Here’s What A Train Driver Thinks Of The Sydney Strike

Here’s What A Train Driver Thinks Of The Sydney Strike

Since Christmas Eve, Charlie’s* only had five days off of work.

For eight years, he’s been dedicated to his job. He loves his job. It’s challenging and mentally demanding but Charlie knows it inside out. Yet lately, excessive overtime and an increased workload has left him feeling dispirited and disillusioned.

Charlie is a Sydney Train Driver and he’s exhausted.

It’s been a nightmare month for Sydney Trains. A new timetable threw the system into disarray, with many services delayed or cancelled entirely, on January 9 and 10. The following week, 38 services across the network were cancelled due to insufficient staff being available to man the trains. On January 22, a train hit a buffer stop at Richmond.

Today, an overtime ban will see 1300 cancellations across the network and next week rail services will come to a complete stand still as drivers and station staff take industrial action, striking on Monday, January 29.

Image: Getty

In the midst of the chaos, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) have been in an oft-venomous back-and-forth with train bosses and the Government negotiating a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA). Whereas most reports suggest the major dispute centres around increasing worker’s pay, Charlie paints a different picture – one that is as concerned about the future of the network as any pay rise.

“I believe people think it is only about pay. It’s not just about pay. It is about the Liberal government outsourcing, cutting funding and privatising everything that they can within the railways. I know the union, as part of this deal, are seeking some sort of reassurance that more jobs will not be replaced by contractors.”

And it’s not just drivers that are involved in the upcoming industrial action. It extends to guards, station staff, signallers, train control, office workers and everyone covered by the enterprise agreement. Job security is important to these sections of the workforce, who have seen mates made redundant in favour of private contractors.

As for driver’s paychecks, Charlie doesn’t believe the demands are unreasonable. While the Government and Trains bosses have stated that a 2.5 per cent increase is what they’re willing to give, workers have been pushing for a 6 per cent increase each year for four years.

“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 are working longer than they have in the past. Charlie claims they are covering up to 12 per cent more kilometres than four years ago, the last time a new enterprise bargaining agreement was discussed. Those increases are exhausting.

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

They want respect and they don’t want to be blamed for the networks missteps, especially as they are the ones that are responsible for holding it together.

Well, almost holding it together.

“The network is in shambles, there are so many patch jobs on broken rails it’s scary to think about, the maintenance budget was massively reduced when Gladys was Transport Minister and it really shows now. I’m sure even commuters notice the rough rides and the failing signals and points.”

The issues extend back to the amount of staff on the payroll. Charlie explains that, even with drivers putting in their maximum overtime, the lack of drivers means the current timetable is unlikely to work for many months.

“There is a saying amongst crew that ‘Even if we didn’t have passengers, we still wouldn’t run on time’ and it’s true. The aging infrastructure, old trains, and the amount of procedures that need to be followed for even the slightest hiccups all contribute to this.”

In regards to the current timetable, which was put into place in late November, he’s a lot more blunt.

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

Charlie would have already moved to Melbourne or Brisbane if he didn’t have a family, home and friends in Sydney. However, others have made the move, taking on similar roles in Victoria and Queensland rail for better pay. The exodus has caused even bigger issues for the Sydney Trains network already stretched to its limit.

“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.”

Training drivers isn’t easy. Replacing staff that leave for jobs interstate takes time.

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 per cent. In the same time period, weekday services have increased from 2708 to 3200, an increase of 18 per cent. There are more services than ever before, but staffing them is an ever-increasing problem.

It may come as a surprise, but the skills necessary to drive a train aren’t as simple as knowing when to brake and when to accelerate.

That list is long.

Charlie details for me, point after point, the things that drivers are required to know.

Things like track names and platform names, how to prepare the train every morning, their maximum speeds, where the signals are and where they take you, every station on the network and their order, their grades, and their slope.

And he has to remember them while making sure that he always acts within the legislation of the Rail Safety Act.

If something goes wrong, the driver has to know how to fix it. In a rail system that uses eight different types of train, that’s no small feat.

And yet, Charlie still speaks fondly of the job.

“All of us are very attached to the network. We love it, just as a truck driver loves his rig, or a greens keeper loves the putting green on the 18th hole, no one wants to see the network fail.”

