The Guardian August 9, 2000


Olympics loom, Sydney train system off the rails

by Peter Mac

Sydneysiders have watched with growing dismay as the tally of last year's 
accidents on the State Rail network has increased, rather than diminished. 
Between May last year and July 9 this year there were 25 derailments, two 
accidents in which power lines were brought down, five cases of trains 
travelling down the wrong tracks, and a major train fire. The derailments 
resulted in the deaths of two drivers and seven passengers.

In another recent accident a train ran through a red light into a closed 
section of the track, colliding with maintenance equipment and narrowly 
missing railway workers.

Reports of this accident were circulated to State Rail staff only after the 
media got wind of directives from State Rail management not to release any 
such report.

The derailments, delays, red light violations and passenger accidents have 
led to serious questions as to the ability of the rail system to cope 
during, and even after, the Olympics.

So far, both the Carr State Government and the Liberal opposition seem to 
have largely concentrated on driver training and competence as contributing 
to the level of accidents. However, this is only one of several issues that 
have led to the current situation.

For a start, the drivers involved in the recent red light violations appear 
to have been raw recruits, operating with minimal or no direct supervision.

The key questions with regard to their performance is why the numbers of 
experienced drivers has fallen so low that the trainee drivers are being 
asked to shoulder such heavy responsibility, and why the problem was not 
anticipated and acted on sooner.

The answer is that the attention of successive governments has been focused 
elsewhere.

The main, underlying issue in all aspects of train operations is, and 
always has been, safety. The irony of the current situation is that in 
their haste to implement privatisation policies the State Government, and 
its predecessors, have forgotten the lessons of history.

The early British railways were taken over by government only after a 
series of terrible accidents revealed that the private sector was more 
interested in squeezing maximum profits out of the railways than in 
providing a safe system.

Drivers involved in accidents were frequently found to have been forced to 
work such long hours that they had collapsed from exhaustion in the driver 
cabins of the speeding trains.

In Australia the private sector built a number of railway systems that in 
many cases ran into financial trouble, and the colonial governments that 
took them over found themselves with a series of networks with rails of 
different gauge.

However, the early private rail companies at least tried to coordinate and 
control their own operations, and hired and trained their own fettlers, 
drivers, station staff, maintenance workers etc.

In contrast, rather than trying to provide a coordinated system, successive 
NSW State Governments have followed the path of piecemeal privatisation, 
and have sold off or contracted out various branches of rail operations.

Over the last 15 years the signal maintenance, carriage maintenance, 
ticketing, ticket machines, train security, station security, track 
maintenance, security cameras, station construction, provision of casual 
staff and staff recruitment have all been privatised.

One of the trains involved in the worst accident of recent times, the 
Glenbrook disaster, was owned by a private company, the Great Southern 
Railway.

In the process of privatisation, many of the most experienced rail 
employees have lost their jobs, and as a result the system as a whole has 
been "de-skilled" and lack of coordination is rampant.

The former "culture of safety" has been replaced by a heavy emphasis on 
cost cutting and job shedding.

So will the State Government change its privatisation course? Not likely! 
The State Labor Government appears just as doggedly conservative with 
regard to public transport as its Coalition predecessor.

The Carr Government recently criticised the Coalition for entering into 
contracts which resulted in tickets to the new airports line stations being 
about three times the cost of equivalent tickets on other suburban lines.

Former State Premier John Fahey is quoted as saying this had to be done to 
attract business interest to the project during the construction tendering 
stage!

However, the Carr Government has now announced plans for some government 
bus services from the eastern suburbs to the city to be replaced with 
services terminating at the new rail stations.

As a result, many bus passengers wishing to travel to the city will now be 
forced to change to a train halfway there and pay the exorbitant charges.

And all this doesn't look good for a city that will have to deal with 
hundreds of thousands of extra travellers unfamiliar with the system in 
less than 40 days time.

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