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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
Current and future developments in the use of land-based mass transit

OFNER, Mr Dominic, Executive Officer, Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Union


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament, therefore, has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make an opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Ofner : I thank you for the opportunity to appear this afternoon. In the interests of time, I won't go into detail about the RTBU submission, but I wish to make some general observations about the issue of automation and technology and the importance of genuine workforce development in the rail, tram and bus industries. But first, a bit of history.

Technological change and automation are nothing new for our union and our members. Jobs like firemen and blacksmiths are no longer with us. They've been replaced with newer jobs, and we negotiated transitions over time. In 1957 the New South Wales government commissioned a team of US consultants to advise on the introduction of new technologies, such as the introduction of diesel locomotives, the mechanising of track maintenance and the increased electrification of rail lines. At the time, the secretary of the Australian Railways Union, which in 1993 merged with three other unions to form the RTBU, was a man by the name of Lloyd Ross. He recalls the release of the report in 1957, saying: 'I was not opposed to dieselisation. I was opposed to the men in country towns suddenly, without notice, being moved into Newcastle or Sydney. I was told, "Lloyd, you can't stand in the way of progress," and I replied that I didn't oppose progress but I opposed the conditions of progress.'

Just as it was in 1957, today the RTBU does not oppose technological change. Rail, tram and bus workers will embrace technological change if and when it has a proven capacity to improve the quality of transport and the quality of transport work. However, workers have every right to be concerned about, and oppose, change when governments and operators try to implement it with limited or no consultation—or perfunctory consultation—or, worst of all, as we've seen in the case of one state transport minister, by boasting about potential job losses. We are concerned that many of the people making some of these decisions have never driven a train, never sat behind the wheel of a bus, never walked a section of track, never spent time in a guard's cabin, never responded to an emergency at a train station, and wouldn't have a clue about what goes on in a network control room.

Public transport workers run the network; they always have. Amongst the chaos, the restructuring and the under-resourcing, our members keep trains, trams and buses moving. If management were to go home right now, the trains would still run this afternoon. So you can understand why we don't have much time for politicians or operators, whoever they are, telling a group of people who aren't transport workers:

As a … minister I'm not going to have to deal with the rail union any more because we're going to have driverless trains here.

The fact is, it's a sad day when leaders look forward to people losing jobs simply because they don't want to have to deal with the relevant industry trade union.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. If managed properly, there is no reason that the advent of new technology should or will lead to a dramatic or immediate displacement of labour. While some specific tasks could be automated, few existing jobs could have their full spectrum of requisite tasks automated. This would in turn lead to an inventory of tasks which machines cannot or should not perform being organised into refined roles which also consist of new tasks that have arisen as a result of technological deployment. But redefining these roles and managing the transition—a just transition—requires a collaborative approach from employers and workers and their unions. Change must be managed so that existing workforces are given strong rights to training and retraining in skills that allow them to take advantage of and progress into new jobs; support is provided for existing workers to fill new positions with strong redeployment and mobility rights; change is managed by providing better support for older workers who are seeking to retire with bridging benefits or other incentives; workers are given a genuine say, and that includes the provision of information and negotiation; and labour standards around pay conditions and safety are maintained.

Currently, there appears to be very little planning to prepare for the challenges that will face future transport workers or preparing the existing workforce for the jobs of the future. If it is going on then it appears that ordinary transport workers are being excluded from the process. At a recent discussion about automation and skills, RTBU representatives were shocked to hear a manager at one transport operator admit that supporting a just transition for at-risk workers was 'not my problem'. So it's clear these issues can't just be left to the market. That's why the RTBU is calling for the establishment of a strategic national rail development workforce strategy to position workers for the transport jobs of the future and therefore—critically—ensure that the workforce is able to meet the national interest in building and maintaining critical transport infrastructure.

The focus of this strategy should be job enhancement and upskilling, not job replacement; investing in the existing workforce, not looking at just redundancies. State governments should be part of this strategy given their role in public transport planning, funding and operating. An idea could be that federal funding for transport projects such as new rail lines is linked to workforce development, including upskilling for existing workers. Governments around the world are responding to these challenges; they're not unique to Australia. For example, the Singapore government has developed the Land Transport Industry Transformation Map in partnership with the National Transport Workers' Union and the country's privately owned rail and bus operators. The strategy outlines planned technological change to 2030 and beyond and, importantly, a strategy to future-proof the workforce with extensive upskilling and reskilling programs funded by both government and the private sector.

