Two workers dead in Sydney-Melbourne train derailment

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Train driver John Kennedy and train pilot Sam Meintanis died in a horrific derailment at Wallan in late February. Serious questions about maintenance and potentially unsafe operating rules were raised by union officials in the wake.

Both workers have been described as deeply respected and popular by their colleagues. The disaster has shaken rail staff across the country, particularly those close to the two deceased. No one should die at work.

The Melbourne bound XPT train was 45 kilometres north of the city on the last leg of its journey from Sydney. Amazingly only 11 of the 153 passengers were injured. A worse tragedy was very possible.

Finley Arkless, a young chef traveling to see friends, described trying to free the trapped workers. He cut his hands smashing at the reinforced windows of the overturned locomotive with a fire extinguisher. It wasn’t possible to break them and the pair passed away before they could be freed.

Union officials from the Rail Tram & Bus Union (RTBU) have pointed to inadequate maintenance and the poor condition of the tracks as factors that need to be considered. Drivers from a separate train operator, V/Line, had recently refused to run over the tracks in question.

Local signal infrastructure was destroyed by fire weeks before the incident and had not been repaired. Trains were running on degraded safety systems.

Union officials also raised questions over the rules set by the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) which allowed the train to travel at normal high speed over poor track without functioning signals. Under Victorian rules the train would have been required to travel at a maximum of 25 kilometres per hour, dramatically limiting the potential for injury and loss of life.

Questions should be asked about the why the difference in rules is allowed. For example, is financial pressure to meet on-time running targets a factor?

In 2017 a freight train derailed on the same track the XPT train was running on. In a separate incident in January this year a V/Line passenger train collided with a container from a derailed freight train at Barnawartha, again on the same line. Thankfully no one was injured.

Clearly there are major safety issues that have needed addressing for years. But the rail union says authorities have not acted on their concerns about poor track quality and lack of investment in maintenance.

Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Transport Minister Michael McCormack is responsible for the ARTC. Immediately following the incident, he said “no authorities would ever let a train go on unsafe track”. To say this rings hollow is an understatement.

As far back as 2010 the line was described as a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ on the ABC’s 7:30 Report program. The story focused on ARTC’s on-the-cheap maintenance of the line. Chillingly one driver told the program, “You knock off work of an evening and you think, ‘Oh, we made it today. I hope we make it home tomorrow.’” Two workers didn’t this time.

A short video from a locomotive traveling over the line in 2018 has emerged on YouTube. In it a man comments on the track faults as the cab rocks and tilts violently.

It’s not just country tracks that are dangerously neglected either. Melbourne’s metropolitan rail network is riddled with infrastructure faults despite extensive work as frustrated commuters and worried workers are well aware.

One Melbourne rail worker told The Socialist that the city’s network was “full of disasters waiting to happen”.

Two trains derailed within a week at the same location near North Fitzroy’s Rushall station in February 2016. One passenger was hospitalised with a back injury as a train on train collision was avoided by luck.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that inadequate maintenance checks, unfixed track faults and lack of lubrication caused the incident. Metro Train’s outsourcing of maintenance responsibility to a private subsidiary company was linked.

Despite those derailments and reports of hundreds of ignored track faults the Victorian Labor government went on to extend Metro Trains contract to operate the metropolitan network.

An investigation into the fatal Sydney-Melbourne XPT crash by various regulators and safety agencies is now underway. A preliminary report is due in mid-March, but the full report will take 18 months.

The findings will be important and will provide more information but many rail workers are justifiably skeptical about how far “up stream” the investigators will look.

Will the easy route of simply blaming the frontline workers be taken or will the preceding decisions of bosses and politicians be properly scrutinised and criticised? At the end of the line safety regulators and investigators are controlled by the same politicians who have systematically defunded Australia’s railways over decades.

Rail union members should be able to elect their own representatives to participate in the investigation. That would allow democratic scrutiny of the process and outcome.

In the meantime, there are clearly many urgent issues facing railway workers and the traveling public. Workers and their elected health and safety representatives have some important legal rights and powers, won by previous generations of trade unionists through struggle.

All of those powers, including the right to refuse work that poses an imminent threat to health and safety should be utilised to protect staff and passengers. Lives are at stake.

A collective approach is required so that individual workers who stand up or fulfil their duties as elected health and safety delegates are not able to be targeted by ruthless bosses. Victimisation must be met with resolute work bans and even stop work action.

Recently Metro Trains sued 800-odd Melbourne train drivers for raising safety concerns around new tracks at South Yarra and simply requesting practical on-site familiarisation.

A culture or fear and intimidation on safety issues cannot be allowed to pervade, because it will cause more disasters. A fight back against reckless corporate bullies must be organised.

Whatever the investigation finds, it’s undeniable that there are major issues with railway safety because of privatisation and the prioritisation of profits above all else.

Pro-corporate governments across the country have run down and privatised railways for decades in the service of their pay-masters in the car, road, oil and airline lobbies.

The politicians are addicted to the electoral donations and the reverse-bribery of gold-plated contracts which come after their political careers. Both Labor and Liberal politicians serve corporate interests, against worker and commuter safety.

Instead of relying on the Labor Party ordinary workers need to begin discussing an alternative. A step in the right direction would be standing ordinary workers as candidates in elections against the pro-privatisation politicians of both major parties.

They could be decided at union meetings of frontline staff alongside a binding set of policies to take on the anti-safety agenda of putting private profit first. That would be a good way to start to turn around the deliberate under-investment and corner cutting that risks more injuries and deaths on our railways.

By Socialist Action reporters