However, he admits this contributes to the excessive overtime that many drivers put in.

“When someone calls you at 2am to ask you to do a days work on short notice, it’s very hard to say no, especially if they are begging you because they have no one else to ask. We wouldn’t be so overworked if we weren’t so dedicated to our jobs.”

The start of the scheduled industrial action is an overtime ban, which begins January 25. This ban will ensure workers limit their hours to those specified in their contract.

“Honestly, it’s not going to be pretty”

“We are looking at 1300 services cancelled every day for the foreseeable future. It will be a complete nightmare for commuters. Every train I see in the morning peak is absolutely packed, but half that capacity and it will just be impossible.”

Charlie made it clear that he, and many other drivers, did not want to strike.

Emergency talks to resolve the dispute have been underway since January 22 but RTBU secretary Alex Claassens stated during that day of negotiations that there were still issues that the Union had concerns about. They provided union members with an offer on January 23, but only 5.93% voted yes to suspending industrial action.

Coupled with the overtime ban, the coming weeks look grim for Sydney Trains and for commuters.

After ten years as a guard and driver, and the sole income earner in his household, the struggles of the last few weeks and the current dispute makes him feel at risk.

“While I don’t think i’m going to lose my house, I still have to worry about the cost of living that has been steadily increasing in Sydney these past few years.”

But putting EBA disputes, privatisation and his own paycheck aside isn’t easy but it’s safety that Charlie is most worried about. Not just for himself as a driver, but for the commuting public. The one million people that use the Sydney Trains network everyday.

Charlie can see the problems piling up – maintenance spending has been reduced to all time lows, train crews are fatigued from long hours and management are pressuring staff to break the Rail Safety Act just to keep the trains running.

On top of that, the new timetable pushes the speed and capabilities of the train fleet to their absolute maximum.

His greatest concern is that these compounding problems lead to a repeat of the Granville disaster, Australia’s worst rail disaster, where 84 people were killed after a train derailed and slammed into a bridge.

“I don’t want myself, workmates or the general public to be involved in something like that just to save a few dollars or to make the railway look more attractive to the private sector.”

*Driver’s name has been changed to protect privacy.


  • It really sounds like they pushed through changes that any unbiased report would have exposed as being a bad idea.
    Why do I get the feeling that govt. is constantly pushing ahead with bad ideas to get things across the line?

  • Medical imaging (Radiography) is a 4yr degree (or more, depending on the tertiary institution). Most of the time the radiographer punches in the patient’s weight and pushes the ‘go’ button. A monkey could probably watch 90% of a radiographer’s work and replicate it more or less successfully.
    The four years study and clinical placement, the one year professional development (on-the-job training), and extra digit on the pay packet is about what doesn’t happen in the 90%. The really, really, really fucking important things that happen in the 10% remainder.

    Much like other jobs. Say, pharmacists who spend 90% of their time printing labels to put on boxes and trying to sell diet shakes. GPs whose advice is 90% of the time, ‘get more sleep and fluids and wait it out,’ or, ‘here’s a script for an antibiotic.’ Airline pilots who spend 90% of their time on auto-pilot, trying not to fall asleep.

    The 10% matters.

    I’m not particularly surprised to hear train driving might be similar in terms of not being ‘stop and go’ buttons, requiring a year’s training.

  • Sorry train driver, but most workers are tired, stressed. it is called, a job. it is life. if you don’t like it, retrain, re-educate yourself, go back to school, learn something different.

    6% increase is ridiculous. banks increases are around 2% per year. Maybe bank staff should strike on a day you wanted to get a loan or withdraw some money?

    the sooner automated trains come on like they have in other countries the better.

    • Congratulations, you are part of the problem.

      And yes, maybe bank workers SHOULD – because banks routinely make BILLIONS of profit and yet still see enough reason to hike up fees and decrease pay for their workers.

      Maybe instead of siding with the people who have ALL the power to exploit, maybe spare a thought for the exploited for once.

      And LOL, if you think ‘automated trains’ are going to need zero workers, then that truly shows how ignorant you are. If anything, they’d require EVEN MORE maintenance, thus more delays.

