Rail dispute continues over unsafe trains

New InterCity Fleet train. Photo: Still taken from Transport Vlog

The Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) was forced to take industrial action on August 23 and August 25 over the government’s refusal to install safety measures on the New InterCity Fleet (NIF).

Because the NIF is intended to be run as a driver-only service, without guards, between Sydney, Newcastle, Lithgow and Wollongong, drivers have extra responsibility for passenger and worker safety.

For several years the union has been pushing the New South Wales government to agree to modify the multi-billion dollar South Korean-built NIF trains to allow drivers to be able to open the doors to check on safety and not rely on CCTV cameras.

Transport for NSW has denied there is a problem with traction interlocking on doors, describing it as a “design safety feature”. But the RTBU says that trains will pose safety risks unless changes are made.

The government finally agreed on August 24 to modify the NIF doors, but the deed stating this is contingent with the RTBU agreeing to a measly wage rise in a new enterprise agreement (EA).

The union has repeatedly said that signing the deed must be separated from bargaining on the EA. The government is offering 3% in year one and 3.5% in year two — in line with its public sector wage cap policy and well below the current inflation rate of more than 6%.

The RTBU told its members on August 18 that a new deed for safety alterations to the NIF had been provided but that “it is conditional upon all 14,000 railway workers agreeing to the government wages cap, which is a real terms pay cut”.

“We won’t pay for the government’s stuff-ups,” the union said. “The New Intercity Fleet has been broken for six years now.”

RTBU NSW secretary Alex Claassens said on August 24 that Minister for Employee Relations Damain Tudehope’s claim that an agreement had been made with the union six weeks ago was false. “If there was a signed agreement six weeks ago, we could have avoided the back-and-forth negotiations with a revolving door of Ministers.

“Now that a deed has finally been received, we will go through our usual democratic processes and discuss the situation with our elected delegates.”

“We kept working all the way through COVID; we delivered a service, and we deserve better respect than this. We shouldn’t have to fight this hard to get a train fixed, and we certainly shouldn’t have to fight this hard to get decent wages and conditions,” Claassens told RTBU members on August 23.

A rail worker and RTBU member told Green Left on August 24 that the government and rail management change of positions “all the time” was “very frustrating”.

“We have to stay strong as a union for what are very reasonable demands. We can’t let our conditions continue to slide.

“The government wants to link the key issue of safety of the public and rail workers to an agreement to cut wages.

“This is nothing but extortion and blackmail.

“The basic issue with safety on the NIF system is the [government and department’s] insistence on trains without guards, and with only the drivers to monitor the doors, including dealing with long and curved platforms.

“This is not safe for either the passengers or the staff. The best case solution is for guards to be retained on the new trains,” he said.