NSW transport minister Andrew Constance says 48 hours of extensive delays on the Sydney Trains network at the start of the week were not due to driver shortages or an expanded timetable, but instead because of “an act of God”.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Constance said he had requested an explanation of events from Sydney Trains, but defended the new timetable, which last month added 1,500 services per week on the network.
Commuters struggled through extensive delays throughout Monday and Tuesday, along with overcrowded platforms and carriages.
“It’s an act of God when you have three lightning strikes take out substations, train routes and signalling,” Constance told reporters.
“Coupled with the fact that we’ve put more trains and more services on to cater for Sydney’s growth, I’m not shying away from apologising for what happened in the last 48 hours, but the train timetable has operated well for the past month and a half.”
Union representatives have said the Government’s new timetable stretches staff numbers too far.
After Sydney Trains noted between 65 and 70 train drivers were off on Tuesday due to illness, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union slammed the operator.
“One minute, Sydney Trains management said that the cancellations were due to an excessive amount of approved leave, then it was track work, then they changed their minds and decided to blame workers taking sick leave, and on Twitter, they’ve even blamed ‘reduced customer demand’ and the weather,” RTBU said.
“After investigations, we believe that there has been no abnormal spike in sick leave today by train drivers and [Sydney Trains is attempting] to demonise their hard-working and dedicated drivers to hide their own failings!
“It’s absurd to think that a few workers falling ill would cause disruptions across the whole transport network.”
Constance acknowledged the cited illness figures, saying “people get sick,” but defended the new timetable, saying the events that triggered the delays would have had an impact on any timetable.
“When we have a major incident, as we’ve seen under any timetable, we can see major disruptions and it has been a mess the last 48 hours,” he said. “I expect the next 48 hours to be better and we’ll continue to work at it.”
NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley rejected Constance’s reasoning, and labelled the conditions “third world”.
“Thousands of people jammed in like sardines, held back by staff and barriers, held back by police with announcements begging people to leave the station and find another way home,” Foley said. “This is a train service reminiscent of a third world city.”
NSW Greens transport spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi said the drama was another reminder of the weight of the Government’s plans to shut down rail services between Chatswood and Epping, and between Central and Bankstown (on the T1 line), for extended stretches, as part of the Sydney Metro project.
“The system is stretched to the limit and their response is to close down two train lines and hand them over to the private sector,” Faruqi said.
“I suspect this Government’s strategy is to run the system into the ground to make the handover to the private sector more palatable, meanwhile the people suffer.”