The Guardian 8 June, 2005

"Clearways" won't fix chronic rail problems

The long-term problems in the Sydney rail system will not be solved by the plans of the Carr government to split the rail network into five separate lines. Instead of committing the necessary funding needed to fix the system's problems, such as chronic understaffing and lack of funds for maintenance of infrastructure, the government intends to rearrange the deckchairs on its very own Titanic disaster.

Separating the lines, which the government has labelled "clearways", will merely move problems from one part of the system to another. For example, proposals for a line to clear the Sutherland- Cronulla branch would create problems further north at Hurstville.

At first the clearways idea appears to be another crackpot exercise to give the appearance that the system is running on time, or at least close to time, just like the system CityRail put in place where trains running five minutes late were considered to be "on time".

The rail system problems will not be solved by breaking up the integrated system. Services where trains are constantly late might start reporting increased on-time running, but that will be at the expense of other lines which will become more inefficient.

Separating the lines will also make it easier to privatise them. As services run later and later with the government deliberately undermining it through lack of funding, you can expect Carr to announce at the opportune time that the shambles can only be fixed by selling it off bit by bit to private, for-profit operators. Or it might just hand it over to private operators to run on a for-profit basis.

Of course, that won't solve the problems either, but will make things worse. In Britain, for example, where the privatised system has been literally a disaster, with services axed and deadly accidents taking the lives of commuters, a big campaign by unions and the community has begun to pressure the Blair government to take over the system and make it public again.

The Sydney Olympics demonstrated that the rail system can be made to work efficiently if the political will is there.

And at the same time as the CityRail system is struggling, the government is also cutting services to country areas while in one of the state's bigger population centres, Newcastle, it is pushing ahead with its plan to close that city's rail line and four stations into its CBD.

Meanwhile, the findings of the report from the inquiry into the Waterfall rail disaster that management must end its "blame-the-railworkers" approach, part of a long list of proposals aimed at making the system safer, proved to be spot on.

Last year RailCorp said publicly that it was train drivers causing the system to run late because they were taking sickies.

But sick leave figures for drivers at the time August 1 to November 30 2004 show that out of the 1350 drivers rostered each day an average of only 34 drivers reported in sick. During that period only twice had more than 60 drivers reported sick, and never at any time were there more than 60 drivers sick on a continuous basis, as was RailCorp's claim.

And it is with apparently no sense of irony that the Carr government, which is in the pockets of the developers and construction companies, announced a public relations exercise to open the new $680 million Cross City Tunnel in Sydney by having a walk for charity through the tunnel.

In a statement, Greens MP Lee Rhiannon noted, "While Bob Carr shows symptoms of motorway madness by championing the Cross City Tunnel, public transport users across the state will be wondering where the government's priorities are because the Premier has been closing rail lines left, right and centre "

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