In conclusion, investments in new and improved public transport is the key to well-planned cities, reducing congestion and ensuring that we can meet the challenges of population growth. Every day a skilled, dedicated and hardworking workforce ensures the efficient, safe and reliable operation of Australia's complex transport networks. To quote Professor Daryll Hull, one of Australia's leading industry experts on transport and logistics:

It is specious and arrogant suggest that the thousands of years of knowledge contained in the heads of railway workers—

or, for that matter, bus and tram workers—

is … "one year of knowledge repeated a thousand times". Anyone who has walked a section of track, watched a train controller in action, or explored Wynyard during peak hour knows that railway knowledge is cumulative, ever-changing and often problematic. The basic systems may take you to a place, but there is a never-ending stream of unique situations every day.

…   …   …   

The balancing act of social and technical forces on a daily and hourly basis in the railways requires high levels of confidence, continuity, and a willingness by people take action based on their own judgment.

Governments and transport operators should be under no illusion that they will lose vital pieces of technical and social knowledge if change is not managed in partnership with workers and, if they lose this knowledge, the quality of our transport systems will ultimately suffer. Existing networks will be unable to cope with demand, and we will not realise the benefits of much-needed and long overdue expansions. If the objective of this inquiry is to review how we can make mass transit better, stronger and faster, then it must recognise this crucial fact. Thank you.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I just want to pick up on a couple of the points you made. Don't you think it's the responsibility of state governments to make their transport systems as efficient as possible, which, on occasion, will be striving towards reducing operational costs, if you can provide the same services for less cost?

Mr Ofner : Of course, an efficient system should be what should be desired. It is important, though, that if the objective is simply cost reduction then that will inevitably impact the quality of the system. I don't want this to become a critique on one particular state government over another. I don't think that serves the intention of—

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I think your comments focused on one state government more than others.

Mr Ofner : I didn't mention the name of that particular transport minister.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Which states are introducing automated rail at the moment?

Mr Ofner : I suppose the textbook example of people referring to automated mass transit is the Sydney Metro. Again, the metro system was initially proposed by the previous Labor government. So this is not a criticism or comment directed at one side of politics over the other. But the position of the union—and people will say, 'You're just in this to protect your members,' and I think, 'Okay, that's the objective of a union'—a key part of the objectives of the of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union is upholding and maintaining the quality of public transport, and that's a position that's informed by rail experts such as Ron Christie, who is a longstanding expert on the quality of public transport. It includes people like John Austin, who for many years worked for Infrastructure Australia as a transport economist. So the comments that I make about that are based on them; it's not only because of concerns about workers.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: The main argument for automation for rail, though, is effectively that you can increase capacity on a single line.

Mr Ofner : There is a very good piece, which I can provide the committee, by John Austen, who worked for Infrastructure Australia—he's a bureaucrat; he's not aligned to any particular side of politics. He has said that much of what people anticipate could be achieved by the Sydney Metro project could be done through significant signalling upgrades to the existing network. Metros serve a very specific purpose. We're not opposed to metros. As I said, our position is informed by the work that's been done over the years by Ron Christie, who, in his 2001 report into the future of New South Wales transport, did say that there would be a time when that metros needed to be built. The failure to implement those recommendations is a failure of the previous Labor government we would be the first to admit that. Metros serve a specific purpose. Without trying to be particularly political, it can be best summarised by the now-Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who was the shadow transport minister in 2008. She made this comment to the parliament:

The north-west heavy rail link has also been abandoned for a metro link.

That was the case then and it was the case again in 2011-12.

That means that the residents of Rouse Hill will have to stand on rail journeys for 45 minutes. Examples in Europe demonstrate that metro lines are ideally suited for shorter distances and where people hop on an off on a regular basis. These services are not traditionally used for long-haul journeys. I have yet to hear of one example from the State Government of a metro system that is designed to transport people a long distance into the CBD on one link that is not connected to any other form of public transport.

You can go around the world and look at metro systems, whether automated or not. In the case of Spain, the Barcelona line 9 is a 44-kilometre line metro that has 24 stations. In Hungary, line 2 in Budapest is an eight-kilometre line that has 11 stations. In France, Paris line 1 is a 17-kilometre line that has 25 stations. Singapore, is the often-cited example given by advocates of a metro system. It is a very efficient system, but the geography and the planning of Singapore are very different to Sydney—you just have to go there. The downtown line, which has been in operation since 2013 is 40 kilometres and has 36 stations. The Sydney Metro project if completed in its current form, from Rouse Hill via the city through to Bankstown, will be 66 kilometres and will have only 31 stations, so it's quite different. That's why it's important to look at what might work well in one particular context can't necessarily just be replicated to a city like Sydney. Melbourne is building the Melbourne Metro, but it is a nine-kilometre tunnel with five stations. That is very different to 66-kilometre line with 31 stations. It's horses for courses.

