When you’re commuting on a busy city rail network, the last thing you want to worry about is whether it’s safe to do so.
You’d think it would be a no brainer for any government to make rail safety a top priority. Not so in New South Wales where the Perrottet government has flip-flopped and failed to deliver on the issue of guards for its New Intercity Fleet (NIF).
In 2015, the NSW Liberal-National government ordered from South Korea so-called “driver only” trains. Passenger safety was to be monitored by the driver using the train’s CCTV system.
The problem was, these trains were not built for purpose, and Sydney’s older rail system with a myriad of platform lengths and bends meant that the streamlined, straight platform interface the trains were designed for simply didn’t exist.
There were, literally, huge gaps in the safety plan for the use of these new trains, and the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) refused to staff them.
With the support of independent experts and the train’s own manufacturer, RTBU members were able to build consistent pressure on then transport minister, Andrew Constance, to guarantee that the new trains would be modified to ensure there was a guard on every train service to protect public safety.
Then the 2019 state election happened. The NSW Government was returned to power, and Constance immediately backtracked on his commitment. He ordered the trains be used without modifications and without guards.
Since then, the NSW Government and a procession of transport ministers (at last count its five in the last six years) have attempted a number of stitch ups and bribes to cleave workers and drivers away from their commitment to safety in order to get them to work the new NIF.
There was an offer of a four per cent wage rise for drivers, a $2500 ‘cash bonus’ for guards, and an attempt to ‘roll over’ an agreement that delivered a miserly 0.3 per cent pay rise to workers.
All the while, workers in unions were steadfast – passenger safety is not for sale.
Since September 2021, the RTBU has been taking industrial action. They have also been joined by allied unions in the sector who are also looking to pull the Perrottet Government back to the negotiating table over a new Enterprise Agreement (EA).
That is something the Perrottet government said it will not do unless they get their way with the NIF, despite how this could put passengers at risk.
The Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Professionals Australia, Australian Services Union (ASU), the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) coordinated on a series of actions to raise public awareness about the plight of workers in the rail system, and the serious questions around operational safety – for workers and commuters.
On Tuesday, the RTBU released its latest protected action calendar for the month of August, to maximise pressure on the government, and minimise travel disruption for the public.
Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW Thomas Costa has been heavily involved in dealing with the government on this issue. He reiterated that union members will not compromise on safety.
“On the network, one person every day gets caught in the doors of one of our trains. That train is unsafe if it doesn’t have a guard to do a safety check before the train leaves the platform. What can start out as an inconvenience can very quickly and easily turn into a major incident,” he said.
“Our strategy from here is to continue our escalation in industrial action to continue educating the media and the public about why we need to make sure these train are safe because that is that is the number one priority.”
“When it’s about safety, it is a non-negotiable for us. There’s no measure they can cop make us compromise on safety,” Costa said.
And that is good news for Sydney’s commuters.