Gary Liddle AO: Transport professional
Gary Liddle has had a long and illustrious career in transport, with a focus on Melbourne, but also on the national stage with his time as a Director at Roads Australia, Chair at Austroads, and now on the board at iMOVE. After more than 40 years at VicRoads, Gary is now the Enterprise Professor, Transport, at the University of Melbourne. Find out how $2 got him started in his career, and his thoughts how best to take on and beat congestion.
How did you move towards a career in transport and mobility?
My background, when I started university, it was still in the days where you had to pay to go to university, and because my family wasn’t in a position where they could afford to pay for me to go, so I had a choice of a Commonwealth scholarship, or cadetship with VicRoads.
The cadetship with VicRoads won out, because I think there was $2 or $3 a week in pocket money, as well as them paying my way through uni, So I gravitated towards working in roads mostly because I was going to receive pocket money while I was going through uni.
And apart from the pocket money, once you started going down that road you were happy to be there?
Yes absolutely! I’d be less than honest if I didn’t think when I started — because I had to work for VicRoads for 5 years as part of the cadetship — “Yeah 5 years, then I’ll go off and do some things in private industry or whatever”.
But I was very fortunate in my time at VicRoads. I think the longest I ever worked in one role there was in my last position there as Chief Executive, for 7 years, but other than that I changed jobs every three or four years. So there was always something new to do, always something exciting.
I definitely didn’t intend to stay there for 43 years when I started, but it was fortunate there were lots of opportunities along the way.
It was handy, that you could go straight from being an undergraduate student to what turned out to be a lifelong career.
Absolutely! In those days there were lots of my fellow students that couldn’t get jobs. I remember a couple of mates went to what was then Rhodesia to work in mining, because they couldn’t get jobs in Australia. A couple of them worked as taxi drivers for a long period, so I was fortunate I had a job to go to coming out of uni.
And I think you’ve probably just answered this, but you said straight from university to VicRoads. How long were you there all up?
I started as a cadet in 1971, and I finished at VicRoads at the end of 2013. So 4 years of study doing a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) at the University of Melbourne, and then 39 years working at VicRoads.
And what have you been doing since leaving VicRoads?
Since VicRoads… I thought I was ready to retire at the end of 2013. I then got asked if I could do a short-term gig in at the Department of Transport, so I worked in there for a couple of months, then the Secretary at the time, Dean Yates, said “We’re looking for a Deputy Secretary, Transport, and haven’t been able to find anyone… are you interested in doing it?,” and I probably had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t ready to retire, so I said, “Yes, I’ll do it for 18 months, but that’s it!”
So I ended up doing that for 18 months, and then I was ready to retire. That takes us through to mid-2015, and then there were a couple of things that happened. First, at Public Transport Victoria, the Chief Executive resigned and they were looking for someone just to do the role until they made a permanent appointment. I think I’d have to honestly say I got talked into doing that role for 3 to 6 months as the interim CEO at Public Transport Victoria.
Then partway through that period, so that was probably September 2015, V/Line had a very big issue with wheel wear, and lost probably 30% of its fleet that couldn’t be on the network because wheels were wearing out much faster than they should have been. The CEO stepped down and I was asked if I would step in there to resolve that issue, which …
Put the wheels back on so to speak.
Yes, put the wheels back on. Keep the wheels turning. I did that from January 2016 to November 2016, when I indicated that it was time for me to move on to other things, and they permanently appointed someone to that role.
Since November 2016 I finished in the public sector and started working at the University of Melbourne, in this Enterprise Professor role for 2 days a week. It’s an interesting role because it’s trying to flip the research agenda from being researcher-driven to industry-and-government-needs-driven. My task at the university is really to understand industry and government needs and connect them with good research capabilities, not unlike what iMOVE does really.
Not unlike what all universities are trying to do these days, to make that bridge between industry and research.
Absolutely. So it’s trying to flip the agenda from a researcher with a good idea trying to convince someone that they need the good idea, to industry saying we have these needs, what researcher can help me with them?
I’m really enjoying it. I don’t think you realise how tactical you’re often being inside the public sector, with lots of day-to-day things to resolve. So having that ability to think longer-term, what might be a good future for transport, certainly in Victoria, but probably broader than that as well, has been really interesting.
I think we talked about this off-mic, but your general areas of interest and expertise …
Yeah, so look, I’d call myself a transport professional. I’m very much conscious that the task is moving people and freight, and really the best way of doing it, not concentrating on road or bus or private transport, so I’d call myself a transport professional concentrating on the best way of moving people and freight.
And a real interest these days is thinking of transport as a system. Thinking about it in a systemic way, to ensure that we’re doing the planning for it as a whole, and I think that’s going to become more important as we move into what I would call a very revolutionary time in transport.
Historically, we’ve really had entities in transport that are set up around infrastructure largely, perhaps some more recently around services. Public Transport Victoria probably more around services, but VicRoads very much set up around road infrastructure, V/Track is set up around communications infrastructure, and we have operators that are very much modal-based.
So I think having an entity like Transport for Victoria set up, or Transport for NSW before that, who think about transport as a whole and don’t start by concentrating on individual networks or modes, but think about the system as a whole and where we’re trying to move people and freight from and to, and then coming up with the best means of doing that, so my real interest these days is probably more in that, thinking of transport as a system and approaching it on a systemic basis.
