The Guardian November 8, 2000


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.

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