NSW government backflips on union demands in a bid to end train dispute

Transport minister David Elliott says government will agree to changes worth about $260m to intercity fleet

The New South Wales government has agreed to demands from the state’s rail union to make hundreds millions of dollars in modifications to a new train fleet after a years-long industrial dispute.

On Wednesday the transport minister, David Elliott, announced the government would make changes worth about $260m to the new intercity fleet (NIF) in a bid to avoid the union taking further industrial action later this week.

The decision is a major backdown by the government, which is facing industrial action by a range of public sector workers, including a planned teachers’ strike and stop-work meetings by nurses on Thursday.

The NSW Rail, Tram and Bus Union had refused to operate the intercity fleet without the modifications, claiming the trains were unsafe to run.

The government had denied that claim, insisting the trains were safe, resulting in a two-year standoff which saw the trains effectively mothballed.

The head of the RTBU, Alex Claassens, said the planned industrial action would continue until “further notice”, saying the union would wait until it saw “the complete package” in a “legally enforceable document” before agreeing to the proposal.

“It’s great that the NSW government has again admitted that the safety issues with the New Intercity Fleet need to be rectified before we can allow commuters to travel on it,” Claassens said.

“However, we’ve been in this position before. This isn’t the first time the NSW government has promised it will fix the safety issues. Rail workers and commuters have been burnt too many times to believe what one minister in one meeting says. We need to see the whole package in writing to make sure this isn’t just another case of the NSW government playing political games.”

The union is also concerned that the offer will come at the expense of other conditions, something Claassens said the union would not accept.

“We need to see the government’s full proposal. We can’t have a situation where they say they’ll fix the NIF, but try to recoup the costs by cutting into rail workers’ wages and conditions,” he said. He also said the union had rejected what he described as a “bribe” to offer extra pay for train drivers to operate the fleet without modifications.

Elliott said on Wednesday that the government would make the modifications in a bid to end the industrial action, which has seen major delays across the train network this week.

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“In putting these renewed offers we are seeking agreement from the rail unions that they will immediately cease any protected industrial action and members would agree to work the NIF under an interim operating model until the modified trains enter service,” Elliott said.

“The unions must agree to a three-phased introduction of the NIF to allow the fleet to begin operations as soon as possible while modifications are made with testing and delivery of the proposed modifications to the operating model to be rolled out by the end of the year.

“The onus is now on the rail unions to immediately stop disruptive industrial action so commuters can travel safely without inconvenience and put the new offer to their members.”

Elliott’s concession comes a month after the industrial relations minister, Damien Tudehope, and treasurer, Matt Kean, insisted the government would not concede to the union’s demands on the trains.

In May, Kean had defiantly said the government drawn “a line in the sand” in negotiations with the union, labelling the demands “outrageous” and “a disgrace”.

But the ongoing standoff – amid a series of other industrial disputes – has proven to be an unwanted headache for the government. The premier, Dominic Perrottet, first indicated a change in position on Tuesday when he said he was weighing up the cost of the modifications against the $30m a month it costs to keep the trains in storage.

On Wednesday Elliott said he wanted the union to agree to its new offer by Friday, and begin to wind-back its industrial action.

It’s understood that while the union has welcomed the concession, it will wait to have the offer in writing before making any decision.


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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