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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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.