ACT

ACT acknowledges the essential work of public transport staff

As the ACT starts to ease restrictions put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), Minister for Chris Steel is calling on Canberrans to thank rail staff and other public transport workers.

“This is group of people who have been quietly and proudly delivering the important services that our community has relied on during the pandemic, and they deserve our thanks,” said Steel.

“While there’s been less people using public transport, each journey has been important to keep our society functioning and Canberrans moving.”

During the pandemic and associated lockdowns, Transport Canberra ran a full timetable across light rail services as well as bus services in the ACT. With work from home directives and restrictions on the use of public transport only for essential travel, patronage figures have decreased by 85 per cent. In the first week of term two 2020, April 28 to May 1, Transport Canberra recorded a daily average of 8,873 journeys. In the comparable period in 2019, 66,766 journeys were recorded. The busiest day since the end of March was Monday, April 28, with 9,793 journeys.

In April, Transport Canberra hired extra cleaners to sanitise buses, light rail vehicles, and public transport stops. Steel said the government has been working with unions to ensure workplaces are safe.

“The ACT Government has been working closely with union representatives from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) during this time to ensure the wellbeing of workers is at the forefront of Transport Canberra’s response to COVID-19,” said Steel.

“We’re looking at how social distancing and other measures can be promoted on public transport as more people start travelling, but we are still asking Canberrans to reconsider the need to travel at this time.”

Union delegates at the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union said the government had been listening to workers’ concerns.

“Transport Canberra has been receptive to the union’s concerns, establishing weekly meetings and making changes in accordance with workers’ feedback. This has been integral to ensuring both worker and commuter safety.”

While some authorities have been concerned that following the lifting of restrictions public transport patronage would drop as people commute via car, Steel said that maintaining a full timetable throughout the crisis will help ensure people return to public transport.

“Canberrans have been able to rely on public transport during the crisis, because we’ve been delivering the same services week in week out on buses and light rail,” said Steel.

“We are in a much better position than many other cities having delivered constant reliable services throughout the pandemic to support more people back on to public transport once restrictions are eased at an appropriate time.”

Wellington

Wellington trains return to regular timetable

Trains on the Wellington network have returned to a full timetable, as of Monday, May 4.

Trains on the five lines that stretch across the greater Wellington region had been reduced while New Zealand was under level 4 lockdown restrictions and were only available to essential workers and those accessing essential services. With some businesses, schools, and early learning centres now reopened, trains are operating on a full timetable.

Metlink general manager Scott Gallacher said that services resumed on a staggered basis up until May 4.

“Returning to full timetables on bus and rail is great news for passengers and the recovery of the region. We have hundreds of people working behind the scenes to update systems and help get all of our drivers, trains and buses back into action.”

Extra hygiene measures will still be in place, and Gallacher encouraged those travelling to abide by physical distancing guidelines.

“We’re asking passengers to help us during this time and abide by the physical distancing measures in place even if that means missing out on their first choice train or bus as demands start to pick back up. Metlink’s real time information will be up and running as soon as we enter alert level 3 to help people plan journeys, and we’ll continue to update passengers with any developments on the Metlink website and app.”

Due to the physical distancing requirements, fewer people will be let on each service.

On the Wairarapa line, trains were replaced with buses, and the services have resumed being conducted by trains. In addition, some restrictions such as access to the luggage area have been put in place.

“As with all of our public transport services, we will continue to ensure the safety of our staff and passengers. It is important for customers to be aware of physical distancing practices on all trains and while at stations,” said Gallacher.

Pacific National

Pacific National ramps up mental health peer support

Pacific National has today announced it will be increasing the size and scope of its mental health support for employees.

With more than 3,500 employees and terminals, depots and sites across Australia, Pacific National has been running a peer support program for a number of years. The organisation has been working on re-invigorating the initiative since late last year.

Chief people officer for Pacific National, Heidi Beck says their Peer Connect program ensures that important conversations about people’s mental health happen every day, not only on Rail R U OK?Day.

“Our program is somewhat unique in that it has been ongoing for some time, but it is very much led and driven by our employees and, increasing the size of the program was something that was requested by employees.

“Our Peer Connect program is aimed at raising mental health awareness and building a peer to peer support network every day. Our Peer Connect Champions are a point of contact for employees needing support,” she said.

To mark Rail R U OK?Day, the company has more than doubled the pool of peer support champions so that employees will have an identified peer to speak to if they need to have a confidential chat, either in person or via email, to one of their colleagues within the business about any difficulties they are facing.

