By Tom Rabe
Sydney’s biggest public transport project has been swept up in a long-running dispute between the NSW government and rail unions, with industrial action adding more than $50 million to the City and Southwest Metro budget, and costs are expected to rise.
Major construction on critical sections of the multibillion-dollar rail project has stalled after workers refused to turn off power to allow track work to progress safely as part of protected industrial action.
The NSW government has been at loggerheads with unions for months, unable to resolve a dispute over the new intercity fleet, a $2.8 billion set of trains that remain unused on the Central Coast because rail workers say they’re not safe to operate.
Senior government figures fear prolonged industrial action will lead to costs and timelines spiralling further out of control on the Metro project as union officials warn they will keep measures in place through a scheduled ramp-up of critical work in July.
“That knocks Southwest [Metro] off its critical path – which causes colossal, cascading costs – meaning that the cost impacts on live infrastructure projects exceeds the already considerable impacts of industrial action,” a senior government source said.
A Metro spokeswoman confirmed more than $50 million had been lost due to industrial action on the City and Southwest Metro.
“Major work to upgrade the Bankstown line for Sydney Metro – making stations accessible for the first time and improving frequency of services and journey times – cannot go ahead without power isolations,” she said. “This includes any work in proximity to live electrical feeders, cable installation, power works, lift and staircase installation, concourse, as well as canopy and bridge upgrade works.”
Almost 70 per cent of lost shifts caused by the industrial action were due to be recovered during critical works set to take place in the July school holidays, but that could not be carried out if the industrial action was in place, she said.
The project will connect Sydney’s northern suburbs to the CBD and on to Bankstown, and is set to open in 2024, though the government is now considering opening it in two stages given ongoing complications.
While the senior NSW figures are growing increasingly frustrated with the industrial action and its impact on the state’s premier infrastructure project, union officials say the state has left them with no option but to continue with the measures.
The intercity fleet dispute is preventing wider negotiations between the government and the combined rail unions from progressing, including the Electrical Trade Union (ETU), which is set to re-impose “switching bans” from next weekend.
The union’s NSW organiser Tara Koot said the government had purposefully been stalling negotiations.
“The government is holding the [enterprise bargaining agreement] at ransom to get the [intercity fleet] on the tracks. Safety should not be part of this bargaining,” she said. “We won’t be reconsidering relief [to industrial action] until the expenditure review committee addresses the package that they have had for weeks.
“As long as it’s not causing any kind of danger to the travelling public then we’ve got to do the only thing we can do and they’ve been stalling for over a year now.”
Continued cost blowouts on the project are causing consternation within government ranks over the 2018 decision to approve the Metro between Sydenham to Bankstown along the existing heavy rail route. The Herald revealed in March the cost of the project was expected to exceed $17 billion.
Employee Relations Minister Damien Tudehope urged the ETU and other unions to withdraw their industrial action, which he said they had done at points during recent negotiations.
“Having recently concluded an intensive bargaining period and updated the government’s public sector wages policy, the government is close to finalising an offer for consideration by the ETU and its members,” Tudehope said.
He said the government had a range of legal actions at its disposal should their industrial action cause significant disruption and economic impacts.
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