In February several thousand people took to the streets in Sydney under the banner of ‘Fix NSW Transport’. The protest brought together more than 30 community groups from across the state.
There was a mood of anger about the privatisation and tollway agenda of the Liberal government. This government has a reputation for putting profits before the public good. They are deep in the pockets of corporate interests.
Despite former premier Mike Baird’s 2015 promise to keep public transport in public hands, reports began to circulate in 2016 that parts of the public transport system would soon be sold off.
In February 2017 the government announced that bus services in the inner west would be put out to private tender. The excuse for this move was the 12,000 complaints received about buses running late or not departing their depots on time.
It has been a tried and tested tactic of governments around the world to run down public services in order to argue that the private sector could run them better.
In February this year Transit Systems was declared the successful bus contract bidder. Its contract will last for eight years with Transport Minister Andrew Constance saying that the company will introduce extra services.
The Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) says that fewer bus services and increased fares are much more likely. This is what has happened with other privatised bus services, such as in Newcastle.
Since the hurried sale of Newcastle’s transport system there has been a 30% drop in on-time bus trips as well as reports of the underpaying of bus drivers.
The soon to be built private Sydney Metro is another example of the government’s privatisation push. The government estimates that the total cost of the Metro line will be $12.5 billion. This is an extraordinary expense.
This money could have been better spent on providing new public transport solutions for suburbs with limited connectivity or improving signalling operations to speed-up the capacity of the current network.
There are also concerns about over-development along the rail corridor given that the private operator, MTR, uses a business model geared towards property development.
The Metro will feature driverless trains and include other features designed to get rid of public transport workers.
Another clear example of the government’s skewed priorities is the ongoing standoff between themselves and the RTBU. This stoush received a great deal of attention in January when the union proposed a strike. In the end the strike was declared illegal.
The union is seeking a decent wage increase and improved working conditions. Transport workers were under strain precisely because successive governments have focused on overburdening the system rather than increasing capacity.
In November last year Sydney Trains released a new timetable with 1500 additional weekly services to try and meet the burgeoning demand. The union estimated that an additional 150 workers would have been required to operate the new timetable, yet no new workers were hired.
This resulted in staff having to work huge amounts of overtime, with some rostered on for twelve out of every fourteen days. The union’s demands are just and if they were delivered it would help provide a much better service.
It is likely that the government is attempting to do what they did with the inner west buses, encouraging failure in order pave the way for further privatisations.
It is clear that the privatisation and toll road agenda only benefits the government’s big business backers. Ordinary people would be much better served with a publicly owned system. But rather than being mismanaged by the government, the system should be democratically run with input from public transport workers and commuters.
The ‘Fix NSW Transport’ coalition plans to continue campaigning in the lead-up to the state election in March next year. This is to be welcomed, as transport is a major issue affecting people right across the state.
More protests should be organised in order to ensure transport is made into a major election issue. The movement could be strengthened immensely if there was a real coming together of the community groups and the trade union movement.
There are shared interests between workers and commuters. Not only does investment in public transport create more jobs than road projects but its better for the environment. At the same time the attacks on public transport workers are intimately connected to the poor service levels.
Imagine the power of a movement of unions and community groups that uses industrial action and mass protests to demand public investment. We need to demand transport solutions that work for people rather than big business. That is how the privatisation and tollway agenda can be stopped.
By Amber Naismith