Interview: Life After Keating
Industrial: That Friday Feeling
Bad Boss: Begging to Work
Organising: Project Pilbara
Unions: Off the Rails
International: Brazil Turns Left
Environment: Brown Wash
History Special: Learning from the Past
Corporate: Will the Bullying Backfire?
Technology: Danger Lurks For The Passive
History: In Labour�s Image
Politics: Without Power Or Glory
History Special: A 'Cosy Relationship'
Culture: Blood Stains the Wattle
Satire: Iraq Pre-empts Pre-emptive Strike
Poetry: The Executive Pay Cut
Review: Time Out
Month In Review
The Locker Room
Why The User Should Pay
More Bali Feed Back
Clean Election Laws Now!
And Now, Some Fan Mail!
Off the Rails
Les McMahon has a big workplace. It stretches from the Murray River at Albury to the other side of the Riverina, 150 kilometres away. Les works for the Rail Infrastructure Corporation, maintaining the rail track along the main line between Sydney and Melbourne. "These trains get up to 115 Kph. They are over a mile long, and they take a while to stop," he says.
The Federal Government has put a proposal to the NSW Government that would see the interstate railway network, the profitable section of NSW railways currently managed by RIC, being leased to the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), a company fully owned by the Federal Government, for the next 60 years.
Under the proposal the Federal Government would inject $870 million in much needed infrastructure funding, while the ARTC would relieve the NSW Government of its community service obligations.
Safety Before Profit
Members of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union of Australia (RTBU), who work for the RIC, may be set to lose their jobs if the NSW Government accepts this proposal, but their foremost concern remains safety. The fear is that the ARTC intend to contract out maintenance work after an initial three-year moratorium on contracting out expires.
"The RTBU is opposed to the Federal Government proposal that NSW rail track should be leased and/or operated by the ARTC," says RTBU spokesperson Nick Lewocki. "The net result would be a decline in safety standards; a reduction of critical rural employment; complicated interfaces between different sectors of the network involving technology and employment practices; and a multitude of contractors without the inherent rail specific intellectual capacity.
"For all this the NSW taxpayer will pick up the tab for the demise of the ARTC, just like the British taxpayers are picking up the tab for billions of dollars from the benefit of their rail track experience."
RIC workers in the Riverina know first hand the problems associated with contracting out maintenance work, as their area of responsibility adjoins the ARTC managed Victorian rail track.
"We know blokes working for the ARTC from Wodonga," says Les, who describes the safety standards there as "a joke".
"At Albury the other day they were building a terminal for the buses. The contractors were working on the line. They said it was OK, as they had cleared it with the signalman. Well the signalman was a kilometre away, and with their generators going there was no way you could hear if anything was coming. It turned out the contractor wasn't even qualified to work on the track, he'd just got a hold of a copy of the safe working rules."
"We have a high maintenance and safety standard," says Ian Cunningham, an RIC employee with over 25 years of experience with NSW railways. "Safety is our number one priority, but privatisation is driven by the dollar. There is no way that a private operator could come in and make a dollar."
Ian is also concerned that NSW taxpayers may be "giving ARTC an asset away for a song". "As a taxpayer I'm a shareholder. How am I recompensed for this asset?"
Major Community Asset
While the NSW Rail track could be leased to the ARTC for 60 years there is only provision for funding for the first five years. After that there are no guarantees that the ARTC will continue to maintain rail track at the standards established by the RIC, and there will be nothing to stop the ARTC opening up rail maintenance to outside contractors or even privatising maintenance altogether.
"If [ARTC] take it over the place will get rundown," says Nick McMahon. "People have to realise that it will take millions and millions to get it going again."
The system of awarding of outside contracts is known as "contestability", and it was abandoned in NSW following the McInerney report into the Glenbrook rail disaster. The report made three recommendations regarding trackside workers; including that no trackside workers should be required to be solely responsible for their own protection, and that all trackside work supervisors should be trained to assess and control risks to trackside workers.
It is feared that a proliferation of contractors will result in a decrease in the skill level of maintenance staff, and the resulting safety issues as pointed to in Lord Cullen's report into the UK's Ladbroke Grove disaster. Lord Cullen was scathing of the use of contractors in maintenance work, finding that outsourcing maintenance work seriously compromised the communication necessary for safe working.
A report into the management of rail maintenance in NSW by The Productive Edge Consulting Group pointed out the unsuitability of rail maintenance to be subject to an "open market". The report also said that even the "contestability" method of awarding contracts by tender to competing bidders compromised the ability to deliver a rail service that was "safe, clean, reliable and efficient."
