The Phantom Tollbooth

When the machines took over the Harbour Bridge’s toll booths they showed no mercy at all. Tega Brain went looking for some answers from a surviving toll collector and found that something very weird was going on.


It’s almost 300 years since the first commercial steam engines really kicked off the bitter struggle between man and the machines, and it looks like the machines are winning. The latest victims are the replaced tollbooth operators who worked on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, doing a job that has existed since it was built.

When it was announced last year that all toll collecting would soon be done by machinery and that the toll booth operators were getting the boot, the workers held a 24-hour strike. But it seems that nothing could stop the cold, cashless electronic eye extending its control across every lane on the bridge, and the 160,000 drivers who use it every day.

So what did these wounded frontline soldiers, our friendly tollbooth workers, really feel in the face of this latest defeat by the machines? I, phrasing my request a little differently, approached the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) and sought permission to interview a replaced (and hopefully disgruntled) former tollbooth employee.

Unfortunately, rather than being able to speak with a flesh and blood interview subject, I only managed to get some questions answered by email. These answers were supposedly written by a human, but each reply had such a powerful smell of sanitised PR bullshit, that I’m worried the machines have locked all the human RTA staff in a cupboard and are now running things themselves.

What was the dead giveaway? Apart from the fact that he seems so suspiciously jolly about getting the boot, it was the way the PR robot has written in brackets all the places where the booth operator (a Mr Chi Chiu) supposedly laughs while he’s typing his answers. It’s almost like he’s sitting there in an RTA basement strapped to a stool with an electrode under his buttocks ready to go ZAP if he doesn’t play ball and chuckle along.

Here are the questions as they were answered:

How long have you been working on the tollbooths? And how did you end up working there?

My name’s Chi Chiu, however everyone calls me Cash Chiu. So now that I’m not a toll collector, the Harbour Bridge really is Cashless! No cash money and no me! (laughs)

I worked as a cash toll collector for 17 years. I got the opportunity after applying for a position through what’s now called Centrelink. I started part-time and after some time got a full-time position which I was very happy about. I moved from Hong Kong in 1981 and it was more difficult back then for immigrants to get good jobs, especially if English was not your first language. However RTA gave me an opportunity and I took it.

What made you come to work each day? What was the best part of your job?

I love being able to help people. It might sound a bit strange, but there are so many people who come up to the booths and don’t know where they are or where they are going. I actually had one person come up to my booth and ask me where the Sydney Harbour Bridge was! I said, Mate you’re on it!

What will you miss the most – if anything at all?

I will miss being out in the outdoors. I know a lot of people think being in a tollbooth all day might sound like an office job, but it’s not - there’s nothing office-job about it! (laughs). So many different people and so many different questions, how many office jobs do you know like toll collecting? I’m never sitting behind a desk typing away at a computer that’s for sure! (laughs)

Do you feel "replaced" by a machine? How do think the automation of previously human jobs will affect our society?

I suppose, technically I have been replaced, but I don’t feel like it. A machine would not be offered another job within the RTA. Machines just get thrown out; people don’t get thrown out. [I’m not sure all those people getting the sack around Sydney and the world right now would agree, but I sense that by this point in the interview the interrogator machine has squeaked its way across the floor towards the helpless Mr Chi and taken control of the keyboard.]

What are you doing for work now?

It’s funny actually! [See, I knew it...] I’m still working for the tolls, but now I’m working with E-toll tags! For the first few months I’m going to be part of the team working really hard to get new E-toll tag applications processed.

So that’s a fucking sad interview isn’t it. A once-proud Centrelink recipient, like the best of us here at Ordinary, gets a sweet government gig, sitting up there on our national icon with the kind of harbour views even Alan Moss with a window cubicle at MacBank would’ve been happy with. A real-life fairytale. And now Cash has been shafted into that office job that he so proudly didn’t want – a cog in the wheel, facilitating the very same technology that replaced him!

What a SHAM. It looks to me like he had a little “help” with his answers. Especially since many of the other questions I had asked mysteriously went unanswered. For example, I was curious to know what he thought of the human race’s chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change considering he stared at thousands of cars each day. But I’m guessing that his coal-fired electrical interrogator bleeped that one out because there was no sign of it at all on the reply email.

The question that I really wanted a frank answer to was this one: “Are you aware of flirtatious tollbooth operators giving their phone numbers out to attractive motorists? Did you, perhaps, ever proposition a good-looking driver yourself?” Many of my hot single friends have been hit on by tollbooth workers over the years with the gift of a mobile phone number hurriedly scribbled on the back of a toll receipt and thrust at them through the window.

But once again no answer. You’d think, now that it’s all over, that he’d be a sport and ’fess up – unless a robot was pumping 10,000 volts up his cushion.

So in the absence of a sufficient answer let’s take a moment and do the maths ourselves. At its peak over 90,000 vehicles were passing through the booths every day – say 40,000 come through on your shift and 8000 go through your booth. Of those, 4000 of those are the sex you find most interesting, probably 1/5 are in the desirable age range and half of those are cute enough to give your number to. To a red-blooded man THAT MEANS 400 WOMEN! Even if, lets say, 1/2 of those women are taken – that’s still 200-odd eligible women driving by, cleavage under your nose! No wonder Cash loved his job! No wonder electronic tollbooth machines are more efficient at collecting tolls. This whole story is unraveling at last.

But what does it matter now? On the 11th of January the last motorist was presented a plaque at the tollbooth with an engraved message that read, "On 19th March 1932 the first toll was collected on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Congratulations - on 11th January 2009 you paid the last cash toll on the Sydney Harbour Bridge."

That’s all very well, but what I want to know is - what was scribbled on the back?

Sadly today you can forget the ego-boosting flirt on the way to work. Forget the days of bargaining for 20-cent discounts (the old “It’s all I’ve got! I swear! How ’bout if I show you a bit of this…?” routine). Nope, it’s all over folks. From here on in it’s only a smile for the camera and the arrival of the usual RTA bill in its all too familiar envelope in the mail.

I’ll say it again. The machines are winning.