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One in eight CityRail drivers is already sidelined from driving the public, as Sydney braces for months of transport turmoil and the introduction of a slower rail timetable.
Nearly 13 per cent of drivers have been taken off front-line duties already and the new timetable that begins mid-year is expected to further slow trains.
The fragility of the city's transport was highlighted last night when thousands of commuters arrived home from work late after an underground gas leak closed the City Circle and the Eastern Suburbs lines.
Town Hall, Circular Quay and Wynyard stations were evacuated and dozens of services cancelled. Investigators were still trying to locate the source of the leak last night.
The city's main transport hub at Central was also closed as growing crowds and a lack of trains threatened public safety.
The closures caused delays throughout Sydney's rail network and left thousands of commuters stranded as peak hour approached.
Chaos is likely to become increasingly familiar for commuters as CityRail grapples with a growing staffing crisis.
RailCorp spokeswoman Jane Lavender said that as of last Thursday, 157 drivers had been restricted from driving commuter trains. Of these, 30 were on sick leave; 49 were listed as either long-term sick or injured; 24 were driving trains in major safety projects (such as testing trains fitted with the new vigilance control systems); 29 were doing safety management training, which is updating their driving skills; 21 were rostered off on medical restrictions or because of safe-working breaches; and four were teaching other people to drive.
Some drivers on restricted duties had been given different work such as preparing trains for departure.
Ms Lavender said it was necessary to have drivers involved in major safety training and projects such as the new vigilance control systems. She said testing would be increased next week to 10 staff members a week, with a focus on drivers who were older, overweight or suffering illnesses.
Three hundred drivers would be tested by the end of April and 150 new CityRail recruits were being trained as drivers.
Two of the 10 drivers subjected to tough new medical standards implemented on Monday in the wake of the Waterfall accident have already been temporarily stood down from driving duties, and will not be permanently reassigned until full test results are received.
But even before the tougher medical tests were enforced, more than 150 of CityRail's 1226 drivers had been placed on alternative duties.
The State Government yesterday continued to pave the way for cutting off-peak and weekend services if train driver numbers fall too low. In doing so, gloomy predictions were made of up to 12 months of constant cancellations, delays and changes to timetables.
The Transport Services Minister, Michael Costa, said yesterday the new timetable would make trains slower but more reliable.
Latest RailCorp figures show train reliability has reached new lows, with one line having only 4.3 per cent of trains getting commuters home on time between January 19 and 23.
After meeting the board of the new transport safety and reliability regulator, Mr Costa promised the new timetable would be in place by mid-year.
The Rail Tram and Bus Union branch secretary, Nick Lewocki, said it would be extremely hard for RailCorp to fill driver positions despite current recruitment campaigns, which include trying to get guards to become drivers and enlisting new trainees.
The Greens' transport spokeswoman, Lee Rhiannon, said the Government was engaged in a backdoor attempt to justify cutting services, after an outcry over proposals to cut country services raised in a recent review of public transport.
By Joseph Kerr and Tim Dick
February 6, 2004
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/02/05/1075854003303.html
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