Sometime ago I sat amongst several hundred other passengers on a Sydney suburban train, our progress indefinitely halted while police scoured the tunnel ahead of us for a trespasser seen wandering on the tracks.
As the minutes tallied up while they searched in vain, I jumped aboard my own train of thought.
At least, it would be going somewhere.
How much would it cost to install the safety screens I have seen in other country’s metro systems? How much could this cost compared with improved access to mental health services? It need not be a drastic increase. Just enough so that those in that fog of wretchedness blinding the mind to all but the worst possible options don’t stray from their own mental tracks…enough so that those contemplating something dire, and who see those mesmerising tracks before them, don’t find a solution in their steely embrace.
As a frequent user of both systems I know neither is fully capable of serving the demand placed on them. All too often in Sydney the overspill from the mental health system means the train tracks become the ultimate choice for some. Bleak necessity gives those in the driver’s cab no choice but to treat suicides as a professional hazard. Ironically, this burden placed upon train crews will leave many of them in as much mental distress as those whose exit they unwillingly facilitate.
One thing you can credit the Sydney public transport system with is that it is at least cheap. Whether it delivers value for money is another question.
The same can’t be said for mental health services if you want more than a cursory chat and prescription medication. Medicare soaks up a good part of the cost, but only if you don’t actually need to talk to anyone. Until the end of 2012, Medicare provided for a maximum of 16 subsidised psychology sessions per-patient per twelve-month period, far short of comprehensive treatment in many cases. It now provides for a total of ten in a year.
Initiatives like “R U OK? Day” and “Mental Health Awareness Week” have their place, but increasingly this is virtual rather than actual. Given this is where many distressed souls turn for some sort of solace, this is not in and of itself a bad thing.
It does, however, signal a loss of shared public physical space. Ironically, as our cities become denser, and the added human-mass starts to tell on lagging infrastructure, we are actually spending more time in the company of strangers just as technology gives us the option to take cover from the potential awkwardness in our own digital foxholes. To be fair, if anyone is striking up a conversation with a stranger on a train in Sydney, they are usually drunk, high, mad or all three…
The sudden announcement that the train was being permitted to cautiously creep forward to the next station (which serves Sydney’s domestic airport, so passengers with flights would not miss them) brought me back to the reality of the train carriage. Before we could proceed, however, the empty platform was suddenly populated by exasperated-looking people with bulky luggage and petulant children in tow. The international terminal was further up the tunnel where the police were still searching, so nothing could be done for the overseas passengers but have them wait for buses.
It occurred to me that the aviation industry – not so long ago just happy to get you from A to B alive – is more cognisant of its impact upon its customers’ sanity than rail. It would be hard to argue a passenger on the train from an outer Sydney suburb to the CBD gets as much consideration as one on a flight between Sydney and Brisbane, despite being in the care of each transport provider for about the same length of time. It is something to worry about because we are likely to be spending a lot more time on trains in the future if decisions are not made soon.
They are a place we have no choice but to interact with each other for extended periods of time. Bad trains can not only be a conduit for malcontents within the communities they serve but can generate tension. Trains are a social forum and perhaps one of our largest remaining physical – as opposed to digital – commons. Our cities are playing an endless game of catch-up, unable to grow new transport arteries fast enough to provide circulation to their bloated suburbs. A system which should be a conduit for social and economic circulation is just as often proving a choke-point.
Bad trains cost us money and productivity. More importantly, they cost us our single most valuable and one truly non-renewable resource. Time spent on slow trains in the mornings costs us time to get our jobs done with all the additional pressure that entails. Slow trains home steal time with our families and friends, from our other life pursuits and from our night’s rest.
What good is a weekend spent catching up on a week’s worth of lost sleep?