The trains in Sydney are collapsing into chaos, while the government yells about the union menace

Wynyard station, central Sydney. Image: Getty.

It’s all kicking off on the trains Down Under. The start of 2018 has featured mass cancellations as people returned to work, a driver’s strike which the state Fair Work Commission dramatically banned at the last minute, and – as if the metaphorical train wreck weren’t enough – a literal, thankfully non-fatal train crash.

The mess actually started in November 2017. That was when Transport for New South Wales, the government agency responsible for trains in and around Sydney, made a timetable change that was intended to boost capacity, but instead led to months of low-level disruption. Things have only got worse since. So what’s going on in the Harbour City, and whose fault is it?

Let’s start off with the most dramatic incident. On 22 January, a Waratah commuter train hit the buffers at the Richmond terminus in the city’s north-western outskirts. The crash involved dozens of minor injuries, with seven people kept overnight in hospital.

In an interview a few days beforehand, veteran train driver Van Cramer (not involved in the incident) sounded warnings about the new timetable: “They're giving us very tight margins,” Mr Cramer warned. “It leads to errors like going past signals, overshooting platforms.” His words were prescient: this looks likely to have been the cause of the accident.

Don’t safeguards exist to prevent trains crashing into buffers? Sort of. The UK’s TPWS (train protection & warning) system prevents incidents like this, as do many other ATP (automatic train protection) systems worldwide. Such systems been mooted in Sydney since 2003, when a train overturned killing seven people in an incident which ATP would have prevented. But successive NSW governments have been reluctant to meet the cost of installation, and so nothing has been done so far.

That’s the crash. But why is the timetable making drivers like Mr Cramer worried?

The Sydney rail network. Image: TfNSW.

The timetable recast maximises the use of trains and of rail paths in and around Sydney. Previously, there was heaps of empty space to space trains out, because it took until the mid-2000s for train passenger numbers to get back up to their 1950s peak. But soaring commuter numbers have made a change necessary to deal with overcrowding. The new timetable uses the tracks and trains more efficiently, bringing some mothballed spare carriages back into use.

The only problem? It hasn’t been matched with a rise in the number of train drivers or guards. Instead the system is running entirely on overtime – which, in the context of railway rosters, means doing a full-length extra shift on what would otherwise be your day off.

Railways have always run on overtime: train crew are hard to find and train, and many of them are keen on more pay, so it can be good for staff and management alike. But it’s entirely reliant on goodwill: if you’re feeling underpaid and disrespected, you’re much less inclined to give up your day off. And if things get rough then you can be reliant on a small proportion of crew who are willing to work all the way up to the absolute legal maximum hours.

Unfortunately, Goodwill is in short supply in Sydney right now. The agreement between the RTBU union, who represent all train crew, and TfNSW, their employer, is up for negotiation. The union is seeking a 6 per cent annual pay rise over the next four years, but the NSW government has announced a 2.5 per cent cap on public sector wage increases. And the Liberal (centre-right anti-union, in an Australian context) transport minister, Andrew Constance, has refused to allow TfNSW to make any concessions to the railways, instead delivering blustering speeches about greedy unions.


The union aren’t being unreasonable: their proposed pay rise would just gradually bring Sydney salaries In line with those paid to rail staff elsewhere. My research suggests that a qualified driver in Sydney takes home about A$75,000 per year for regular shifts, compared with A$95,000 in Melbourne or Brisbane. A UK driver gets about £50,000 (A$88,000).

Train crew voted to hold a one-day strike on 29 January, and for an ongoing overtime ban. Sydney Trains had to shift to a weekend timetable on Thursday 25 January, the first day of the overtime ban, and all trains were cancelled for the 29. The dramatic overturning of both the strike and the overtime ban by the Fair Work Commission on Thursday has left everything in the air.

The RTBU says that it won’t break the law, and rostered drivers will work on Monday. But although the formal overtime ban has been cancelled, nobody involved can prevent individual train crew simply turning down the offer to work overtime until the dispute is resolved. If my discussions with railway staff following the ruling are anything to go by, a surge in offers looks rather unlikely.

So what happens next? If it were up to TfNSW, settling with train crew would be less costly than the disruption of a prolonged industrial dispute. But – as in the UK’s Southern Rail dispute – the rail managers aren’t in charge, the politicians are, and they want to send a broader message to unions and voters.

Howard Collins, CEO of TfNSW’s Sydney Trains unit, says that 160 trainee drivers will start work soon, taking a bit of the pressure off overtime numbers. There are also plans to transfer existing rail lines in Northern and Western Sydney to the new, automated Sydney Metro network over coming years, which will eventually reduce staffing pressures as drivers are transferred to other lines.

But with the first of these closures for conversion not due until late 2018, and the second not until 2022, it’s hard to see the misery for train crew and commuters ending any time soon. Well, unless the outcry from commuters over their misery, not to mention the dangers created by an atmosphere of cost-cutting, makes the Transport Minister’s position untenable, that is.

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.