An update on Sydney Trains’ little review

Jul 2, 2023
Sydney train on the Sydney Harbour Bridge Image: iStock / Julia Gomina

The little review of Sydney Trains has revealed more than some, including the Minister, might like.  This is the first of two posts on the subject.

Little reviews

Mr Menadue and I have long called for a public inquiry into NSW Transport. The reasons for this include that the former Government’s deceptive explanations of bizarre policies costing tens of billions of dollars inflict permanent disadvantage on the less privileged parts of Sydney.

Instead, the new Labor Government commissioned a series of little reviews into a few sore points. As if the transport problems are just itches that need a bit of a scratch. And the Minister’s only job is to keep the insiders happy.

Previous posts dealt with establishment of two reviews – reliability of infrastructure used by Sydney Trains; and delivery of Sydney Metro.

The posts noted unusual aspects of the reviews: legislation was not to be questioned; the only ‘stakeholders’ are bureaucracies; and, despite the Minister’s eagerness to publicise the reviews, the public is excluded.

The posts asked: is there an agenda to rub-out Sydney’s commuter railway?

An interim report from Sydney Trains review points to an answer: yes.

Which the present lackadaisical approach threatens to confirm.

Interim report

The report was delivered to the Government in early May. A version was released with the usual fanfare – all recommendations accepted etc. – ten days later.

‘A version’ because the published document bears hallmarks of stakeholder editing. Yet from their perspective any bowdlerisation was insufficient.

The report found Sydney Trains suffers reliability problems due to: a timetable, introduced in 2017, that asks too much of the railway; and an infrastructure maintenance backlog.

It also found Sydney Trains had been stripped of much of the capability necessary for its commuter rail task. With critical functions, like timetable development, taken by Transport for NSW.

It made the minimalist recommendations to be expected – again eagerly endorsed by the Minister – especially a costless maintenance blitz.

Yet it did not delve into how those problems came to be. Or hasn’t delved so far.

How can it be – timetable?

As is well known, the timetable for Sydney’s rail system needs to be done inside the railway – and take careful heed of operational issues. Evidently, the Department – Transport for NSW – did not take requisite heed, probably reflecting a feeling the railway is beneath it.

The review said timetabling is now being moved back to Sydney Trains. It said the transfer should be expedited. Problem fixed?

Unfortunately, easier said than done.

The Transport Administration Act was amended in 2011 to impose responsibility for a Timetable on the Department. In fact, that is the only specific responsibility of the Department!

The reason then given by Ministers for this amendment was Delphic: ‘centralise the timetable’. Curious because it does the opposite.

Readers may recall around this time Ministers promised the north-west rail link would be served by commuter trains – not Metro. And said rail assets would stay with the service provider – Sydney Trains. More cases of a Government doing the opposite to what it told Parliament.

Yet even with less than worthless Ministerial assurances, the Department cannot avoid its responsibility for the Timetable. That responsibility is very serious – as shown in the Glenbrook and Waterfall accident Commission reports. The Commissions found both accidents had some roots in train drivers trying to meet the timetable. A timetable that asks too much can be dangerous. They recommended timetabling should lie with Sydney Trains (predecessor).

Hence the present interim report leads to exposure of another case of the former Government (mis)leading Parliament to ignore central recommendations of accident Commissions. Probably due to bad advice.

The story gets worse. For one thing, the Commissions’ recommendations – for the railway to be responsible for timetabling – were also based on experience with a failed timetable in 1996. That experience had the same problems, for the same reasons, that afflict the 2017 timetable.

Demonstrating that very little – certainly not hard-won, home-grown experience nor even accident Commission reports – can penetrate the fog enveloping NSW transport policy.


Worse still: if there was a wish for the Department to control timetabling, the 2011 amendments were not necessary. The Act already allowed the Minister to transfer timetabling to the Department. The 2011 amendments had clandestine purposes.

Worse yet: the amended legislation refers to the ‘Standard Working Timetable’. That is a term of art long used – still is! – in the railway industry to denote something very different from what is defined in the Act. The result: confusion about who is responsible for what and what the law requires of each organisation. The type of situation lending itself to danger in railways.

These are not the only issues with current Act. At least in relation to railways it has become so riddled with problems as to be unworkable. For example, there are at least seven different, at times inconsistent, provisions for the Department to control Sydney Trains’ activities. Which apparently has led to a belief the Department sits atop Sydney Trains – duly shown in the portfolio organisation chart. Yet the Act has the Department and Sydney Trains as equals.

The legislative problems are not down to drafting but incoherent, inexpert, and incomprehensible policy ideas which apparently could not be spoken about in public.

The mechanics of implementing such secret aims were not tested. NSW rail policy post 2011 looks a case of ‘group think’. The same secrecy-incompetence that gave rise to the Metro boondoggle.

The resultant NSW rail structure is as unstable as it was in the period 1996-2004 – when the accidents occurred. Its arcane nature means it will practically fall apart as insiders move on to greener pastures, with their replacements unable to follow the plot. Yet the legislation demands it be implemented.

At this point, it is worth noting the Departments behind this appalling situation are the key stakeholders to the present review.

Little wonder the powers-that-be wanted the review to not touch legislation.

Next time

The next article will look at the maintenance backlog, and some of the railway tasks the Department sought more eagerly than the responsibilities attaching to them.

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