The RIC maintenance standards are higher than in most countries. They have established a core safe working standard, while ARTC employ a combination of permits and standards and rely on outsourcing their maintenance. The potential for loss of life and property through derailment, collision or at level crossings through a breakdown in communication or a decline in maintenance standards is of great concern to RIC employees and the wider community.
The loss of hundreds of jobs in rural and regional NSW would be a huge blow to local economies. It would also be a waste of the local knowledge and experience RIC employees have built up over decades with the NSW Railways. This, as one RIC employee puts it, is "intellectual property of the NSW taxpayer".
Rail track in NSW is a major community asset. The NSW rail corridors offer a major easement for the rolling out of other major infrastructure projects, such as natural gas. It also has Optic Fibre Cable running parallel to the rail track at a time when access to telecommunications is a major issue in rural and regional Australia.
The NSW Department of Information Technology and Management has already announced its intention to provide access to its telecommunications infrastructure, including optic fibre network owned by the Rail Infrastructure Corporation, to encourage competition in the broadband space. It is unclear if the Federal Government's proposal may compromise this initiative.
The ARTC have come up with a figure of $2.5 billion in savings for the NSW Government if relieved of its community service obligations in rail infrastructure, but these figures have also been seriously questioned and may not withstand the scrutiny of outside analysis.
Many industry stakeholders are urging the Federal government to leave their $870m offer for the infrastructure funding on the table. The investment programme would include:
- The construction of a new Southern Access Corridor into Sydney from Macarthur to Chullora at a cost of $180 million. The new corridor would remove 36 freight and country passenger services a day from the CityRail network, which would free up capacity for more suburban services.
- $145 million in infrastructure upgrades to the Hunter Valley rail system, which would increase its capacity from 85 million tonnes a year to 100 million tonnes. The upgrades would boost employment and development in the region;
- a $316 million programme of rail and foundation strengthening, bridge replacement, and re-sleepering to improve the condition of the core rail infrastructure and reduce ongoing maintenance costs;
- $86 million in improvements to train control, signalling and safe working systems to improve the safety and efficiency of rail operations by investing in new technology and replacing outmoded equipment and systems;
- $32 million for new and extended crossing loops to enable trains of up to 1,500 metres in length to operate on the north-south corridor; and
- $113 million for other development works.
Federal Transport Minister John Anderson says that the infrastructure investment would cut rail transit times between Sydney and Melbourne by three hours and between Sydney and Brisbane by three and a half hours.
"The reliability of the rail system would also improve dramatically," says Anderson. "We estimate that the investment would take 111,000 heavy truck movements a year off the north-south corridor, which would reduce congestion and pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions."
However industry sources are concerned that some of these projects have been significantly underfunded, and that they will not achieve the effuiciencies the ARTC has been looking for.
Private operator Pacific National, run by Patrick's boss Chris Corrigan has offered to spend $50m on infrastructure development if the deal goes ahead, when many in the industry appreciate that the figure required may be ten times that amount. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has raised concerns that ARTC is not setting aside sufficient provision for the long term maintenance of existing assets.
"I have no doubt that Pacific National would want to see very specific improvements before they finally committed these funds," says Anderson.
"Much of this money has already been budgeted for,' says one industry source. "So it's a bit rich for them to start talking about withholding it now."
Private Rail Problems
The problems associated with private investment in rail infrastructure were recently highlighted in Victoria where Freight Australia, owned by RailAmerica, has been resisting attempts by the Labor state government to introduce open access on the 4000km of track that the company leased under the previous Liberal administration. Freight Australia argues it should not have to pour millions of dollars into upgrading branch lines and then have them made available to its competitors.
RIC employees have expressed concern at the decline in safety standards that accompanies private operators.
"I've noticed private operators have a safety breach and keep going. This is a fact, we've had three incidents in the last two weeks,' says Ian Cunningham, who recently attended a multi-million dollar derailment that could have been avoided if staffing levels were determined by safety rather than profit.
If the deal does go ahead the RIC will be left with a handful of marginal grain handling branch lines. These branch lines are already being undermined by the Australian Wheat Board developing grain handling facilities on major interstate lines, and offering incentives for grain producers to use facilities that are even further from the farm gate - forcing more grain transport from rail to road.
The Productivity Commission has already acknowledged that average annual growth in productivity of Australia's railways is greater than Canada, Japan or the United States, and that real freight rates fell by almost a third during the nineties. The same report also noted that "because rail networks differ in terms of their economic characteristics and the challenges they face, it is important that individual reform packages be tailored to each network."
With the NSW rail infrastructure passing over to the Federal Government, and potential privatisation of key parts of its management, the deal would effectively be a sale of a major state asset at a bargain basement price that doesn't even come close to replacement value.
The names of RIC employees used in this story have been changed
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