40,000 infrastructure defects reported in Sydney Trains’ maintenance backlog

Jul 3, 2023
Sydney trains rush hour Image: iStock / kldlife

It took a Ministerial review to say what should have been blindingly obvious to each of Sydney Trains, the Transport Asset Holding Entity, Transport for NSW and Treasury: the timetable is defective and there is a maintenance backlog evidenced by a reported 40,000 infrastructure defects.

Little reviews

The NSW Government commissioned a series of little reviews into what they hope are a few transport hiccups. One – on (un)reliability of Sydney Trains – produced an interim report, a version of which was published. It said the problems were largely down to the timetable developed by the Department – Transport for NSW – and to a maintenance backlog. It also pointed to the former Government undermining the organisational capacity of Sydney Trains.

A previous article in Pearls and Irritations looked at the timetable. The report said it should be done by Sydney Trains. Yet legislation makes the Department responsible for timetables – just one of manifold defects in the Act. Which the powers that be didn’t want the review to look at.

The report said another cause of unreliability was an infrastructure maintenance backlog due to ‘black swan’ events like flooding. The result: a vast number of infrastructure defects which reduce train running speeds. That is one topic here.


The report recommended a maintenance blitz to address the backlog. To be funded internally. The Minister happily announced the blitz – as the biggest maintenance program seen in Sydney – several times.

So far so good. But beyond lie gaping holes in the story.

The blitz will supposedly cost $97m. Implausibly cheap for a remediation program extending over a year and comprising at least 3,700 jobs. Especially given up to $1,000m is spent on maintenance annually. So much for the biggest program ever.

Funded internally? The report did not say why. A review panel of this experience forgetting to explain? About the key call the Government needed to make?

No matter, the inference, accepted by all and sundry, is of a hollow-log – unspent maintenance monies.

A Ministerial review needed to identify train delays resulting from infrastructure problems? That there was a black bevy? An underspend on maintenance? Despite the Act requiring Sydney Trains to keep the Minister informed of significant matters?

Perhaps needed.

After all, this is the system that shut the Airport line because a single employee took ill. And closed-down the whole network to inflict a lesson on its workforce and the public.


More like probably. As there is not the remotest inkling of a maintenance problem in accounts of either Sydney Trains – or of the owner of the assets, the Transport Asset Holding Entity. In fact, Annual Reports involve more than a degree of bragging about the effectiveness, efficiency and surety of maintenance.

Assured by whom?

The public – and Auditor General – was assured everything was in order.

By verbal and written barrages about ‘reforms’ providing a further level of assurance – via the Transport Asset Holding Entity. Replete with a ‘Safety and Asset Management Outcomes Annual Report’, which talks about bureaucracy – not outcomes – in undecipherable verbosity such as: it ‘has allowed TAHE to assess TfNSW and delivery partners that adequate processes and controls are in place to manage…..’

As part of this the NSW accident investigator is said to have given advice on the adequacy of arrangements – thus compromising its very purpose – what a mess.

Warnings that maintenance was likely to again become a problem – like in the late 1990s under the same railway structure – were not just ignored but drew howls about ‘another level of assurance’. Assurance which was impossible because the scheme of accounts provide an incentive to under-spend on maintenance and a veil that prevents detection of such underspending – replicating another notorious problem of late 1990s NSW rail policy.

The questions are not merely: who allowed annual reports to become showcases of puffery and deceptive accounts? Nor just: why was there no information on the only real maintenance questions – what is needed, and how much of this need was met? Nor even: why did Treasury and the Department abandon practices they once knew were necessary to meet their responsibilities to monitor railway organisations and oversee vast sums of public monies?

Another is: why was it ever thought a good idea to take the assets from the railway and put them in organisations – first the Department, later the Entity – who tell the Auditor General they are in control yet tell everybody else – including the safety regulator – they are not responsible?

Unlike what the Government thinks – at least thought when in Opposition – that is not a budget presentation problem. Rather it is a threat to the operations and perhaps public safety of the commuter rail system.

Much more could be said about maintenance – including the bizarre arrangement of ‘A’ advancing vast sums to ‘B’ to look after the assets of ‘C’ – with A not asking whether B spent the money and C not caring; about a Department conducting an unregulated function of setting asset standards; repetition of late 1990s prattle about ‘fit for purpose’; change in the basis of asset values just after reports of a significant shortening of asset lives; and whether undue faith in imminence of digital-train-operations undermines incentives to maintain current signalling.

And more

But for now, attention really needs to be paid to what can be gleaned from the report about the attitude of the bureaucracy to the railway.

The Department ‘helps-out’ Sydney Trains by providing it with external services that should be done in-house. Apart from the (failed) timetable, activities include: asset standards; training; employee selection; corporate functions, such as advice on responsibilities and on legal relations – with the Department! The portfolio chart shows a ‘reporting line’ of the Chief Executive to a Deputy in the Department – contrary to the Act which requires the Chief to report to the Minister.

Yet the Department has been less assertive about claiming concomitant responsibilities under national rail safety law.

Little wonder it took a Ministerial review to say what should have been blindingly obvious to each of Sydney Trains, the Transport Asset Holding Entity, Transport for NSW and Treasury: the timetable is defective and there is a maintenance backlog evidenced by a reported 40,000 infrastructure defects.

And little wonder the published report looks like a redacted version of the start of what the Government needs to be very firmly told.


Given that, there does seem an agenda to so subjugate Sydney Trains as to effectively cripple – rub-out – Sydney’s commuter railway.

This replicates the aims of, and deceptive practices characterising, the Sydney Metro boondoggle. With the same devotion to secrecy producing the same consequence – decision makers isolated from competent advice. Those decision makers thus make the worst of all mistakes: not considering what success looks like, and what is likely to happen on the road to the policy destination – as the commuter railway progressively crumbles.

By ignoring gravely flawed policy and legislation, skiting about a network wide maintenance blitz whose cost is just a bad afternoon on the East Hills line – and hoping friendly little reviews won’t cost much and keep everyone out of trouble – the Minister seems unaware of the game in which she is being played. That does not augur well for Sydney and its commuters. Or the Minister.

While the review is to produce a final report later this year, it has already provided further compelling reasons for a formal commission of inquiry: to interrogate advisers and policy makers about what they have done; to identify ways out of this mess; and for public accountability to deter the type of misbehaviour outlined in this article.

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