“Every one of our Peer Support Champions will undergo the TrackSAFE Mental Health First Aid training in person and we will be looking to start this as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.

“In the meantime, our new Peer Support Champions will receive in-house training and resources so they can start to prepare themselves for their new roles,” explains Beck.

During the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic, check-in conversations with each other and openly talking about our state of mind have become a crucial way of life for all.

The training program itself is specifically designed for the rail industry and focused on the issues those working within the rail industry may face. It has been developed by Mental Health First Aid Australia and is facilitated by TrackSAFE.

“I have completed the program myself and it reminded me that while people may seem stoic on the outside, underneath they might be very stressed and a trigger can bring on high levels of anxiety in any of us,” says Beck.

Queensland institutes toughest fines yet for spitting on workers

Queensland is instituting some of the toughest fines yet for those who deliberately cough, sneeze or spit at public officials and workers.

The direction allows for fines of up to $13,345 for those who do so, and includes transport workers including train crews.

The move follows similar fines in NSW, where police can issue anyone who coughs or spits on workers a fine of up to $5,000.

Announcing the directive, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that she wanted to protect workers.

“I was disturbed to hear stories of people threatening to deliberately infect frontline staff.

“It’s disgusting and I want police to throw the book at them.”

The directive covers a public official or any worker at work or travelling for work during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

There have been reports of spitting and attacks on transport staff in other jurisdictions in Australian and New Zealand. On April 20, Auckland Transport chief executive Shane Ellison said there were two incidents where essential workers have been spat at.

“A couple were joy-riding on our trains and were told to get off. As they were being escorted from the train, a female spat at three of our staff. Two men and a woman have had to be stood down as a result of this incident and have gone into isolation. This behaviour is totally unacceptable. The incident was caught on CCTV and the police now have that footage.”

Another incident occurred when a security guard was spat at while working for Auckland Transport.

“Our staff and contractors are out there in all weathers ensuring that essential workers can get to their jobs and we cannot tolerate this sort of behaviour. We are working with the police to ensure that our staff can do their job without being assaulted,” said Ellison.

In NSW, a teenage girl spat at a Sydney railway station staffer, and said, “I have COVID” according to reports.

David Babineau, secretary of the Tram and Bus Division of the Rail, Tram & Bus Union of NSW, said that all workers should be treated with respect.

“Frankly, it’s disgusting in any circumstance but in the middle of the current health crisis it cannot be tolerated. Everyone has the right to go home safely from work and not wonder if they are bringing a potentially fatal disease home to their loved ones.”

Two more tunnel boring machines in the ground under Melbourne

The construction of the Melbourne Metro Tunnel has reached another milestone, with all four tunnel boring machines (TBM) now in operation.

TBM Millie, named after Victoria’s first female MP, Millie Peacock, is excavating the 1.7km tunnel between Anzac Station and the eastern entrance to the Metro Tunnel at South Yarra, while TBM Alice, named after wartime medical hero Alice Appleford, will soon begin on the second under St Kilda Road in the next weeks.

The first two tunnel boring machines had reached Anzac station from the west and are now creating the twin tunnels from Arden Station to Parkville station. There, the excavation of the station box was completed earlier in April.

Other works currently progressing at excavations under Swanston and Flinders streets to create the Town Hall station central cavern. The tunnelling for the twin tunnels under the CBD at the new State Library station, will begin later in 2020.

During these construction works, and with the building of rail infrastructure deemed an essential service, extra safety precautions are in place, said Minister for Transport Infrastructure, Jacinta Allan.

“The Metro Tunnel team are doing an amazing job finding practical, safe ways of working, so we can continue building this urgently needed project in challenging circumstances.”

As states begin to lift coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, the continuation of infrastructure construction such as the Melbourne Metro Tunnel will be key for economic recovery, said Allan.

“Just as we’re facing an unprecedented health challenge, we’re facing an unprecedented economic challenge too. Our Big Build will be vital as we recover after the pandemic has passed.”

WA trains begin to return to normal timetable

Western Australia will begin to bring back public transport services that were reduced because of coronavirus (COVID-19).

Services were scaled back on March 31 as passenger numbers dropped while people stayed at home and self isolated, however with school students returning to face-to-face classes, the WA government has brought forward regular timetabling.

“With students returning to school from April 29, we will see an increase in transport activity across our community,” said WA Transport Minister, Rita Saffioti.