    • and that is the attitude that kept us from having a decent working week and leave for so long. The same attitude that leads China to have suicide nets around buildings rather than fair work hours and wages. The lay down and take it attitude rather than drive for what is fair. This also on the back of being repeatedly told by the RBA that wage stagnation will affect everyone and lead to cuts in the hospitality, retail and manufacturing sector.

    • Wow what a nice attitude to have there mate. It’s like telling people if life give you lemons you just have to suck it dry or throw it away. Try developing some sympathy the train driver. Like hell I wouldnt ride any form of transport if I know that the driver is severely fatigue. Also telling people to re-educate themself when they may have mortgage or family to take care of is down right irresponsible, not everyone have a safety net to fall into.

    • but it’s totally fine for polly’s to get massive pay increases?

      i guess you have no idea on how it really is to be a train driver…

      come back and say all that when all you could do is lower the curtain, hit the emergency brakes, and hear a person get hit by the train.

      bank staff? i have to take time off to see a bank, as they are soo precious they don’t work weekends most of the time, and finish at 4pm!

    • Automation will be great, however that only removes the driver, and not the other plethora of staff that keep a rail network operating.

      Also, a 6% increase would actually help Sydney Rail – as they are currently losing staff to Victoria & Queensland where the standard award is higher for the same work. You know, market forces and everything :P.

      • You have to understand, when people come into an article like this with a preconceived idea of who the problem is (in this case, it’s apparently the driver’s fault) they don’t actually stop to read the article. If he had, he would know that the 6% raise was centred around the idea of bringing their wages in line with those other states. He would know that losing workers to other states is leaving those who remain with longer hours and less rest. But this person doesn’t care, they were inconvenienced by the strike and it’s all the driver’s faults.

        • Although he states what the 6% is for he complains about privatisation, some of the networks it will bring them inline with are privatised.
          He doesn’t want privatisation yet wants the same as the private companies have.

    • There are so many points I’d like to raise in response to this comment, but it is more likely you are lashing out in frustration (understandably), So I’ll try to keep it short.

      You are correct that most workers are tired and stressed. Unfortunately, in safety critical industries such as railways, workers cannot afford to be tired. Fatigue places employees and commuters at enormous risk! The drivers route knowledge and situational awareness are what keep commuters safe. It is a highly repetitive, and mentally demanding job with little margin for error. To those who have never worked a train or shift work, its difficult to convey. Just for a moment, think about how many people have told you your job must be easy. I bet you can think of hundreds of situations where it is anything but!

      This story may be for NSW, but we in other states experience the same. Anyone in QLD will probably see the glaring similarities here with what was dubbed “Rail Fail”. The lasting effects of ours will be felt for years to come, and I imagine Sydney may be in for the same. This will likely get worse before it gets better. This is especially true if it’s a lack of Traincrew in general, not just a case of someone approving too much annual leave at a critical time. You think they’d learn from our situation, but here we are 2 years on…

      Please remember, it’s not all about the pay. It may be true that NSW crews are paid less than their neighbours and want a fair go. But I’d wager there is for more to this EBA negotiation than that. Alas this is what most people cling to though – because it’s relate-able, and the perception that it’s easy money. Items such as rest periods, hours of work, shift work allocations, depot placements, day of operations roster alterations, master roster changes… Its a complex beast!

      There are many issues that will be under scrutiny here – a lot of give and take from both sides. There is likely a reason they think that the rise they are looking for is justified. Makes me wonder what they are being asked to give up in return.

    • OK, I’ll try to educate.

      The 6% is ridiculous… it’s ridiculous that it would take four years of 6% increases to bring them to parity with the other states.

      They’re not asking for 6% annual raises in perpetuity. They’re trying to stop being the worst-paid drivers in the country.

      And they’re not JUST asking for that because they live in a state with a relatively high cost of living, or because it’s fair. They’re asking for that to stop their coworkers from routinely leaving for better-paying states, leaving them with a staff shortage that has only been solved by making everyone who remains do overtime.

