On the wrong track: A close look at the dreaded Sydney train strike

22 January 2018

On the wrong track: A close look at the dreaded Sydney train strike

Image credit: Hpeterswald (Wikimedia) – CC BY-SA 3.0

The first Sydney railway was opened between Sydney and Parramatta in 1855, and it has come a long way since then. The network today services over 340 million customer journeys each year on its 961km of electrified track, and transports over one million commuters each weekday.

The Rail, Bus and Tram Union (RBTU) are saying they are forced to initiate industrial action because management refuses to negotiate a fair and reasonable enterprise agreement. After six months of negotiations, union secretary Alex Claassens said:

“All workers are asking for is a commitment to protecting their basic workplace conditions and a fair wage increase. After years of putting up with job cuts, service cuts and now the active threat of the privatisation of transport services and the unworkable new timetable, all workers want is a bit of certainty.”

In November, the NSW Government introduced a new train timetable which added 1,500 train services every week. The union argued there were not enough drivers for the extra services introduced under a new timetable that started last November. The union said the fact it takes 12 months to train new drivers was not taken into consideration when the new timetable was put in place.

Privatisation is a complex issue, as can be learned from the UK, with the John Major government’s costly and failed privatisation of British Rail in the 1990s. The NSW government should pursue a simpler model which will likely see operations outsourced to the private sector, while assets should remain owned by the government who will also cost-model fares.

However, given the current trend for turning Sydney’s suburban skyline into that of Hong Kong, would the private ownership of railway stations result in more development of the open airspace above into high rise apartments? Such an option would certainly prove to be a juicy carrot for domestic and international investors alike, and already not beyond politicians with dollar signs in their eyes.

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance said Sydney Trains would continue to negotiate in good faith despite union bosses’ demands for a 24 per cent pay rise over four years. “The Government will agree to a pay raise for train drivers in accordance with the wages policy — a policy that applies to teachers, nurses, police and all public sector employees,” he said.

As an example of that policy, in 2014 NSW Police agreed to a deal with the state government that gave them a 6.35% pay rise over the next three years. More recently, the NSW Government agreed to a 2.5% pay rise from January in 2017, 2018 and 2019 for teachers in public schools.

With such comparisons in mind, as a full time public servant, I’d say that the union is holding out for an unrealistic pay rise. Holding the commuters of NSW to ransom over something that the rest of the public service do not get will not win the union members any public sympathy.