Alright, which makes this question perhaps tricky… if there was one thing you could do, let’s break this into two things, one thing you can do with unlimited budget what do you think would make a quick, appreciable impact, what would it be?
The thing that would make a massive difference to transport in Melbourne, if we could do both at the same time, if we could do the current Melbourne Metro, and a Metro 2. We could have Melbourne Metro connecting effectively the south-east to the north-west, and if we had a Metro 2 connecting the north-east to the west. So a Metro 2 that would come down through Clifton Hill past Melbourne Uni and Parkville, through the CBD out to Fishermans Bend and then connect into Werribee … if you could actually build both of those Metros at the same time I think it would make a massive difference to how transport operates in Melbourne.
When you say Metro is that the ‘Metro’ train model, with services possible every 3 minutes conceivably, similar to the new Sydney Metro trains and lines?
I mean I think the frequency will come, but it is about regular services running, you know, you just turn up and there’ll be a train there in a reasonable time. And I think we have parts of that happening, there are parts of Melbourne where that’s happening now. But yes, it’s about not having to worry about a timetable because you know there’ll be a train there within a short period of time. Whether that’s 2, 3, 5, or 7 minutes I don’t know, but it’s knowing that it’s soon enough that you don’t have to worry about a timetable.
And I think the government’s announcement of potential suburban rail is fantastic. To see someone with a very long-term vision … for me that is an amazing achievement to actually have that long-term vision of what might take 40 or 50 years to deliver, but to see that again in transport is really exciting.
And if you wanted to make a quick impact with a limited budget. What could you fix, or build, that would have a quick impact?
At the moment there’s a massive amount of work going on around Melbourne, and some of the work that’s being done there to actually manage its impact is really, really good.
But actually having, maybe in the first instance it’s a virtual system, management of the transport system as a whole would have a big impact. I don’t think that would be a massive investment, it might be $100 or $150 million, which is still big, but it’s not the $11 billion for a Metro, or $16 billion for North-East Link.
I think that there’s some things that we could do in the management of the existing system that would make it a lot more efficient than it is now, and some of that’s about using data more effectively. Some of it’s about knowing what’s happening on the tram network and being able to adjust the road network, or the train network to take that into consideration.
You mentioned the recent announcement of an orbital rail loop in Melbourne, and it being long-term thinking. What would you prioritise as Melbourne’s long-term projects, fixes, etc.?
I think the first step is to do the sort of work that Infrastructure Victoria has done with its 30 Year Plan. I think we need to move away from planning for projects and planning for systems. For me that’s something that Infrastructure Victoria has done pretty well with its 30 Year Plan. It has a revision of that plan coming out next year.
So for me the first thing you would do is make sure that you’ve got a good vision for what you expect will be needed in the long-term, 30, 40, or 50 years out. I’m not too fussed if the priorities for projects within that 30- year plan change. It becomes less of a problem if you’ve got the 30- year plan. The plan also needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the uncertainties that exist when you are considering this time frame.
I wouldn’t lock in the next project that needs to be done, I think having a vision of what needs to be done in the long-term and then ensuring that projects we’re doing are aligning with that objective and being flexible as some of the uncertainties are removed, is more important.
And important in the way they approach it… not just transport people, but all sorts of people from all sorts of fields.
Otherwise you go down the line of, “Oh, we should have thought about that…”
Absolutely. Again this approach is happening much better, you know, doing land use planning and transport planning together, recognising that they are interdependent, and making it work together, I think is again something that is being done much better than it has been done in the past.
OK, as a wrap-up, what would you say are you most proud of, to date?
Ahhh, that’s a really interesting question. I probably, of all the things I’ve done, the thing that I personally feel most proud of, is when I was Project Manager on the Eastern Freeway. It was back in the early 90s, 1991 to 1994, and it was the first project where we brought together landscape architects, architects, artists, and sculptors even, to take a holistic approach to freeway planning, freeway development, freeway construction.
It was a freeway that was quite controversial, with part of it passing through the Koonung Valley. We also recognised that we needed to make it something more than just a road. We established a team that was multidisciplinary in the truest sense of the word, and we developed what was in essence a linear park with a freeway.
For example, the freeway’s noise walls were very different, and went on to win an Australian architecture award. The pedestrian bridges were quite different … so yes, that’s probably the most, from a personal perspective, that’s still something I feel that was a bit out there at the time. We had a community that wasn’t supportive, but we managed to develop something that I think now the community would say still stands the test of time, 20-odd years later.
I know you talked retirement earlier, but forgetting that for a moment, what would you like to get your teeth into now?
Well it’s interesting. I probably have more things on the go at the moment than I really would like, because my aim now is to work 3 to 4 days a week maximum. But right now we find ourselves in a revolutionary time in transport.
I think the work iMOVE is doing is part of that revolution, and it’s interesting, having worked in transport for 40 years and seen it evolve over that time. The next decade will be a revolutionary time in transport, so for me, what I’d like to see in the next decade is that transport is truly thought of as a service, and not just as the bit of road that buses run on, or the tracks that the train runs on, but that we truly think of the provision of transport services holistically, not in silos.
So if we can achieve that at the end of the next decade, which is a big ask I think, it would be amazing to see that come to fruition.