    • How about your job becomes automated. Sydney’s rail network is not similar to anything that has been automated in other countries. There are 2 lines that may become automated thanks to out sourcing ( sarcasm ) but would you put your family on a plane with no pilot? why would a train be any safer. This isn’t Australia anymore, we feel it in the workplace. The Australian way of life has been overrun by managers and ceo’s whom we purchased from England who rudely forced their un australian morals and work ethics unto us. Our forefathers fought and sacrificed so that we have rights and priveliges. We sold them by being yes men and women, by seeking our very own individual needs, by thinking that we maybe building an empire for ourselves. But it’s not true. Only united do we stand. Sacrifice a day people, in all jobs where you have lost your right to be a proud Australian.This is not some 3rd world country in the 1920’s. We are in Australia and we refuse to sell it or tamper with it’s fair and just culture. And I wasn’t even born here. Australia is too good of a place, too wonderful of a society to be destroyed by early technology that serves only ministers and foreigners in their pocket and status. It is up to us to say no, to take a stand for what is not right for our future and our future generations. What will you be prepared to do for your country, your way of life, your family. No more job automations, too soon, too fast. And as for pay increases?? Who here can afford a liveable home in NSW? Who can put together a deposit? Who can pay off 1 million AUD.

      • Some industries and places that is the norm. I work a 12 hour day and at others I have worked it has been the same, though unlike the drivers who would have had clauses like over time when needed etc, my hours are the standard shift time.
        It’s a case of some people can some can’t and I’m sure there are lots of drivers that can’t. But just because your over 8 hours doesn’t instantly make every one fatigued.

  • I’m no big city lawyer Charlie, but it seems somewhat inconsistent to be complaining looming privatisations with their low pay and awful conditions, while simultaneously suggesting that all the drivers are going to run off to Melbourne, because you know, they have better pay and conditions. All the Melbourne trains were privatised in the 1990s.

    It takes some pretty impressive mental gymnastics to put those two nonsense claims in the same sentence, and you are insulting all of us by doing it.

  • So automated trains are the answer? And the switch knowledge and maximum speeds and other factors will be written into code by??? Someone with no practical knowledge of the job but has the ability to eliminate people and experience from the system? I would like the automated systems to have input from those with experience as well as the coders. But if they are being pushed to the limit how will THAT happen?

  • Here’s my question, from what I understand the Train Drivers are mostly worried about keeping their job security and their fatigue levels, the pay isn’t their main concern from what they’re saying.

    The fatigue levels concern me but are these levels being caused by them accepting overtime which they don’t have to accept? If so why not just not accept overtime? Are there pressures from their bosses to have to accept it or some other factor?

    I’m a Pilot myself and can tell you that Pilots at their first jobs are paid less than these train drivers and don’t see their sort of money till about 3 to 4 years into their careers depending on a few factors so I’m not particularly buying the part about them not being paid enough when they’re getting paid more for what seems to be a less technically demanding job.

    • I mean, seems relatively straight-forward.
      They want more pay to make staying in Sydney more attractive to drivers, that means they don’t have to work as much overtime, which means less fatigue, and potentially maybe less money cause overtime would drop.

      From what I understand from the various articles, it’s a requirement of their EBA to accept reasonable overtime, there’s this tweet ( which includes a letter from the trains CEO which mentions that they’re not allowed to refuse.
      Seems like what’s “reasonable” is up for “discussion”.

      As for pay comparisons, that’s dubious territory. As the article indicates part of the problem is that they can get more money elsewhere for the same job, which is likely the better comparison rather than to a separate job.

      • Ahh, the part from the EBA explains it all very neatly, what a terrible clause to have in there without any sort of way to describe what accounts for “reasonable”.

        Good point for wanting the higher pay to attract more so they don’t have to called in for reasonable overtime, that does indeed make it all make more sense.

        I still think they’re getting paid pretty damned well overall though considering the requirements of their jobs.

  • Sorry, but the future is 100% driverless trains. A computer can be programmed to do every task a needed, including a pair of digital eyes to look out for people jumping in front of tracks. And the weak old argument that I should get paid more because they are paid more in (insert city) is BS. The only reason train drivers are paid so much for a semi skilled job you can learn in a year – (any other trade takes multiple years of study) is the thuggish unionist behaviour that as someone said – is our traditional aussie culture and we wont have a bar of changing that. So the union thugs willing to bring cities to a standstill until piss weak governments give in is the reason for the pay disparity. Poll the average aussie on how much sympathy he has for train drivers – zero. And what right do you think you have to be able to afford your sydney mansion on a single wage? 99% of aussies need 2 wages to have a hope of buying a house.

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