CHAIR: Understanding that 66 kilometres—it's probably more like 33 in and 33 out. It's not like somebody is doing—

Mr Ofner : North-west metro is 36 kilometres and 13 stations, so if we are to look just at the north west it's still a very different type of line.

CHAIR: One of our early contributors today talked about the traveller and the travel experience and how these things play out practically. We're not really asking somebody to stand for 66 kilometres.

Mr Ofner : No. I get that.

CHAIR: It's approximately half.

Mr Ofner : A 36-kilometre journey for someone from Rouse Hill to the CBD who's standing for that entire time is quite different.

CHAIR: Having been on lines like that myself, I found that by the time they got to where I lived they were full up, and the only option was to stand, but it was for a relatively short distance. I would imagine that the people who got on the train at the commencement of this trip, when there was no-one on the train, would all get seats. So it was the people who were going the longest distance who were more likely to be seated.

Mr Ofner : I take you back to the comment from then-shadow minister Berejiklian that metros, whether driverless or not, 'are ideally suited for shorter distances and where people hop on an off on a regular basis'—so the long park-and-ride type journeys. That is why Ron Christie, again, who is not affiliated with the RTBU in any way and not necessarily affiliated with any side of politics, has always maintained that the North-west rail link, and by association the critical second harbour crossing, needed to be part of the existing network. There is a role for metros—

CHAIR: Just so I can understand as it would happen, practically, those who get on at the first station have an excellent chance of being seated and will be travelling the longest—

Mr Ofner : Yes.

CHAIR: Second station: you have the second best chance of being seated and you're travelling the second longest distance, and so it goes on. As it comes to that wonderful electorate of Bennelong, you would have quite a few people getting off and, again, some people getting on, so you're getting that transition. Even in Epping, I guess people would be getting on and off.

Mr Ofner : That would be right, but if you look—

CHAIR: Taking that historic comment by a former shadow minister of transport to say what is the ideal—when you look at the practical situation of how this will run, saying, 'Oh, we're going to have people standing for 66 kilometres' is incorrect. To say that they're going to be standing for 36 kilometres would be incorrect because those who got on 36 kilometres from the final destination would almost certainly be seated as would those who got on at 32 kilometres or 28 kilometres or whatever else. It's only as the train fills would you be standing and, at that point, some people would be getting off. I imagine those things would have been looked at in quite some practical detail to determine that it was the better option to have a metro-type—

Mr Ofner : I have two comments on that. Firstly, the idea of station hopping, which happens in places like Singapore, is quite different to the scenario you described—that is, where people are getting off in the north-west suburbs and hitting the Macquarie Park business area and some people are getting on. Where metros work is literally—and this comes back to a point that you raised in the earlier group giving evidence about better planning to decentralise. That might need to be something that's looked at in the current geography of Sydney based on—obviously not the historic comment that was made by the former premier but a group of experienced rail planners, including Ron Christie, in a submission they made to Transport for New South Wales, raised the same point. John Austen, again, who was formally part of Infrastructure Australia, has raised that point—that it's still not going to facilitate the station hopping that's traditionally suited to metro systems.

Secondly, on the point about if this issue was looked into, I'd like to think it was. John Menadue, who is a very well-respected former public servant and who's worked for governments on both sides, on at least two or three occasions has actually written extensively about the need for a proper re-examination of the decisions that were made as part of this project. He's concerned about issues of transparency during the decision-making process of the project, including why all of a sudden the original promise of it being a heavy rail line was changed to a metro at some point in 2012. The business case for that has not necessarily been provided. I'm not a transport economist; I'm not someone who's necessarily across whether the business case for this project was released or not, but I would listen and take note to the concerns of someone like John Menadue, not because of how he might vote or what his sympathies on an industrial relations policy might be but because he, in terms of what is good public policy and how good public policy is made, is someone that Australian politicians and people with an interest in any issue should be listening to.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I actually wanted to ask an entirely different question. This inquiry is looking at automation but also alternative energy sources. Does the union have a view on the electrification of the bus fleet and issues that might arise, particularly from a safety point of view, if we head down that path? I don't know what your position is. If it is favourable, are there things that you believe the federal government could do to assist in that process?

Mr Ofner : I'm probably not the best person from the union to give that answer. Anything that is ultimately about reducing carbon emissions—again, a key objective of the union, in our constitution, is that we want public transport and we want public transport because it is cleaner. Sources of energy that have a lower carbon footprint are something that I think everyone should be embracing. I'd be happy to provide some information about the union's position.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: That would be great, thank you.

