NSW bus, train drivers strike over pay, privatisation

Construction & Other Railway Services (CAF) has been commissioned to manufacture a new fleet of trains for regional NSW. Photo: CAF website

Rail workers took industrial action again on December 14 in pursuit of their claim for a pay rise, against privatisation and for safety guarantees on the new rail fleet.

Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) NSW secretary Alex Claassens said on December 13 that the union took action because the government has, for months, been refusing to negotiate on guarantees on hygiene, safety and privatisation”. It also wants a 3.5% wage rise.

Metropolitan bus and train drivers also took action on December 6 and 7, targeting the Sydney’s transport network, and train services to the Hunter Valley, Blue Mountains and Central Coast.

Bus drivers in the inner west also struck on December 6, and were joined by drivers from Sydney’s south-west the following day. They are demanding private contractor Transit Systems drop its discriminatory two-tier wage system.

Transport Workers Union (TWU) NSW secretary Richard Olsen said bus drivers in the private sector had been working under an inferior enterprise agreement. “That [agreement] has been out of its nominal term for well over six months, yet the company is still not prepared to meet.”

The rail union wants an end to privatisation, for safety standards to be maintained and for a government commitment to retaining higher hygiene levels and not to outsource the work to a contractor.

“[The NSW government] bought all these brand new trains from South Korea that have been sitting there for months, but we can’t operate them because they are not safe,” Claassens told 9News Today on December 7.

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said more industrial action was likely “unless the government takes ... responsibility”. “These matters have been going on for a number of months now, but the blame can be firmly laid at the feet of Premier Dominic Perrottet and Matt Kean, the treasurer,” he told the December 7 ABC.

The RTBU has already announced an 8-hour rail stoppage over December 20-21.

A key factor behind the industrial action is the government’s privatisation plans for the whole of the bus network, and the sell-off of the rail system.

The introduction, in 2019, of the Sydney Metro Northwest line, with its driverless trains, and the development of the Sydney Metro and Southwest line show that the privatisation plans are well under way. This government wants to privatise the entire public transport system across Sydney and the state.

Unions are concerned that the proposed driver-only new intercity regional fleet, which will eliminate guards, pose a serious safety threat, as well as being an attack on public sector jobs.

The the government must “tear up the contract” with Construction & Other Railway Services (CAF), the Spanish company commissioned to manufacture a new fleet of trains to for regional NSW. CAF is also responsible for the cracking problems in the fleet of inner-west trams, currently all off the tracks.

Claassens said it would be irresponsible for the government to push ahead with the CAF contract for the new regional fleet in the face of workers’ concerns. “The NSW government needs to put a hold on all overseas manufacturing contracts,” Claassens said, adding workers already had concerns about the safety of these new trains before CAF’s shocking track record came to light.

He said the New Regional Fleet has been built in such a way that the front carriage could easily derail if it hit a fallen tree or an animal on the tracks. “That’s a serious concern given that in Australia, particularly regional Australia, hitting things on our tracks is commonplace.”

The RTBU understands that the government has signed a contract with CAF, although the final design has not been agreed.

Claassens criticised the government for: purchasing trains requiring infrastructure alterations; blowing billions on a poorly-managed light rail build; for allowing a new fleet of trains to sit idle “because they’re too unsafe to operate”; and for forking out “huge amounts of money to fix the inner-west light rail”.

“Now they want to buy another fleet of trains from overseas from a manufacturer already proven to deliver questionable rolling stock,” he said. The RTBU is calling for a quota on Australian built infrastructure to “put commuter and worker safety first”.