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AFTER months of strife for NSW rail commuters, the Carr Government is close to a breakthrough deal with unions aimed at averting threatened statewide strikes and putting chronically delayed services back on track.
Four days of intense negotiations between senior union officials and a specially appointed government troubleshooter have led to a two-stage agreement on pay and work practices that both sides hope can fix the state's beleaguered rail network.
Under the proposed agreement up to 14,000 train drivers, station staff, clerical workers and cleaners stand to gain substantial pay rises ranging from 12 to 27per cent over three years.
But receiving pay rises in full would depend on rail staff accepting trade-offs still to be finalised during the life of the agreement, including radical changes to work practices and large-scale job cuts in a newly merged NSW RailCorp.
Pay rises for 1200 city train drivers are expected to match the 19per cent already offered by Mr Carr.
In return, drivers would be expected to increase their time behind the controls from 4 1/2 to six hours per shift, to 8 1/3 hours per shift. The increased working time ideally would fix a driver shortage.
A sweetener for drivers would be RailCorp's U-turn on its refusal to address many of their concerns about consultation in disputes, rosters and treatment of those ruled medically unfit. For other staff, RailCorp would accept salary maintenance after transfers, long-term rosters, more flexible maternity and carers leave, and an improved grading system of workers' skills.
One contentious issue is a proposal to give station masters a 15per cent pay rise in addition to a basic 12per cent granted to all staff over three years. In return, station masters would have to work weekday shifts, but be on call and manage their own budgets.
Other station staff - in exchange for extra pay rises of about 6per cent - would have to work in teams and provide more customer service. Cleaning units would become responsible for stations as well as trains.
Savings are to be made as hundreds take redundancy, following a merger of the State Rail Authority and the Rail Infrastructure Corporation.
The deal is to be put to leaders of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission on Monday. It will then go to union delegates and staff for approval.
Over the past week, negotiations have been held between the union and Chris Raper, a former union official who heads the Public Employment Office in the Premier's Department.
In a significant rebuff, NSW Transport Minister Michael Costa and RailCorp chief executive Vince Graham have been sidelined from negotiations by Mr Carr, with Mr Raper appointed over their heads to try to bring the rail network back from the brink of collapse.
Mr Carr yesterday rated the state's rail system as his greatest test.
"The Government's got one major challenge - and that is the defective performance of Sydney trains," he said.
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