Sydney’s train network will be thrown into chaos on Friday after the rail union warned the NSW government’s sensational backdown over the future of a new train fleet was not enough to call off widespread industrial action.
The union’s members on Friday are refusing to operate foreign-built trains, which make up 75 per cent of the state’s fleet, coinciding with the last day of the school term, after it failed to reach an agreement with the government on Thursday afternoon.
The escalation in industrial action comes after the government finally conceded this week to union calls to modify a multibillion-dollar intercity train fleet to address safety concerns, at a cost of $260 million.
While Transport Minister David Elliott had implored the rail union to call off its industrial action after the backdown, Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) state secretary Alex Claassens said the government had waited too long to avoid Friday’s planned action.
Claassens said members would continue with plans to refuse to operate foreign-built trains on Friday after failing to reach an agreement with the government on its latest offer to modify the new intercity fleet.
“It’ll be a very messy day,” he said of rail services on Friday.
“They’re saying we’ll give you this money to fix the trains, but we want it to come at the expense of your wages and conditions. That’s never going to happen.”
Elliott said he was losing patience after conceding to making expensive changes to the new train fleet and warned escalating industrial action could prompt the government to take the matter to court.
“I’m disappointed that all of a sudden, after I fought for the funding to undertake the [new intercity fleet] modifications, they’re finding another excuse to continue industrial action,” Elliott told the Herald.
“My patience is wearing extremely thin and the last thing I want to do is shred their enterprise agreement and go to the Fair Work Commission but at some stage if this isn’t bedded down I expect this will become the only option.”
The rail union wants the government to sign a guarantee that it will modify the new fleet before agreeing to settle their wider dispute with the government. However, the government wants both issues dealt with together.
Elliott said he would not sign a deed formally agreeing to the fleet modifications without a broader deal on the overall enterprise agreement.
“This is a package deal. I’m not going to give them the deed for the [new intercity fleet] and then wait for them to all of a sudden decide they want to put in for a seven per cent pay rise, no, the enterprise agreement is the enterprise agreement and the taxpayers need certainty on both the cost of wages and the services on offer,” he said.
Claassens said Transport Secretary Rob Sharp needed to sign the deed to ensure the government modified the trains before the union could take the matter to its members for a vote. He added it was also very likely that plans for members to refuse to operate foreign-built trains on two days next week would continue given the government’s approach.
However, Sharp said it was apparent that the dispute was not about the new intercity train fleet, but a pay rise, and it was disappointing that the RTBU had “chosen to cause massive disruptions to commuters”.
The escalating action comes after tens of thousands of public and Catholic school teachers walked off the job on Thursday in their first joint strike in decades. The state’s nurses and midwives also went on strike on Tuesday.
Rail union leaders were locked in negotiations with senior transport officials on Thursday over the details of the government’s latest offer. Further meetings of union delegates and members are also scheduled for the coming days.
Despite senior ministers fiercely rejecting union calls for modifications to the intercity fleet just two months ago, Elliott on Wednesday confirmed the government had agreed to the changes and called on the rail union to cancel Friday’s action.
However, Claassens said the union would need “two to three days” to respond properly to the offer because of its complexity.
“I need two or three days to do the response properly. We’re going to make sure we’ve got all the documentation, and we’ve got it all right,” he said.
The union also wants to ensure that the cost of modifying the trains was not deducted from the pay of rail workers, who are negotiating a new three-year wage deal.
The government has offered rail workers a one-off payment of $3185 and a 3 per cent wage rise in the first year, followed by 3.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent.
Claassens said the offer was in line with the government’s wages cap on public sector workers, which was unlikely to be enough for union members.
The major disruption to trains comes just days before public transport fares in NSW will rise by an average of 3 per cent on July 4, twice the increase last year.
The rail union has for years refused to staff the intercity fleet, arguing it is unsafe because guards cannot open their doors to peer outside as the train approaches and departs a station.
The South Korean-built trains have CCTV cameras built in next to each door, allowing the driver and guard to view the platform from screens, but the union has argued that does not provide enough information.
Our Breaking News Alert will notify you of significant breaking news when it happens. Get it here.