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Should Australians Bet on Trains?

As we’ve talked about in the past, one of the big issues facing Australian bookmakers in the future is the integrity of the events people are betting on. Betting on the winners of major sporting events? This generally is not considered a problem, since match-fixing on that level would be extremely expensive for those who might want to put a result in their favour, not to mention dangerous for the players or officials involved – and even if a plot were put into place, there’s no certainly of success. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but rather that the combination of safeguards that are in place, the difficulty of the act and other factors make such scandals more likely to be uncovered before they happen.

But smaller events have recently come under more scrutiny in Australia. Many officials have expressed a desire to ban or limit gambling on local and regional football leagues, as these leagues have fewer resources available to protect the integrity of their games. Meanwhile, others have questioned just how far Australia should go in allowing “micro-betting,” including bets on the results of individual balls in cricket, or a single point in tennis. Some say these are the kinds of events a player could be persuaded to fix even without throwing an entire match, and it would be nearly impossible to detect. That’s why when reforms are expected to allow in-play betting at online bookmakers, these sorts of bets still won’t be allowed.

Wagering of this type isn’t limited to sports, however. For many years, betting on political or entertainment events has been a popular pastime, though few punters choose to bet more than a dollar or two on such things. Now, a new form of micro-wagering is starting in two Australian cities: betting on the classic dilemma of whether or not your train will arrive on time.

Betting on Punctuality

These new wagers are the products of Sportsbet.com.au, which says these bets are designed solely to allow commuters and others to have a little fun. Punters can place wagers on the whether the City Rail and Metro Trains systems in Melbourne and Sydney will make their monthly “on-time targets.” This is a percentage of on-time trains that each transit system seeks to reach as a benchmark for punctuality – and sets a convenient line for bettors to wager on.

Here’s an example of how such a bet would work. The Metro Trains on-time target for July 2011 was 88%. A punter could wager on whether the actual percentage of trains arriving on time would be above or below that mark. In that particularly month, the rate was 88.2% — a win for the over side.

The Dangers of Manipulation

Some transport ministers have expressed concerns over such bets, however. They fear that a gambler who desperately wants to win a bet might take steps to deliberately delay trains in order to hit an under bet. Bettors might even work in groups to create situations that work to their advantage; this might even happen without any conscious efforts by the punters to coordinate their efforts, as hundreds of people do various small things to add seconds here and there to train times.

Speaking to ABC Radio’s PM, Victoria’s Minister for Gaming Michael O’Brien said there should be regulations to prevent such betting.

There’s a prospect that if there was sufficient money at stake, people might be encouraged to undertake activities that could affect the punctuality of trains,” O’Brien said.

As always, perception is an important issue, too. Some have pointed out that even if nobody is actually doing anything to slow down the trains, the fact that money rides on the outcome could lead many to question whether gamblers were actually having an effect on train punctuality. Train operator employees in Melbourne have already been banned from wagering on train punctuality in part because of this perception.

The problem would be greatest when the on-time figure was close to the target. In the example we mentioned earlier, the target was only beaten by 0.2%. Punters would only have to find a way to delay 200 trains across the course of the month in order to win their under wagers.

Defending Their Bets

On the other hand, Sportsbet has defended offering such wagers, and says that there’s no real risk of anyone taking action in order to win these bets.

Critically, they point out, these issues would only exist if a significant amount of money was being wagered on these train-related bets. But betting limits are in place in order to ensure there’s no incentive to try such interference.

“These are just muck-around novelty bets of $5 and $10,” Sportsbet’s Matthew Campbell told PM. “It’d be drawing a very long bow to suggest someone having $20 on whether the trains will come in on time can actually influence a train running at a vast network of Melbourne or Sydney.”

Indeed, these are the same protections often used by bookmakers on political wagering, so called micro-betting in sports, and any other event in which it wouldn’t be difficult for punters to find a way to influence the outcome. By limiting the size of bets, the incentive to try and win at all costs is also limited. After all, it’s hard to imagine anything a person might have to do to hold up hundreds of trains being worth winning a $10 bet. Instead, these bets are simply a way to get casual bettors in the door by giving them something entertaining to wager on, as well as a clever way of making headlines for Sportsbet.

In the end, nobody wants to see punters slowing down trains or convincing a bowler to bowl one wide just to win a bet. But as long as proper limits are put in place, betting on whether the trains come on time should be a harmless way for bettors to vent their frustrations about public transit – a popular activity throughout the entire world.