CHAIR: Going back to what I think is a central concern of yours, and most certainly should be of ours, as a government that is charged with looking after everyone—and there do seem to have been some regrettable comments made that were insensitive: one of the sayings in the nineties or the noughties was that the only constant is change. You have a workforce that is deployed in certain areas of expertise. We know that some of those will cease to occur and, when one door closes, another door will open. One of those giving evidence earlier today from Hyperloop—and the people from high-speed rail and probably other rail manufacturing and operating businesses would say the same—said that we need to create industries in these areas, not have ad hoc one light rail thing produced and one train line produced, without a master planning of the infrastructure, understanding the purpose for it, which is to supply transport for settlements, essentially, whether it's the retro-fitting of infrastructure and densification in a city or decentralisation. Hyperloop, who gave evidence this morning, talked about manufacturing their tubes, their running gear, everything, here in Australia. They have the technology and we can come and get it. There is an industry to be created and to be rolled out over decades and decades and decades. Therefore, people who have been in this industry, who may have had one activity at one point of their career, remain in the industry, remain in their union and gravitate to this door that is opening, which would seem to be a fabulous opportunity to bring that wealth of experience and knowledge, albeit to evolve and be in that planning. That is very important. I think one of the great things about this great inquiry has been the breadth of contribution. So I thank you for coming in and raising this, because it hasn't been raised before. Could you put your mind to those possibilities and how you may be part of that adaptation and party to assist the change, bringing in your expertise at the coalface, working to embrace the change and be a part of a team with this common goal?

Mr Ofner : Absolutely. That's something that is often talked about at an abstract level—that jobs, as part of technology, could change, jobs will go and new jobs will be created. The industry and employment in the industry are forecast to continue to grow, especially as new projects come online. Our concern—and I think this was something that you were getting to in the preamble to your question—is: let's not just look at this one particular project over there and one project there; where is the actual holistic plan to this? What we would love to see—and this is a key part of what we would like, hopefully, this committee to recommend—is the need to do some proper workforce planning as part of the long-term planning of Australia's transport needs. Singapore is a very good example of that. Every industry, not just transport, has put together what they call industry transformation maps—a genuine tripartite model. It's not the rhetoric that we hear from a lot of people about stopping the combative nature of workers and unions versus governments and employers but actually about sitting around the table and coming up with a shared vision of what, in this case, public transport would look like and what our cities would look like, because obviously you can't split the two. That includes new technologies. From there it is a case of looking at: what are the existing skills and capabilities? Capabilities are more than just the technical skills that you might have acquired through competencies and formal classroom type training; it's the social knowledge that you build up on the job, which I was referring to in a quote towards the end of my opening address. What are those current capabilities, particularly as new technology and new forms of transport come online? What are the skills and capabilities that are going to be needed? And, from there, what are the gaps? Without necessarily being prescriptive on what the terms of future technology might be, how can you build up the workforce to not only protect their jobs or protect the fact that they might be employed but be able to take advantage of new employment, new skills and the new things that will be required of people as part of these new technologies.

I do appreciate that you made the comment about train drivers losing their jobs. It was regrettable. I'm again not being specific to a particular government, because it's not just one government that necessarily has these views. It is very hard to have a genuine discussion about these issues when, in many ways, the prevailing attitude is that engaging with the union is a burden. One of the bits of history—and this was not related to an issue of technological change but an issue of privatisation—where I think there is a good model of collaboration between government employers and the union, was the privatisation in New South Wales of FreightCorp in 2000. The federal government was privatising National Rail and it linked into that. It ultimately became a necessity that the ownership or the structure of FreightCorp, which was the New South Wales government owned freight rail company, needed to be looked at. With government money, the RTBU was in a position to model a number of scenarios about the workforce implications. The obvious scenario, which is often attractive to some unions, is 'stand and fight'. The RTBU is not putting our heads in the sand. We know technological change is coming and we don't really want to be dismissed as some dinosaurs who are resisting. We see technological change is happening. As Mr Zimmerman said, the efficiency benefits of that will benefit the community and will benefit workers, with potentially new skills and new pay. The stand-and-fight scenario, while it obviously might be attractive in the short term, is not even in the union's interest. A whole series of models were looked at and analysed to the point where, ultimately, the preferred scenario—with the realpolitik of the time and what was actually possible—was the final position that was adopted by the New South Wales government. Together, the unions and the representatives of the employers took those proposals around to the various depots and workshops and had those discussions with workers. It wasn't the combative and hostile IR environment, which is often, unfortunately, the case. There was genuine collaboration. There were some redundancies, but they were redundancies that enabled people to leave the industry with dignity. There is the hostility summarised by the comment: 'We won't have drivers and I won't have to deal with the union'. I'd love to see a scenario, like what has happened in Singapore, where workers and operators and governments come together and look at what the future of public transport will be in this country and work out the road map to ensure that the existing workforce are not decimated through that process but can actually thrive in that process.

