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Issue #1601      July 10, 2013

NSW rail system split in privatisation agenda

It seems to be a rule of NSW politics that the larger the fanfare a government makes for a new initiative, the more dubious are its motives. Last week the O’Farrell government announced in a blaze of publicity that RailCorp, the state’s rail organisation, has now been split into two separate entities, i.e. Sydney Trains, which will now handle the state capital’s rail system, and NSW Trainlink, which will run the intercity and regional railways.

The government has claimed that under the new arrangements passengers will have more help from station staff on the platforms. “It’s a bright new era in rail customer services”, chirped one Sydney Rail representative.

However, the harsh reality is that there will actually be far fewer staff to help on station platforms, because station managers are being retrenched. Some new managers are being employed, but they will be expected to manage six or seven stations, and will have little day-to-day contact with passengers.

The remaining station staff will be expected to do all the work a station requires, including that of managers and cleaners – for no extra pay, of course. One staff member commented: “We now have to do all the stuff that station managers and duty managers were doing, but we don’t get paid any more. In the middle of the shift we just close the [ticket] window and do our cleaning.”

In contrast, the government has given no publicity whatsoever to the new Transport Legislation Amendment Bill which quietly passed through the upper house of parliament last August. That event preceded the formation of a new government agency, Transport for NSW, which has the power to contract out all public transport services.

The tip of the iceberg

Until recently RailCorp employed about 15,000 people. However, 836 middle management and administrative positions have now been dumped. Over the next three years another 154 positions will go, together with 450 railway maintenance positions.

Approximately 750 middle management staff have already taken voluntary redundancies, and a number of positions are unfilled or have been taken by employees on temporary contracts. Hundreds of other management staff have had to reapply for their positions, with no certainty they’ll be reappointed.

Some new management staff have been employed. However, Bob Newham, an organiser with the Rail, Tram and Bus Union has pointed out that many of them have backgrounds in human resources (personnel) but little experience in rail management. This is tending to deskill the organisation and is likely to lead to difficulties in dealing with train operations.

Government consultants Booz and Co have recommended the slashing of even more jobs, bringing the total number of job losses to 4500. According to State opposition leader John Robertson that would include train guards, cleaners and maintenance staff. Commentator Terry Crook claims that staff who handle safety and risk-related activity will also face cuts, and that testing for drugs and alcohol is to be outsourced.

Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Services Union, warned last week that the rail system would be privatised after the next election, if the Liberal/National coalition is re-elected.

The job cuts provide a clear indication that this is planned. The culling of jobs and the introduction of new facilities such as the incoming Opal card ticketing system are aimed at maximising the profitability of government businesses for their new private owners or operators. This is often accompanied by separation of the more profitable parts of the organisation as relatively independent entities, to attract potential investors.

That process is perfectly illustrated by the new North-West Rail Link, which is expected to be running from Chatswood to Rouse Hill by late 2019. Costing an estimated $8.3 billion to construct, and incorporating design features that will prevent it being integrated with the main lines, it will be Australia’s first fully automated commuter rail system and will have driverless trains.

And it will be privately operated.

It’s up to you

Howard Collins, new chief executive of City Rail, has said that “World cities need a decent public transport system. There’s no point trying to convince people to jump on trains in the future and get out of their cars if we haven’t got a decent reliable railway.”

He’s right, of course. The trouble is, however, that Sydney is heading for a privately-controlled rail system which will probably be as expensive to ride as Sydney’s privately-operated airport stations, and as confusing as London’s privately-owned Docklands line, which requires station changing and special ticketing.

The system will also be inefficient because the carriages, rolling stock and engineering in new lines such as the North West Line will be totally different from their equivalents on the main lines. They will also be unreliable, as private lines inevitably tend to be, because of the inherent greed of their profit-driven management.

The private sector isn’t wasting any time pursuing their goals. Last year lobby group Infrastructure Partnerships Australia urged the O’Farrell government to offer franchises to private firms for operation of the Illawarra line, the Eastern Suburbs line, and a number of country services.

And they’ve got friends in high places. The federal advisory body Infrastructure Australia has declared that state governments should privatise publicly-owned energy, water, transport and forestry services.

The former Gillard government published a white paper recommending sale of electricity assets, and the former federal treasurer wanted to facilitate all privatisations by providing billions of dollars to the states to compensate for the loss of revenue from the privatised government organisations. It remains to be seen which way the Rudd government will head, but the indications aren’t good.

The Victorian passenger rail system was sold off in the 1990s by the Kennett regime. The interstate Australian freight rail system is now owned by Toll Holdings and Patrick Corporation. Much of Queensland’s freight rail system has been privatised and the rest is likely to go before the next state elections, possibly along with the passenger services.

For its part, NSW citizens have inherited a vast, efficient rail system that has successfully coped for a century and a half with the city’s growth and very complex geography. They’re likely to lose it to private interests if they don’t throw off the burden of governments that favour the private sector over the public interest. They will have to fight to ensure that they retain control of this priceless public asset.   

Next article – Fed govt must take over Woodhaven Lodge

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