Transperth’s “Undercover Guards” Say It All

Words by: Anthony Worrall

It was around midday on a normal Tuesday in Perth, and I was on the Joondalup Transperth train line, as I tend to spend the fair majority of my life doing. As I flicked through my social media on my phone, being serenaded by the warm tones of Ice Cube through my headphones, I heard the muffled tones of a woman speaking in front of me, and soon noticed that I was the subject of her wise words.

“Hey mate, can you pick that coffee cup up for me please, it could spill”, she asked me with a polite tone that was as forced as it was surprising. I quickly looked down at the cup of green tea between my feet, then looked back up at the woman in time for her to flash me her ‘badge’ – “Undercover”, she said with a grin, her teethy smile revealing more gaps and holes than the plot of an M. Knight Shyamalan screenplay.

As I picked the cup up off the floor of the relatively busy train and she left to go and talk to other adoring passengers, I was still trying to figure out what the actual fuck had just happened. It was obvious that she was an ‘undercover’ Transperth officer, but that was about it in terms of the logic I could derive from the situation. OK, yeah, fair enough, I could have been holding the paper cup in my hands, but the bigger question indicative of the bigger problem is why the fuck was she there?

It is very obvious to me that Western Australian public transport services are deeply misguided when it comes to the treatment of their passengers. While I can be criticised (rightfully) for not having my license (just yet), it is of the utmost importance for a government to provide an accessible, fair and efficient system of mass public transport for its citizens, because it reduces carbon emissions from lower usage rates of cars, and is cost-efficient, as it places less pressure on the government to expand road infrastructure to ease traffic congestion in key areas. However, in Western Australia, the administration behind main public transport institution Transperth seems to promote an overly punitive attitude towards its users.

If you’re like me and are a young student in Perth, then you’ve no doubt heard stories from friends or acquaintances about getting fucked over into a fine in one way or another. It almost seems like a common hatred for Transperth exists that is as universal as the services it provides. One example that comes to mind is a friend of mine being fined for actually paying for too many ‘zones’ on a train ticket and essentially copping a $100 fine for paying Transperth too much.

While this is purely hearsay and, of course, may not have even happened, it highlights quite a few issues in the system. As shown previously in my recount of the encounter with the undercover agent slick enough to put James Bond to shame, it is very obvious that there are a lot of Transperth officers around that really don’t seem to have any other purpose than to ‘educate’ average commuters like me that pose about as much serious threat to the people around us as a homemade alarm clock. The old adage of Transperth officers being ‘wannabe cops’ definitely springs to mind here; they act with such a small town mentality that you end up not feeling like a person, but like a number to fill a quota.

One possible explanation for this behaviour could be the complicated legal powers that these transit officers have. They’re kind of cops, but at the same time, they’re privately employed by the multinational corporation Serco, who are employed by the government. So these officers are somewhat ‘hybrid’ cops, where they have the traditional powers of arrest and can issue governmental fines, but are not subject to the same scrutiny most police officers with these powers are. In other words, the passages of accountability for these officers are much harder to discern. While a transit officer attracts vast amounts of public and media scrutiny if they were to use almost any degree of force in a situation, there appears to be almost no method to regulate their day-to-day conduct, apart from maybe public feedback.

While it may be a bit thinly-veiled to criticise the government for handing the reins of control over to a private body, given that the pluralisation of policing has evolved into a necessary part of modern society, it is clear that in this case, pluralisation has resulted in Perth’s public transport no longer actually having the public at the focal point of their process.