On guard!

While teachers have faced their own turbulent time, train guards have come under threat. But we can help prevent this train wreck, writes journalist Monica Crouch.

Do you catch the train to work? What about your students? Are you among the increasing number of people who complete some 30 million train trips a month in the Sydney metropolitan region alone? Or are you one of the many passengers who take longer trips in regional NSW? If so, there is a group of people you need more than you may know: train guards.

They’re the ones who keep us safe on the trains while we’re looking the other way – or at our smartphones. They assess safety as a train arrives at a station and before it leaves. They open and close the doors and keep an eye out for anyone rushing to jump on at the last second. They assist people with disabilities. They deal with and deter antisocial behaviour. They’re trained in emergency first aid so they can respond to accidents before paramedics arrive. They coordinate evacuations in the event of an emergency. They’re the reason you (and your students) make it to school safely. And on time.

But what you might not know is that while you’ve been sleeping, the NSW Government has slipped a brand new train onto the tracks. Designed and manufactured in South Korea, this new train, several of which will eventually comprise the New Intercity Fleet, is set to run from Newcastle, Mount Victoria, Gosford, Lithgow and Wollongong to Sydney Central. The NSW Government claims these trains offer next-level engineering and the last word in passenger comfort. But there’s one thing they don’t offer: train guards.

Safety on the slide

This is a betrayal, says Rail Tram and Bus Union NSW Secretary Alex Claassens. “In 2018, Transport Minister Andrew Constance made a public commitment that the guard would be retained on the New Intercity Fleet, ensuring the safety of commuters and employees,” Claassens says. But then came the 2019 state election and the sands shifted. “Transport for NSW is now attempting to replace guards with a new position, the ‘Customer Service Guard’, that functions at a lower classification and substantially lower pay, reflecting a big reduction in safety responsibilities.”

But that’s not the only issue. On the new trains, the guards will no longer be in charge of the doors, the driver will. The ‘Customer Service Guard’ will be confined to the driver’s cabin at the rear of the train. And since a design flaw means the driver’s cabin doors lock automatically at the same time as the passenger doors, there is no final opportunity for the guard to stand at the door to assess the platform for slip, trip and fall risks as the train departs.

Claassens says that throughout his own lengthy career as a train driver (he maintains his qualifications to this day), he has seen guards avert disaster when skylarking schoolboys have wedged a foot in the door; when a school student’s backpack was accidentally caught in the doors (while the student was wearing it) and when the straps of a woman’s handbag were snagged on something as she alighted from the train. Guards have also stepped in to prevent small children being separated from parents.

On the new trains, the driver’s cabin (at each end of the train) will be equipped with CCTV screens so the driver and ‘Customer Service Guard' can monitor the doors. But let’s do some maths. “On a 10-car train, there are two doors on every carriage, and there will be two cameras on every door,” Claassens says. “So that’s 40 images the driver has to look at prior to closing the doors and making sure they’re closed safely.” Imagine a driver trying to monitor these images while navigating thick fog in the Blue Mountains.

Not only that, the CCTV screens have no audio capabilities, so neither driver nor guard can hear cries for help. “CCTV does nothing to stop anything happening,” Claassens says. “It may be useful in a court case, but it does nothing to prevent anything happening.” Still feeling safe?

CCTV does nothing to stop anything happening – it may be useful in a court case, but it does nothing to prevent anything happening.

Rising fears

But imagine for now that the train has departed the platform without incident. Let’s look at potential incidents during the journey, such as jostling, pushing and shoving among school students, and targeted bullying of both boys and girls. There are emergency buttons in the carriages of the New Intercity Fleet – but they don’t alert the guard. “The guard is no longer the first point of call for passenger contact,” Claassens says. “The emergency button will instead trigger an alert at a centralised, remote call centre, where it may go into a queue.”

This is of immense concern. “We know that many people may feel apprehensive on public transport, for a whole range of reasons,” Claassens says. “Removing or downgrading the guard function will make that even worse. Guards are the first port of call in the event of an emergency on our trains and the mere presence of a guard can act as a deterrent to inappropriate – or worse – behaviour.”

Should an assault occur on this new fleet, there may be a Customer Service Guard in the very next carriage, but no way of contacting them. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Claassens says.

A 10-carriage train in the New Intercity Fleet will comprise a six-car set and four-car set. “This means that when the driver is in the front of the six-car set, the guard can only walk through the back four cars,” Claassens says.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union is “pushing back all the way”, Claassens says. “We’re just not convinced these new trains are safe.”

Jobs at risk

What all this adds up to is a thin edge of the wedge. “We know what will happen,” Claassens says. “Because there’s no real responsibility attached to that Customer Service Guard job, we know that over time, management will say ‘it’s not a real job, the train driver can cope with everything’ and they’ll gradually get rid of them. It’s a push to get the train drivers to do everything, and what the train driver can’t do, a control centre will.”

Now for a little more maths: there are over 350 guards on the current intercity trains. With Australia in the midst of a global pandemic leading to skyrocketing unemployment that is expected to nudge 10 per cent, for the NSW Government to plot a course to redundancies seems unthinkable.

“It’s about regional jobs,” Claassens says. “A lot of these guards are employed in places like Gosford, Newcastle, Wollongong, Lithgow. We’re also having to fight to save about 350 cleaners. Railway jobs in a country centre are very important – many of those workers have kids who travel to school. In a place like Junee [about 440km south-west of Sydney], for example, if they lose five or six railway jobs, it has a huge impact.”

Get behind the guards

It takes just a click to send a message to NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance that you care about jobs and safety on trains: ourtransport.org.au/guarding-our-safety/