“While initially we prepared a staged and scaled return to normal services, it is now our view to have services running to a normal schedule as soon as possible,” she said.

“In particular, feedback from parents, and from schools directly, has been that we bring the school services back from the first day.”

While it had already been announced that bus services would pick back up when school resumed, the latest announcement confirms that trains will begin to return to regular timetables on Monday, May 4. Until then, trains will follow the current timetabling – a Saturday in place of the Monday to Friday timetable, and no after-midnight train services on Friday and Saturday nights.

“Working with the contractors, unions and the PTA, we are now bringing forward the return of normal public transport services,” said Saffioti.

The WA government has advised passengers to continue following COVID-19 hygiene practices and additional cleaning will continue. WA was one of a few states to reduce train services. In NSW and Victoria, services continued to their regular timetable to allow passenger to practice social distancing, while in Queensland cuts were only made to long-distance and tourist train services.

Rail industry to come together for Rail R U OK?Day

On April 30, for the sixth year running, the rail industry in Australia and New Zealand will come together to ask colleagues, friends, and workmates, “Are you ok?”.

Run in collaboration between the TrackSAFE Foundation and non-profit suicide prevention organisation R U OK?, the day serves a way for those who work in the rail industry to support each other, said Bob Herbert, executive chairman of TrackSAFE.

“There’s around 300 attempts and 150 deaths on Australia’s train lines can be attributed to suicide each year. That impacts rail employees very severely, whether they’re drivers, stations staff, or maintenance staff and so Rail R U OK?Day was originally set up to deal with that trauma,” said Herbert.

In 2020, the day has taken on added significance as rail workers contend with the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on their working conditions, and the industry has responded in kind.

“We’ve got around 100 organisations participating in it this year, and each one appoints at least one champion, so there’s 120 champions, and we haven’t got the final figures yet, but I reckon we’ll touch 70,000 employees. This would be our biggest year ever,” said Herbert.

While a national R U OK?Day will be held in September, April 30 is a rail specific event that acknowledges the particular experiences of rail employees, said Katherine Newton, CEO of R U OK?.

“Rail R U OK?Day is distinct because it’s an industry specific campaign. It’s a day for the rail industry, for operators, drivers, admin staff, for everyone who’s in the industry to come together. It’s about acknowledging that they do see challenging incidents, and that the rail community as workmates and as colleagues can be there for each other during those times.”

In keeping with the grassroots nature of the wider R U OK? iInitiative, the rail day is a day for industry, by industry, highlighted Herbert.

“I’m delighted that this is the industry funding it, there are 30 subscribers, big and small rail companies, and they see this as an important initiative for the whole industry.”

Ahead of the day, TrackSAFE and R U OK? Have distributed rail-specific materials to encourage colleagues to sit down with each other or pick up the phone and get in touch. Herbert noted that these resources, in addition to TrackSAFE’s partnership with Lifeline, allow for an ongoing conversation.

“There’s nothing more important that having employees say to one another, ‘‘Are you ok?’’ and knowing what to do if you’re not ok, where do you refer them, how do you help them, make sure that there’s some action being taken and getting some follow up to see if you’re ok. That’s the message, quite simple really, but of all the things that I’ve been engaged in this is one of the most important at addressing mental health issues.”

THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 
Having been determined to be an essential service by all levels of government in Australia and New Zealand, the rail industry has been operating throughout measures implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19, and each sector has been called upon to contribute in their own way. Occurring in the run up to Rail R U OK?Day, Herbert has seen the industry come together like never before.

“Each of the companies are conscious of all the rules that apply, in terms of social distancing, and companies are practicing that. They understand their employees will face stressed passengers, and I’m pleased that TrackSafe can offer a big piece in the jigsaw as to how best it’s managed.”

Newton concurred, noting that while there may be a new physical distance between the rail industry, it’s more important than ever to be socially connected.

“While we’re being asked to be socially distant, we still need social connection and that’s really our message. We need to stay connected while and I think that the way that people have come together, with the increases that we’ve seen in both organisations that are taking part and the number of champions that are within those organisations, testifies to the idea of there is a lot more talking at the moment.”

Ahead of the day itself, participating rail companies and organisations have been provided with resources tailored to the conditions imposed by COVID-19 and are preparing for virtual meet-ups and calls.

“Let’s see what happens on the day but people are putting together some really creative ways online that they can connect,” said Newton. “It’s a great opportunity to pause and to take a moment, whether that be via phone, SMS, social media or the zooms that are happening around the country.”

