Sydney struggles with a shoddy train system

Sydneysiders call it 'The Coathanger'. After 75 years the Sydney Harbour Bridge - a towering steel arch linking the central business district to the northern suburbs - has won a special place in the hearts of commuters.

But there's no point in having a bridge if you can't get across it, as happened this month when a train broke down at its north end. Sydney's public transport system was brought to a grinding halt and thousands of workers were forced to trudge home in the cold.

The fiasco was the result of shoddy maintenance: workers at the depot forgot to replace two small bolts on an inspection hatch, which lifted into the overhead wiring.

Travellers said the response from CityRail, the government-owned rail agency, was inadequate, slow and unco-ordinated. It took staff three hours to rescue one wheelchair-bound man using a forklift truck.

In the face of mounting public anger, RailCorp chief executive Vince Graham blamed his staff and what he called 'a lack of maintenance culture' within the organisation - an accusation rail unions strongly rejected. RailCorp is the government agency responsible for Sydney's rail services.

Sydney's commuters are becoming used to such disruptions. In March, 3,000 people were trapped inside trains for several hours on the Harbour Bridge.

In a city of gleaming office blocks, sparkling marina developments and designer boutiques, trains are anachronistic: poorly maintained, dirty and covered in graffiti. Its famous pre-war 'red rattlers' have disappeared and so has reliability, let alone charm.

Successive governments have lavished money on the rail network, while private operators have augmented the system with a city monorail and, more recently, a modest light railway service. Each rail network is independently run and has separate stations and ticketing arrangements.

While the city continues to expand, 70 per cent of Sydneysiders use their own cars to travel to work. With car use expected to double by 2030, public transport advocates like Lord Mayor Clover Moore are urging that the rail service be modernised. 'The last long term urban plan for Sydney was developed in the 1970s,' she said. 'Environmental pressures, such as greenhouse emissions, demand a new approach.'

Trains have been a thorn in the side of successive New South Wales governments, but there was some excitement when Labor Premier Morris Iemma weighed in on the issue. Mr Iemma's parents immigrated from Italy where the fascist leader Benito Mussolini had a penchant for trains.

To his credit, the mild-mannered premier seemed genuinely outraged and demanded changes. Quality inspectors were appointed at the maintenance depots. Evacuation protocols improved. CityRail management and rail unions were told to attend weekly meetings - and report directly to the premier.

'There's a truce,' said a beaming Mr Iemma. 'There's goodwill and there's a commitment to change.'

But when will the 950,000 train commuters see some improvement? CityRail points to its Rail Clearways project, which should avoid logjams such as those seen on the Harbour Bridge and the rollout of a new A$4 billion (HK$27.67 billion) train fleet.

But critics are sceptical. 'What we saw on the Harbour Bridge is the whole of the train system going into meltdown,' said Leigh Martin, a campaigner for Total Environment Centre. 'What happened is symptomatic of the malaise affecting public transport.'

Mr Martin does not believe that the system is beyond repair. 'The 2000 Olympics showed us that people will use public transport if it is both efficient and takes them where they want to go.'

Whether Mr Iemma can change the CityRail culture without another global sporting event remains to be seen. The omens are not good. Bright yellow tags are being fitted to maintenance hatches to prove they have been properly installed but they come off when the trains are washed. Does anyone have a number for Mussolini?