used them — even in China, which is among the rudest countries in the world — is that people tend to look after the frail and elderly, and women with babies,as a matter of some sort of civic responsibility. This is true to an extent on the Wellington buses and trains, so Auckland public transport users, what the hell is your problem? Is this the neoliberal atomisation about which people have been ruminating of late, or what?


15 thoughts on “Heartless commuters

  1. People have learnt that they no longer need to look after their neighbours because that’s the states job.

  2. Andrew W, come off it.

    Republic of Korea

    All but two are actually socialist states, unlike Aucklandistan, and all have a FAR more intrusive government apparatus enforcing social cohesion and conduct.

    Your move.


  3. Kid’s called Finn.

    Let me guess what’s missing from this blog….

    Anyway, my own view is that people would help those with children more often and wouldn’t resent them if people with small kids controlled their children and didn’t act as if no-one else existed.

    I used to respect mothers with small children. Now I clench my teeth.

    And breastfeeding in front of everyone? I don’t want to see that, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

  4. Ag, the author explained how she goes to some lengths to manage her kids so the disturbance to others is minimal. Do you just not believe her?

    As to not wanting to see breastfeeding — tough. Avert your eyes, or move. Honestly, is this the 1950s? Do you think women shouldn’t go about unaccompanied in public, too?


  5. As Government has increasingly taken on the role of social provider we’ve seen community based organizations that have historically provided help to those in need disappear. I think their disappearance is representative of a dramatic transforming of attitudes that includes the loss of the “help thy neighbour” attitude that used to be a big part of the NZ community culture.

    I assume the point of your little list is that these socialist states still have more people with the “help thy neighbour” attitude than exists in NZ, but I doubt that these states provide as extensive a social welfare net as in NZ. People there still don’t expect the Government to provide, in fact, as the growth of government in poorer nations is excessive for the wealth of these states, I suspect people in those countries expect very little from government.

  6. Andrew, the point of my list was that your assertion was falsifiable, and I falsified it. You’ll have to come up with a better argument to explain the behaviour of Auckland commuters, because “socialism” or a variation thereof ain’t going to cut it in this case. You’re on your way there by distinguishing the different functions of government, but it’s hardly a compelling case.


  7. The performance of the rail supervisor and the carriage guard was appalling. The supervisor behaved like a union rep and should have reprimanded the operator and apologised for the failure to provide a seat.

  8. I really feel compelled to leap to the defense of the Wgtn rail system. Yes it’s struggling with reliability… but that is the direct result of 25 yrs of deferred maintenance. The previous Labour govt committed something in the order of $350m, along with another chunk from the Regional Council. Around $70m was spent on 90 new units that scheduled to arrive from Korea in July, the balance being spent on a massive updating of track, overheads and stations. A full GPS based tracking system is underway that will integrate rail and bus services for passengers in real-time.

    Getting all this work done while the system is still running was always going to be a challenge. Some of the contractors have made some really dreadful installation errors, while at the same time engineering staff are battling to keep locos and carriages way beyond their use-by date going.

    Three weeks ago a Wairarapa line driver ‘ran a red-light’ in the Taita area, which automatically means he has to stand himself down and another driver found to resume. Result was a 90min hold-up for this train and four units blocked behind. What actually happened was that the driver hit a bad patch of fog, spotted the red-light about three seconds late, ran out of stopping distance in wet conditions and stopped less than a train length past the signal. Here’s the rub… the 45yr old DC-Class loco’s speedometer was faulty. Probably it should not have even been on the track that morning… but it was either that or no service at all!!!

    This is the kind of ragged edge staff are being forced to tread just to keep things going through this very tough period. They really don’t need slagging off from the media and blogs… they KNOW perfectly well what they are up against.

    Dr Cullen fully planned to re-invest in Kiwirail to get in back into something like modern shape, but this govt is starving it of capital, spending billions on useless dammed “Roads of National Significance” while cycnically letting railways (and coastal shipping) take last place.

  9. Always fraught to generalise from single incidents, so here’s a second: our first trip to China (“rudest” Lew? – does not compute – “upfront” or “refreshingly unsophisticated” maybe) is marked by the staggering and unforgettably sullen sarcasm of the A-town Air NZ flunky handling our domestic connections on return. “We’re back in NZ” writ large on the rueful faces of the party which had just experienced weeks of travel throughout a country teeming with optimism and pride: a country devoid of the dissipated, jaded, ennui-riddled after-effects of neo-liberalism’s final, fatally-failed fling; a country steeped in high principle, forged tensile by oppression, and now poised to re-assume it’s historical, inherent and deserved position as global hegemonic vanguard.

    It’s now the global equivalent of the Dilshan (not, significantly, the McCullum): the arrogance and force of Western economic greed and rapaciousness apparently adopted – to be (very shortly I fear) tipped adroitly for six.

    The best the West can pray for this Lent is forgiveness.

  10. I don’t like and am embarrassed by breast feeding mothers due to my 1930/40’s upbringing but I recognise it is a silly problem I have. I would echo the comment about unruly children all around the place and the lack of a little bit of sensible physical discipline missing it appears to me these days. Still they probably said that about me in those long gone days. I think while the upgrade is going on people should withhold their crits, irritating and frustrating as they must be. But lucky you, we don’t have passenger trains in my area, just the odd bus.

  11. RL, your arguments are fair, and a large part of the reason why I haven’t put the boot into KiwiRail in Wellington — I know they’re not exactly operating under ideal conditions, and it’s churlish to complain too much about what remains the best public transport network in the country. Add to that, the staff are excellent. I’ve never struck a bad one.

    ak, for what it’s worth, I loved how rude the Chinese were after being basically a celebrity foreigner in Korea for three years. I loved the fact that I was just another illiterate barbarian to them. I haven’t experienced that anywhere else, really. So my description is not at all an insult, in that regard.


  12. I have a few niggles about the story presented, and until I hear the train operator’s version, I’d reserve judgement.

    There were apparently seats, but the author didn’t ask either the other passengers, or the passenger operator, for assistance. She condemns them without even giving them the opportunity to assist.

    Presumably the children were secure in the pushchair until she removed one for breastfeeding, at which stage the operator passed, and became concerned.

    There’s no comment from the PO that he was concerned about the breastfeeding ( and why is his age and ethnicity an issue? ), but became concerned about safety once a child was released from the pushchair.

    If there is not a safe place, but there is potential space, any passenger should be insisting that the operator ask the other passengers to move if they don’t repsond to a polite request.

  13. On the bus yesterday someone got out of their seat to give a mother and her young child somewhere to sit. She wasn’t even breastfeeding.

    We’re not completely screwed yet :)

  14. In the end the need is simple – when a mum or dad comes onto a carriage with young babies, more able passengers need to give up their seat. It’s called manners and it is found from France to China. Manners are a hallmark of civilisation.

    Never mind:
    – the breakdown of the KiwiRail Network
    – the training of the Operator
    – whether or not there was some legitimate cause for anger.

    My observation is that many passengers on a train act as if they are completely removed from the other passengers, avoiding conversation etc. So is there some collective psychology at force that does not help exhibition of manners?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *