BY ANDREW CHUTER
Sydney’s rail crisis has become a major headache for the Berejiklian government at the start of 2018. It has added strength to community campaigns calling for public transport investment to be put first ahead of toll road expansions.
It started with a major system meltdown on January 9, which Transport Minister Andrew Constance called an ‘act of God’. It turned out to be primarily due to bad weather and insufficient staffing. Ever since the introduction late last year of the new train timetable, Sydney Trains has had to rely on the forced overtime of many drivers. When a spike in staff taking leave occurred, a number of trains sat idle on stations awaiting drivers.
Subsequent overcrowding resulted in passengers being turned back from Central and Wynyard platforms due to safety concerns. Others sweltered in non-air-conditioned carriages pressed into service.
Representing drivers, Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) Secretary Alex Claassens said there were “no spare drivers and guards so of course it’s going to be a problem when people get tired, rushed and fatigued.”
“Under the old timetable we were 40 drivers short, under the new one we are now 150 short,” he told City Hub.
Then a fortnight later, 16 people were injured when a train crashed into a barrier at Richmond Station. It is still unclear at this point what caused the crash, with investigations underway.
Overlaying these troubles is the ongoing enterprise bargaining negotiations between Sydney Trains, NSW Trains and the RTBU.
After years of public sector wage rises being limited to 2.5% per annum, NSW train workers are asking for 6% rises that would bring them up to parity with other states.
Another sticking point is rostering, which frequently requires drivers to work 12 shifts in every 14 days. In some cases it is even possible for a driver’s workload to exceed Rail Safety Act limits.
Under pressure, Constance finally met with union representatives and a slight improvement in the government’s offer was on the table.
Union members roundly rejected the offer.
A protected action ballot was held in with over 90% of voting members in favour of extended strikes. As the strike date of January 29 loomed, another last minute offer was made by the government to try and avert it. An urgent SMS poll was held showing the worker’s determination to proceed.
In a surprise move, the NSW Government took the matter to the Fair Work Commission to have the strike suspended on the grounds that it threatened to endanger the welfare of the population.
Harmers Workplace Lawyers, who claimed that they would be directly impacted as the majority of their workers used trains to get to work, first advanced the argument a few days earlier.
The law firm had previously represented James Ashby, now chief of staff for Pauline Hanson.
FWC senior deputy president Jonathan Hamberger, a former staffer of Peter Reith, ruled in the government’s favour and suspended the strike for 6 weeks.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus condemned the FWC decision, saying, “Rail workers followed every single rule and law, and still the Minister of the day can get an order to cancel bans on working excessive overtime. The basic right to strike in Australia is very nearly dead.”
University of Sydney Law Professor Shae McCrystal described the decision as a “huge lowering of the bar.”
The ongoing crisis has angered community activists and public transport users, giving further impetus to related campaigns in Sydney and wider NSW. A coalition of 22 groups has endorsed a rally set for Saturday February 17th called ‘Fix NSW Transport’.
The RTBU is among the endorsees and Claassens will be a speaker.
“The system is broken. It’s important for people to come together and make the politicians take notice,” he said.
Another speaker will by City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who will be attending the Fix NSW Transport rally to protest the WestConnex toll road.
“WestConnex is being so seriously mismanaged and so secretively run it threatens to put our entire community at risk, by taking much needs funds out of public transport,” she said.
Other anti-motorway groups and speakers will join the rally, including Greta Werner from F6 Action and Mary Court of Penrith Valley Community Unions who will speak against the hefty new tolls on the M4.
Davie Macdonald, who will speak on behalf of STOP Western Harbour and Beaches Motorways, said, “Those who live furthest from the city centre spend the most time stuck in traffic. Therefore they also pay more for fuel and taxes by driving further for longer. Reducing congestion will have a dramatic effect on reducing inequality. We as a society need to address this manifest unfairness.”
Another participant will be public transport advocacy group, EcoTransit. They have a plan to modify the controversial Sydenham to Bankstown section of the Sydney Metro.
Spokesperson Colin Schroeder said “no sane Government would spend billions of dollars cannibalising well patronised existing railway lines, converting them into sub-standard metro.”
Their plan would obviate the need for the F6 tollway, running the Metro along that corridor to Miranda where there would be an interchange with the Cronulla Line. It would provide improved public transport through an area that is currently only served by buses and would reduce travelling times from Miranda to the CBD.
EcoTransit has been very critical of the government for using public transport projects as a tool for over-development instead of improving transport options across the entire city.
An example they cite is the decision to route the Metro via Waterloo and not Sydney University, one of the largest trip generators. Instead, the Government opted for Waterloo where developers have the opportunity to make huge profits at the expense of the destruction of the community.
The FIX NSW TRANSPORT rally will start at Archibald Fountain at 2pm on Saturday February 17th. The march will proceed to Martin Place amphitheatre for speeches and performances until 4pm. For more information, go to www.bit.do/fixnsw.