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The state's passenger rail operators are struggling to retain train drivers, undermining efforts to hire significantly more of them to avoid a repeat of widespread disruptions to services early this year.
Sydney Trains and NSW Trains recruited 139 drivers in the seven months to January but had 83 leave permanently or shift to other internal roles, resulting in a net increase of just 56 in the period, according to figures released to Labor under freedom of information laws.
Sydney commuters experienced widespread disruptions to train services in January, which a high-level report into the incidents later blamed partly on a lack of train crews.
The latest figures also show the state-owned rail operators had a net increase of 32 train drivers in the 2016-17 financial year, following three years of significantly more staff exiting the roles than were recruited.
In 2015-16 just two drivers were hired internally or externally, while 73 either left the two rail operators completely or changed roles.
Labor accused the state government of failing to act fast enough to hire new train drivers to cope with a new rail timetable rolled out in November, citing a net loss of 85 drivers since 2011.
“The Berejiklian government had to scramble this year to recruit train drivers, leaving it too little too late,” Labor's transport spokeswoman, Jodi McKay, said.
Sydney Trains chief executive Howard Collins said in a statement that its staffing levels had traditionally fluctuated in line with its needs, and remained “consistent to operate the timetable”.
“There is nothing to indicate that Sydney Trains has difficulty retaining drivers. Some drivers have chosen to retire, and only a small number have opted to relocate interstate,” he said. “Sydney Trains has a robust workforce management plan in place to recruit train drivers.”
The recent report by Transport for NSW into the widespread disruptions to rail services on January 8 and 9 suggested it would be prudent to accelerate the hiring of drivers so that Sydney Trains has enough staff on hand to ensure the rail network is better able to recover from delays caused by major incidents.
A fast-tracking of hiring was also seen as a way for NSW to counter targeted recruitment campaigns by rail operators in Victoria and Queensland, where higher rates of pay are offered to drivers.
Sydney Trains said it had hired 334 trainee drivers since July last year, 85 of whom were already working on the network. The remainder would graduate over this year and next.
It takes a year to train new recruits before they can be allowed to operate passenger services.
Rail Tram and Bus Union state secretary Alex Claassens said train drivers were leaving for a variety of reasons ranging from the attraction of better-paid roles in Victoria to staff opting for retirement, or disenchantment with the job due to increased workloads and stress.
“We do know people are leaving because they are fed up with the way they are being treated here in NSW,” he said. “The freight industry is also looking to hire people.”
More than 1170 drivers work for Sydney Trains or NSW Trains.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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