‘Squeezed themselves dry’: Behind the scenes of the train chaos

Commuters wait for for passengers to board the train at Strathfield station as timetable changes and shortage of train drivers has forced some services to be cut. Strathfield, Sydney. 15th January, 2018. Photo: Kate Geraghty Trains at Strathfield station. Timetable changes and shortage of train drivers has forced some services to be cut. Strathfield, Sydney. 15th January, 2018. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Frank* has been driving for Sydney Trains for five years. He said situations like last Tuesday’s peak hour chaos could have been predicted by management, and put unnecessary strain on the drivers and crew.

“It’s stressful, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do – in the end you end up managing yourself for the day,” he said.

Sydney Trains cancelled 36 services on Monday due to staff shortages but the morning peak appeared to pass without a major issue, with eight unplanned cancellations.

Monday’s cancellations follow a week of disrupted services across the rail network. On Saturday 92 services were cancelled due to “unexpected train crew changes”, and Tuesday afternoon’s peak hour was was mayhem after a combination of staff shortages and lightning strikes left thousands of passengers facing major delays and packed stations as they waited to get home.

There was frustration from passengers and both sides of politics – Labor blamed the November timetable overhaul for the chaos, while the government has demanded a report from rail bureaucrats on how the network can recover from these incidents.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, as staff are forbidden to talk to the media, Frank said he wanted to tell his story so commuters understand how strictly organised the train system is – and how quickly it can all fall apart.

“At the start [of your shift] you’re given a list of what you’re meant to do for the day – the different trains you’re supposed to run, where you’re stopping, your breaks – it’s very detailed down to minutes,” he said.

“On Tuesday I turned up and you get 15 minutes to prepare yourself before you get on your train,” he said.

But looking for his train on the electronic board, Frank said he couldn’t find it. Eventually he did locate his train – half an hour late – but when he got to his next location, there was no driver to take over from him.

“Another driver is supposed to take it back, but there was no one there. So that’s when it all starts,” Frank said.

Ringing the control centre was the next step, but due to the chaos across the network Frank said he could not get through “because everyone is trying to call them”.

“It’s not like they’re deliberately not answering the phone, you just can’t get through ’cause the whole system’s gone haywire,” he said.

“At that point we have very little communication with the people who can tell us what to do.”

What he is trying to describe, Frank says, is how quickly the carefully managed system about how train crews spend their day can go “completely out the window” when something goes wrong, and the system ends up relying on drivers to decide whether they can work through breaks and do overtime to try to get the network back on track.

“It’s not even about entitlements, it’s about fatigue. For that day I drove trains for six hours straight,” he said.

“Most of the time when things go wrong it works all right because they have an excess of staff and they can sort of cover anomalies.”

There was not an excess of staff on Tuesday, and Frank said that lack of standby staff combined with shorter dwell times for trains meant there is less flexibility when there are delays.

“They factor in a bit of extra time at certain stations to catch up with the timetable; they call that dwell times,” he said.

“When you reduce times on the timetable for that, that also adds to the chance of things getting delayed, and then they accumulate.

“[The timetable] doesn’t match up and all of a sudden everything goes crazy.”

He said these are factors “you can see coming from miles away”.

“I personally think having enough standby staff is the perfect solution; for some reason they have squeezed themselves dry as far as staff is concerned,” he said.

“Then they bring in a new timetable, adding train services without that many extra trains – it’s actually more work for us without enough staff to cover it. That’s the wrong. It wasn’t good management.”

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.