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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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.