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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Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.