AN ONGOING CONVERSATION
On April 30, leaders within the Australasian railways industry will be talking with their colleagues and checking in with each other, Herbert included.

“I won’t be sitting back and watching on the 30th, I’ve been invited to engage firstly with QR and Transdev New Zealand have asked me to do a presentation. My collages Danny Broad and Caroline Wilkie will be kicking in with Sydney Trains and Metro Trains Melbourne, so everywhere that we can spread ourselves we will be doing it.”

Other organisation will hold online webinars highlighting strategies for workmates to ask the critical question and for the past months two interactive question marks have been travelling around the country, beginning in Canberra for the first time. However, both Herbert and Newton noted that these conversations can continue year-round.

“Our message is that every day is R U OK?Day,” said Newton. “It’s very much around creating a culture of R U OK? and that’s where we see it works best. It’s not just having some cupcakes on Rail R U OK? Day or indeed R U OK?Day in September, it’s about having meaningful conversations and chats and that can only really come with trust.

“There has to be trust within colleagues and managers and it can be really helpful if leaders can show a bit of vulnerability and can show that they trust the people around them and say, ‘we all go through stuff, I’m human too and this is what we can do for each other’.”

Herbert agreed, and is looking forward to connecting with his rail colleagues once again.

“While April 30 becomes a significant exclamation mark for asking R U OK? It ought to be something we are doing all year round. We’ll engage with the national R U OK day in September I hope by then people can get together like they normally do,” he said.

ALC lobbies for freight to receive JobKeeper subsidy

The Australian Logistics Council (ALC) has called upon the federal government to extend the JobKeeper Payment scheme to freight and logistics businesses as they are businesses providing essential services.

In a letter to Treasurer Josh Frydenburg, CEO of the ALC Kirk Coningham wrote that while freight and logistics businesses, including freight rail operators, have been deemed an essential service, they have missed out on government support for businesses.

“ALC is concerned that the blunt application of a reduced turnover test at 30 per cent for small and medium businesses and 50 percent for larger businesses to qualify for the JobKeeper Payment fails to adequately account for [freight and logistics businesses],” wrote Coningham.

While rail businesses and organisations welcomed the announcement of stimulus in March, some were concerned that the threshold would limit their ability to access the scheme and ensure workers who may need to be stood down are continued to be paid.

Coningham outlined that the particular circumstances of the freight sector means that stimulus is required.

“The reality is that most businesses within Australia’s freight and logistics sector operate on tight margins that flow from high fixed costs associated with the purchase and maintenance of freight vehicles, equipment and infrastructure.”

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has hit Australia, freight businesses in the rail sector have been called upon to ensure that essential goods such as groceries continue to get on the shelves of supermarkets around Australia. Rail has continued to play a role as borders have been closed and in some areas has seen up to a 15 per cent increase in services.

Coningham wrote to Frydenburg that if businesses such as these were allowed to fail there would be significant consequences.

“If major freight transport businesses are forced to close due to financial pressures arising from COVID-19, there will be a range of deleterious consequences for the entire supply chain, and the ability of Australian households to access essential goods in a timely fashion could well be threatened. Moreover, there would also be significant consequences for Australian exporters, who rely on freight and logistics service providers to take their goods to market.”

The ALC recommended that essential service providers be eligible for JobKeeper Payments automatically, that if a threshold is imposed it should be set at 15 per cent for businesses providing essential services, and ensure that the first two JobKeeper payments are done quickly.

Civil contractors have “significant capacity” to support economy

Civil contractors are prepared to make significant investments in employment, if government infrastructure projects are fast tracked.

According to a new survey from the Civil Contractors Federation (CCF), Australia’s civil construction industry has the capacity to restart the nation’s economy following restrictions imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

According to Chris Melham, CEO of CCF, there is an opportunity for smaller companies to get involved.

“The survey results demonstrate civil construction companies, particularly those operating at the tier 2, tier 3, and below have significant capacity to assist the federal government achieve its goals of supporting the economy and to keep people employed during these unprecedented economic conditions,” said Melham.

The survey gained responses from 228 companies across each state and territory, and while respondents noted that COVID-19 had a negative effect on their business, 74 per cent said they had a capacity for projects of up to $10 million. 17.5 per cent indicated a capacity to start projects between $10 and $50m, and 8.3 per cent said they were ready to begin projects worth more than $50m.

