A Sydney train driver has revealed the key economic problems facing the state's rail system

Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)

Politicians love to talk about the importance of economic competitiveness. They point to rivals and argue vehemently for reforms in order to remain competitive.

The New South Wales government even wants to spend $2 billion on two football stadiums in Sydney, arguing it needs to do so order to compete for big events with rival states.

But all too often arguments about competition revolve around reforms that involve cutting wages or conditions in a race to the bottom for workers.

Right now Sydney’s train network is in meltdown and the NSW government is locked in a bitter struggle with the rail union over pay and conditions. That battle has provoked a 24-hour strike this Monday, January 29. In the meantime, 1300 trains have been cancelled today as overtime bans by drivers kick in.

The government is trying to get the bans and strike blocked in legal action in the Fair Work Commission, but if that fails, the pain for commuters will be ongoing in a endless loop cycle of the chaos seen on January 9-10 — which NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance declared “an act of God” to justify not reimbursing commuters stranded or delayed over 48 hours.

While the unions and Constance indulge in their death cage fight for supremacy, details about some of the underlying forces effecting the state’s rail system have emerged in an interview with a Sydney train driver by Jackson Ryan at Lifehacker.

For the state’s Liberal government and unions, part of this dispute is an ideological war over privatisation.

And Constance has tried to portray the union as greedy for seeking a 6% annual pay rise over four years, when the government’s one salary cap for public servants is 2.5% per annum.

Earlier this week, Constance put a new deal on the table: a 2.75% annual pay rise over three years, plus a one-off $1000 payment and some other perks, which mean an effective yearly increase of 3.45%.

But Ryan’s interview with the driver he calls “Charlie” reveals there are bigger economic forces at play.

Charlie says he made just under $100,000 last financial year, which includes at least one day of overtime every fortnight, at a minimum, adding that “I guess I am average when it comes to the wage a driver receives”.

Constance has been saying drivers earn $113,000, but Charlie’s response says that figure would include: “working every public holiday and penalty rates, and with superannuation”.

Sounds good, but the problem is that Queensland and Victoria both already pay their drivers more and NSW is losing staff to Melbourne and Brisbane, where the higher incomes deliver a better quality of life because property in those capitals is cheaper than Sydney.

Queensland had its own network problems in 2016, which lead to mass cancellations and widespread anger.

A subsequent inquiry into what went wrong – which concluded drivers and an over-reliance on overtime to meet an expanded timetable – will no doubt be in the backs of the minds of Constance and Sydney Trains CEO Howard Collins, especially since the debacle cost a number of senior rail executives their jobs.

Last year, a 12% pay rise deal over four years for Queensland rail staff was struck. A south-east Queensland trainee driver now has a base salary of $92,315, a qualified driver, $98,211, with five weeks of annual leave.

Putting aside interstate poaching raids, you can see the allure for a Sydney driver trying to service a massive mortgage in that city.

Here’s what Charlie says about the union’s claim:

Six per cent per year for four years would bring driver pay to the same rate as Brisbane and Melbourne, who are actively seeking out Sydney’s train drivers as we are qualified to the national standard.

Drivers have been claiming they’ve been stretched after the NSW government introduced a new schedule last year.

Charlie says drivers now work longer hours and drive to 12% further than four years ago. He’s had just five days off since Christmas, which equates to a six-day working week.

“They are rostering us to do longer hours and more kilometres per fortnight, which is also contributing to fatigue levels,” he told Lifehacker.

And the timetable the government boasted about, which added 1,500 new train services weekly, was a breaking point for overstretched staff.

“They simply ran out of drivers that had any will to continue doing overtime by the time the full timetable came into effect,” he said.

Jackson Ryan paints the bigger picture in the numbers at play:

It takes five months to train as a guard and a year to become a qualified driver. The skills drain is real. In the 2013-2014 financial year, Sydney Trains reported that 2447 people were employed as ‘train crew’.

For the 2016-2017 financial year, that number had increased by only 22, an increase of 0.9%. In the same time period, weekday services have increased from 2708 to 3200, an increase of 18%.

To a casual observer, that’s a pretty decent productivity gain by Sydney rail staff as negligible cost to the government’s wages bill.

Charlie says he only stays because of family and friends.

“One of the biggest problems for Sydney Trains right now, is both of these cities are stealing more drivers than what Sydney Trains can train, and even then, many new drivers quit within the first few months, or move to the aforementioned cities for better rates,” Charlie told Lifehacker.

There are rough estimates on the lost productivity from the current network failures, and no doubt a price will be put on Monday’s strike.

But there already appears to be bigger problems with the rail network at a time when the NSW government is attempting to stake its credentials on the transport infrastructure currently under construction, despite delays and cost overruns.

And excuse the pun, but this train wreck has been coming for some time, including the era when now premier Gladys Berejiklian was transport minister.

Here’s what the Fairfax Media reported in 2013:

Senior RailCorp executives warned that continued cuts to maintenance funding would jeopardise the safety of the network a year before the O’Farrell government announced 450 jobs would be axed, leaked documents reveal.

The confidential report of an executive management meeting shows RailCorp was already struggling with funding cuts in February 2011, a month before the state election in which the O’Farrell government took office.

It had asked the then Labor government for a maintenance budget of $1.175 billion for the 2011-12 financial year. But the government offered only $1.049 billion – a shortfall of $126 million.

“Ongoing forward estimate reduction … will not allow the existing levels of safety and reliability to be maintained in the long term,” the report warns.

In November 2012, Berejiklian announced, 450 maintenance jobs (10% of the workforce), would be cut from RailCorp to create larger “centres of excellence”.

The NSW government will claim record funding levels, but they were still less than RailCorp sought to maintain the network.

The following year, Berejiklian transferred operation and maintenance functions to Sydney Trains and NSW Trains, leaving RailCorp as an asset owner. Sydney Trains CEO Howard Collins is now acting chief exec of RailCorp.

Last year the NSW government announced a budget surplus of $4.5 billion thanks to Sydney’s booming property market.

It leased the NSW land titles registry to a funds management company for $2.6 billion, against the advice of multiple experts, and now plans to spend that windfall on football stadiums in the name of competition.

Right now, the state’s rail system looks to be on a winning streak rivalled only by the NSW State of Origin team.

If they’re looking for somewhere to invest taxpayer money right now, the state’s 1.3 million rail users could probably offer some suggestions.

Especially if the government wants a competitive global city.

The full Lifehacker interview is here.

*Editor’s note: Since publishing, Monday’s 24-hour strike has been ruled out by the Fair Work Commission which found that the industrial action “threatens to endanger the welfare” of train commuters and could significantly damage the city’s economy.

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