NSW rail services: post-Olympic chaos
by Peter Mac Sydneysiders who marvelled at the great service provided by State Rail during the Olympics have had a rude shock in the aftermath of the Games. As a result of the employment of thousands of extra employees during the Olympics, plus the dedication and hard work of staff, the rail service ran like clockwork. However, the Games were not even completed before the rail authorities began a program of mass dismissals. Those affected including many experienced long-term employees, and many others who decided to leave the service voluntarily. Not surprisingly, the breakdowns, derailments, delays and other shortcomings evident in the rail system prior to the Games immediately re- appeared. The worst of the pre-Games rail accidents occurred last year and involved the collision of a Sydney suburban train with the Indian Pacific train at the lower Blue Mountains suburb of Glenbrook, and the deaths of seven people. The Glenbrook disaster resulted in a public inquiry, the initial findings of which were released last week. The Inquiry report highlighted the State Government's attempt to operate the rail system on a profit-hungry commercial basis since 1996 as a major contributor to its decline in performance. The report stated that the 1996 restructure "had created an inefficient and unsafe rail network." It concluded, in part, that: "... since the Government rail system is a public utility, the commercial imperatives of a state-owned corporation are inconsistent with the nature of a public utility activity." As a result, the report recommends in particular that the two main operating organisations of State Rail, the Rail Access Corporation and Rail Services Australia, be merged to form a statutory government authority, the Rail Infrastructure Authority. This new organisation, it recommends, would be directly responsible to the Minister for Transport, rather than to a corporate board. However, the NSW Minister for Transport, Mr Bob Scully, has now effectively rejected the report's findings by announcing that although the two organisations will be merged, they will continue to operate as a commercial corporation. The Minister's decision has been met with widespread criticism. Mr George Panigiris, a spokesman for the Australian Services Union, attacked the Government for ignoring the lessons of the past with regard to public accountability. He commented: "I am not aware of any corporation which is responsible to a government; they are responsible to their boards." The major lesson to be learnt from the Glenbrook disaster is being learnt around the globe, at terrible public expense. The privatisation of London's rail system resulted in the terrible Paddington rail crash and fire, in which hundreds of commuters died or were severely injured. Closer to home, there are persistent reports that trains in the privatised Indian Pacific line, the other player in the Glenbrook tragedy, have not been properly maintained since being taken over, with rolling stock being subject to only the most cursory visual inspections. Like King Canute's decision to rebuke the waves, Mr Scully's decision to continue along the road to privatisation of the NSW rail network flies in the face of reality.