The CCF highlighted that this meant there was a great capacity for firms to begin work on smaller projects, or larger ones broken down into separate works packages. In its recommendations, the CCF encourages the federal government adopt a procurement policy that disaggregates major project to allow tier 2 companies to tender through joint venture arrangements.

The CCF also recommended that the federal government bring forward the 10-year $100 billion infrastructure investment fund and use debt to increase the fund’s size.

“It is important however that these projects are spread across as many tier 2, tier 3 and below companies across Australia to ensure widespread benefits can flow from any stimulus investment, particularly in rural and regional communities where infrastructure investment can deliver a significant multiplier effect to those local economies in the form of employment, training and community spending,” said Melham.

“The survey sends a powerful message to the federal government that the civil infrastructure sector is ready to lead the economic recovery if governments inject more money into the sector for new projects.”

The survey and recommendations follow the CCF calling upon the federal government to do more to support the smaller tier 2 and 3 civil construction companies, who have sat above the financial threshold measures announced so far. In a statement on April 3, Melham noted that in the absence of worker retention measures, civil contractors need to have their outstanding claims paid.

“The industry’s viability and that of its workers during COVID-19 relies on prompt payment by public procurements agencies and I therefore urge the federal government to develop a ‘supplier payment policy’ for all public bodies involved in federally funded civil infrastructure projects and to impose that policy as a matter of urgency.”

CCF recommended that the policy involve the immediate payment of invoices, the continuation of normal payments even if service delivery is disrupted until June 30, supporting supplier cash flow, and reviewing tender requirements.

Rail maintenance, upgrades getting ahead of schedule

Major rail projects are completing extra works while Australia and New Zealand are under lockdown measures.

In Sydney, a number of projects are taking advantage of lower commuter numbers and relaxed regulations around work hours to progress ahead of schedule.

In Parramatta, work on the light rail project is running seven days a week after the NSW government introduced changes to legislation to expand standard construction hours on weekends and public holidays. Works are being conducted from 7am to 7pm Monday to Friday, 7am to 6pm on Church St, and from 7am to 6pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays.

According to a Transport for NSW (TfNSW) spokesperson, all works are being done to minimise the impact on the local community.

“All reasonable measures to reduce noise impacts will continue to be implemented, including using the quietest equipment possible, placing machinery and vehicles as far away from properties as possible, conducting high noise generating activities during weekdays where possible, and implementing respite periods as required.”

In Parramatta, disruption is being minimised by scheduling utility works in non-peak periods, using sound blankets, directing lighting towers, and turning off equipment when not in use.

With the Sydney CBD experiencing extremely low traffic volumes during the lockdown period, work on the Sydney Metro City & Southwest has been able to increase. Lane closures previously only possible on weekends have been implemented on weekdays and extended work hours are in place at Central Station.

In Chullora, the construction of the new Digital Systems facility has extended hours over one weekend and will use extra hours where necessary.

Elsewhere in NSW work hours on the New Intercity Fleet maintenance facility have been extended to 7am to 6pm, seven days a week. Extended working hours are also being looked at for station accessibility upgrades at Fairy Meadow, Mittagong, Hawkesbury River, Wyee, and Waratah.

“All community members and stakeholders are thanked for their patience as work continues on important transport infrastructure across NSW,” said the TfNSW spokesperson.

Across the Tasman, KiwiRail has been conducting a significant maintenance program on the Auckland network. Lower commuter numbers during lockdown have allowed KiwiRail to lay over four kilometres of new rail on the Eastern line, said KiwiRail chief operating officer, Todd Moyle.

“We are able to use this time to carry out a great deal of work in a short timeframe. Normally this work would need to be completed during weekends across several months.”

Works will continue until Monday, April 27 and include replacement of worn rail between Glen Innes and Sylvia Park. The Eastern line not only serves commuters but freight rail services from the Port of Auckland.

“We’ve worked closely with Auckland Transport to arrange for this work to be done now so there will be a more reliable network for commuters once COVID-19 levels fall and businesses reopen,” said Moyle.

The slowdown in traffic on the commuter network allows a rare opportunity for continuous track work that would normally be done at weekends or overnight to minimise disruption.

“We’re doing this work now, while we have the opportunity, to avoid future disruptions to commuters and to ensure they get a great service once they return to work,” said Moyle.

Physical distancing measures are in place at all work sites.

Daytime freight services are being rerouted via Newmarket while commuter services are replaced by buses.