Posts Tagged ‘takeover’

Lessons From Our Past

by Guy Ralfe on February 3, 2010

I have been riding the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Commuter rail service for 5 years and the service has not changed much in this time, but year on year the cost of a ticket rises, often more than inflation. In addition the daily parking rates received a 100% increase a year ago supposedly to help cover MBTA staff costs and yet the only way you can pay at most stations is by stuffing one dollar bills through a slot – no monthly contracts, pay by credit card etc that are commonly available in many municipal parking lots across the country.

I am moaning but I am trying to make a point here too – on February 1, 2010 a new rule has been put in place where commuters must only board where there is a conductor present. In effect about a 30% reduction in the number of places to board a train that already only has an entrance at each end of the carriage. I doubt in the history of rail service, its  origins date back to 1889, has this situation ever been the case and it is sad that our modern day educated commuter cannot let themselves on or off a train unescorted.

Most commuter systems around the world are being redesigned to eliminate the human element and to abstract the ticket management to before the actual commute, which is the prime purpose of the conductors on the MBTA. Even the T, the metro system in Boston, running alongside this same service operates with just a driver.

What I observe happening is that people with power today are making decisions because they operate in the vacuum of state/municipal organization, thinking they are immune to the consequences of the value their organization produces. At the end of the day the leaders of the MBTA are exposed to the same market pressures as any other free market business.  When the marginal utility or value does not exist passengers will consider alternative means of transport – it has happened before. When the cost of operation exceeds the value paid by customers and from the state taxes, it will draw significant attention by both disgruntled commuters and non-commuters who will see it as a waste of their tax dollars. It will not be perceived as a necessity but a problem.

Where there are problems there are opportunities… successful businesses thrive on the vulnerability of these sorts of problems. When opportunistic businesses, observe organizations entwined by their own history, they quickly swoop in with fresh ideas not constrained by the existing historical standards and cultures. Today’s impossibilities will become tomorrow’s opportunities. These options will sound welcoming and fresh to a disgruntled commuter and tax base. Although things generally move slowly in state/municipal processes once a movement starts it is hard to stop the momentum of the masses.

When this shift takes place it will become quickly apparent that even the state/municipal organizations are competing in a global marketplace irrespective of if the infrastructure is immovable such as in a train infrastructure. People and organizational practices can always be changed – it depends who holds the most compelling and valuable story at the time, which is what business is essentially. There are many transport service companies all over the globe that given the opportunity, and having no sentiment for existing established policies or traditions, will gladly start anew – possibly without a conductor or possibly one to keep all the doors open for their valued customers.

No customers  = no service, the value has to be there, and if you are not producing value with existing assets and opportunities there are a lot of companies out there determined to make better use of established assets like a rail network. Of late has been the acquisition by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the nation’s second-largest railroad for $34 Billion, their biggest acquisition yet.

Surprisingly this lesson has not been learned by the MBTA where this situation has already transpired in Boston’s Transportation History to quote

“The West End Street Railway had a virtual monopoly on all streetcar lines in greater Boston, but high profits, poor service, high fares and a general lack of concern for the public had resulted in alienation of the West End’s management from its customers. On December 9, 1897, under the supervision of the Transit Commission, a lease was entered into with the West End Street Railway by which the property of that company was leased to the Boston Elevated Railway Company”

Remember I told you so!