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Alex Claassens, opinion piece

Feb 27, 2022News

27 February 2022: On Monday the NSW Government took the unprecedented step of shutting down the rail network to fabricate a worker strike.

While the government has rightly been condemned for its own pre-emptive strike on workers and the public, it is important to understand what this is really all about.

What rail workers are fighting for is much bigger than anything we can put in a Log of Claims. We’re fighting to save the future of public transport in this state.

The NSW Coalition Government has spent the past decade and billions of taxpayer dollars dismantling and selling off our transport network. It even created a new entity, Transport for NSW, to avoid dealing with the workforce in this process.

The endgame is for public transport to be a completely privatised and largely automated system – which will also make it more expensive, less safe, less convenient, and certainly less reliable for the people who need to use it.

The government knows privatisation, automation and cost-cutting will degrade the quality of public transport. They also know that voters notice when their daily commute is suddenly expensive and takes 50 minutes longer.

That’s why this transport strategy is carried out in secrecy, with the government barring unions from transport risk assessments and slapping public servants with Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Secrecy around transport safety is very, very dangerous. Take the government’s Transport Assets Holding Entity, a hideously expensive private company set up to own our state’s railways, generate profit and hide maintenance costs from their budget.

The impact of this accounting trick is we will not have oversight of how railway assets are maintained and kept safe. After two tragic train derailments in the last two years, the public needs transparency and accountability on track safety.

Former Transport Minister Andrew Constance and the Berejiklian Government tried hard to remove guards from trains with the New InterCity Fleet, the Driver-Only trains ordered off the shelf from South Korea. In a complete farce, the risk assessment was conducted over Zoom by a man in England who had never seen them operate.

We never saw the risk assessment, so the union had to commission an independent expert.  Their assessment found the trains were unsafe and posed a significant risk to commuters with disabilities, older people and children. To this day, we’re still waiting for the government to respond to the safety hazards it identified.

If the government had learned its lesson and let workers into the tent, we might have saved NSW taxpayers nearly $3 billion on the new Regional Train Fleet. Imported from the same Spanish manufacturer that made our cracked Inner West trams, these trains are designed for the same unsafe operating model and will derail if they hit anything at high speed.

The NSW Government loves keeping rail workers in the dark, but we’re the ones protecting commuters on the network every day. Drivers, guards, and station staff know firsthand how external factors can turn a close call into a tragedy. We need to be in the room when decisions about our railways are made.

Access to risk assessments was one of the claims rail workers gave NSW and Sydney Trains in June 2021. It should have been a no-brainer. Yet it took eight months, two strikes and several rounds of industrial action before Transport Minister David Elliott finally made an offer to resolve that.

Rail workers are taking industrial action because under this government we are not being heard. The rest of our claims are still being ignored, yet they have the power to shape the future of our railways.

Claims like a guarantee that any new rail operations will be as safe or safer than what the people of NSW enjoy now. A commitment that no train services will be lost in the event of privatisation. A quota for local train manufacturing to revitalise that industry. A commitment to keeping guards on our trains.

These are the claims that the government and their bureaucrats are fighting, because it will disrupt their grand plan for an unsafe, private rail network with no rail workers.

Dominic Perrottet and David Elliott are both happily carrying out this plan. Like Constance before him, this week Elliott shamelessly told radio he couldn’t import driverless trains fast enough, so he could get rid of the rail workers who keep commuters safe. He even likened those workers to terrorists – a despicable, unforgiveable claim that he still hasn’t apologised for.

Rail workers are fighting to keep our railways safe the only way we can, and we will not back down. If anything, the government’s tantrum this week has only hardened our resolve.

Premier Perrottet and Minister Elliott say they want an end to industrial action. They need to sit down with the list of claims workers gave them eight months ago and start making some offers to resolve them.

Alex Claassens is Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union NSW.

A version of this opinion piece appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 27 February. Click here to see it.

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