CHAIR: Would it be, as one of our earlier contributors said, the earliest possible engagement so that both sides will know what's developing here and you will have plenty of time to start to work on beneficial outcomes, rather than everything having gone too far and then getting entrenched in a situation and you're being told, 'What? There are going to be a whole lot of job losses here,' and somebody else on the other side saying, 'Good. We don't have to deal with you anymore,' and then you've got a conflict and, yes, you've got irreconcilable differences, so you're going to get a divorce? Earlier on, there's every prospect of good engagement and understanding of what's happening, engaging with the technology and finding pathways for that. For instance, what came up time and again for bus drivers and train operators was that there was still a need for a human presence on the vehicle. So does that bus driver move from being a qualified bus driver, for instance—or train driver, the same thing—to being a guard who has experience and who at least has the ability to put their eyes over the control unit to see, especially initially, that everything is travelling to plan and has other roles to fill? Are there other options where drivers are still required in certain regions? There's a migration to that type—any number of things to be explored, especially in moving to the rolling out of a new industry where there will be a requirement for many more people to be employed and that consistency of involvement in a transport or rail type of environment.

Mr Ofner : Absolutely.

CHAIR: The earlier is the better.

Mr Ofner : That's right; the earlier is the better. It's difficult, from the perspective of a federal inquiry. A lot of public transport decisions are made at a state level, which is why one of the things that could be considered as part of some form of national strategy is not so much this idea of: 'Here's federal funding for this particular project.' Obviously, the nature of fiscal policy is that a lot of projects require federal funding. Rather than there just being this form a blank cheque—'Here you go; here's $3 billion'—for this particular metro or Cross River Rail or something like that, look at a whole range of things that we would like to see, or that the federal government would like to see. That could include things like value capture. But, in addition to the innovative funding models that they'd like to see from the state government, it should, and could, also include: where is the workforce planning, where is the workforce development? If you are going to say, 'The New South Wales government says, "Thank you, Canberra, for this money. We're going to build a driverless train system, which includes converting existing heavy rail,"' well, New South Wales government, we'd like to see, before we hand over this money, what your plan is for people who might be displaced from their current jobs as part of the conversion of heavy rail. I think from an early phase, perhaps, projects could be planned with that in mind. We need to break down the hostility that is summarised by that comment that we keep coming back to, because it is very hard to engage people on this when the prevailing attitude that is coming out of ministers' offices is: 'We can't wait for there to be driverless trains, because we don't have to deal with the union.'

CHAIR: It's interesting. Just summarising the last day or so of evidence, we've got the need to integrate town planning with various forms of transport from the first mile, last mile to our major mass carriers. We've had a number of other issues brought to mind, and today you brought to mind the important human issue of the workforce and how that has to remain agile for workers' own benefit and growth. In the prospect of strategic decentralisation, where these transport corridors will be built to go to regional areas, with all of the growth and job opportunities that will appear, you would imagine that your workforce would be in a prime position to be a major part of that effort.

Mr Ofner : Absolutely. It is often a criticism of the RTBU that it tries to run the railways or the tramways or the busways. The RTBU does not run the system; workers run the system. They are the ears and eyes of the system and, if there are to be exciting opportunities in the way of growth and discussions about new systems, it just makes good policy sense to involve the people who know what goes on on these systems every day.

CHAIR: Yes, to utilise the asset—it's the human asset as well as the physical asset.

Mr Ofner : That's right—that social knowledge that people have built up over many, many years.

CHAIR: Is there anything else you'd like to offer?

Mr Ofner : I would mention—and I've made reference to it a few times—the Singapore model. I'm happy to provide information about that to the committee. They have put together a collaborative public transport skills framework which looks at getting, essentially, the pathway, so to speak, of someone walking the track up to the engineering role, or a train driver into a control role, and the various skills that they need to develop as part of that. The Australian Qualifications Framework and the Australian vocational system essentially provide a skeleton—a sort of backbone for that—but, as you said, Mr Alexander, if we can start looking at these things at the early stages and putting some planning around that, we can build on that framework. We can build on that AQF structure to really position existing workers for the jobs of the future, which will be high skilled and will be high paid.

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance today and for your offer to provide that additional information. If you could forward that to the secretary by Wednesday, 6 March, that would be appreciated. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you again for attending.

Mr Ofner : Thank you.