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Sydney trains to be investigated after network meltdown causes transport chaos

The Guardian, 10 January 2018
The New South Wales Government has announced a review of the Sydney public transport fiasco that left large chunks of the city’s train network in chaos. The state’s transport minister, Andrew Constance, said on Wednesday that he had asked transport officials to provide a report on the delays that have crippled the network since Monday.

He said the review would look at “how the network can better recover from major incidents with cumulative impacts like we’ve seen over the last few days”.

Damage to rail infrastructure caused by lightning strikes combined with a lack of available staff led to major delays on multiple train lines in Sydney.

As storms washed over Sydney on Tuesday night, passengers were greeted by chaotic scenes at some of the city’s major stations, where “indefinite delays” during the evening peak led to passengers stopped from entering platforms because of severe overcrowding.

It came a day after at least 18 services had to be cancelled due to insufficient numbers of drivers and guards.

On Wednesday morning some trains from Hornsby to Central, Central to Epping, Central to Gordon and Macarthur to Central were cancelled before 8am due to a lack of available staff.

“Understandably our customers were tested and we apologise for the major inconvenience caused,” Constance said.

The review will look at staffing contingency levels “to swiftly recover from weather and other uncontrolled events”, potential minor adjustments to services to improve recovery time during delays and resource allocation to ensure staff and trains are best positioned across the network.

But the breakdown in the network – and the attribution of blame to the what Sydney Trains said was between 65 and 70 staff off due to illness – has been slammed by Labor and the unions.

It comes only six weeks after the government brought in a new timetable which introduced about 1,500 extra weekly services on to the network, in part by pushing decades-old S-set trains with no air-conditioning into service more often.

Briefings prepared in the lead-up to the new timetable reportedly warned of “reduced fleet maintenance windows” and an “increased demand on maintenance as [a result of the] fleet doing more kilometres”.

On Wednesday the head of Sydney Trains, Howard Collins, admitted he had told the government that rolling out the new timetable in November would make things “tight” and said the department was “flat out” recruiting new drivers and guards.

Labor has sought to use the collapse as political fodder by linking the network’s issues with the government’s unpopular decision to spend $2bn on knocking down and rebuilding two sports stadiums.

“There are not enough drivers and thousands of commuters are forced to travel on non-air-conditioned 1970s trains,” the opposition leader, Luke Foley, said on Wednesday.

“The travelling public deserves much better but the Liberals’ priority is an extravagant stadium splurge.

“This government has the wrong priorities – it can spend $2bn on rebuilding two stadiums but can’t deliver essential public services.”

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union of NSW described it as a “cover-up”.

“One minute, Sydney Trains management said that the cancellations were due to an excessive amount of approved leave, then it was track work, then they changed their minds and decided to blame workers taking sick leave, and on Twitter, they’ve even blamed ‘reduced customer demand’ and the weather,” the union said in a statement.