The NSW Premier has blasted unions and Labor for “mass disruption” to the state’s rail network after all services were abruptly cancelled on Monday, leaving commuters stranded in the morning peak hour.
The shutdown of the NSW train network, which was ordered by state government transport authorities just after midnight, blindsided rail commuters.
They were left in limbo across Sydney, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Blue Mountains and Illawarra. There were widespread reports of gridlock on major roads across Sydney and its surrounds on Monday morning as millions of people tried to get to school and work.
The chaos is likely to be repeated in the afternoon, with trains remaining at a standstill. Nor have there been any announcements about whether they will run on Tuesday.
Later Premier Dominic Perrottet said the shutdown was prompted by the Rail, Tram and Bus Union failing to appear at industrial talks on Sunday – an action he labelled part of a “coordinated, concerted attack” on the government by the union and Labor.
“This is the Labor Party in bed with the union movement to cause mass disruption … the Labor-backed unions have been working on these strikes for many many months,” Mr Perrottet said.
He was angry that trains were out of action on the day Australia’s borders opened to international arrivals after a two-year hiatus, when children were trying to get to school and university students were returning to campus.
The RTBU blamed the transport chaos on the government, saying rail workers turned up for work but that the Perrottet administration used a “high-stakes tactic” to cancel services then “blamed it on industrial action”.
“Let’s correct the record: Rail services can continue to operate. Premier Dominic Perrottet shut them down,” the union said on Twitter.
RTBU NSW Secretary Alex Claassens accused the state government of “spitting the dummy”.
He insisted rail workers were not on strike, and had turned up for work as usual on Monday. They were ready to get trains back moving “at a minute’s notice”.
“Workers were prepared to take protected industrial action, but only transport management would have noticed the impact, not commuters,” he said.
“The impact to services today is not because of workers’ actions, but because the NSW government is spitting the dummy and trying to make a point.
“We’re ready to drive the trains whenever the NSW government will let us.”
Transport Minister David Elliott labelled the shutdown a “snap strike” and called on the union to come back to negotiating table “with clean hands”.
He said the RTBU wanted the government to fold on industrial demands to damage it 12 months out from a state election. He accused the union and Labor of bullying and “industrial bastardry”.
“I think we’re going to have a large stand-off right now because they cannot use Sydney’s transport system for some sort of terrorist-like activity,” Mr Elliott said.
Transport for NSW cancelled trains, saying the union action made it impossible to safely operate services.
The spat is part of a long-running industrial dispute over an enterprise agreement. The government and union have been locked in a bitter industrial dispute since 2021 over safety guarantees, hygiene and privatisation concerns that has resulted in two work stoppages since September.
NSW Employee Relations Minister Damien Tudehope said a meeting with the union on Sunday night failed to result in a deal that worked for all sides.
Work rosters were “at the crux” of the dispute and meant the rail system would not have run to a government timetable on Monday, sparking the network shutdown.
“Sydney Trains took the view that we could not properly, reliably and safely operate Sydney trains,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned the union for leaving commuters stranded, saying it was disrespectful to fellow Sydneysiders trying to get children to school.
“This is just not how you behave and this is not how you treat your fellow citizens,” Mr Morrison said.
That sparked a bitter comeback from the RTBU, which tweeted a reference to French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement about Mr Morrison and Australia’s abandoned submarine contract.
Also on Monday, Business Sydney executive director Paul Nicolaou said the suspension “could not have come on a worse day” and needed to be resolved immediately.
He said the “transport train wreck” would “cost business severely and damage our international reputation as a tourist destination”.
Struggling CBD businesses were “dealt another blow as many workers who were expected to return to their workplaces [were] today instead told to avoid the commute”, Mr Nicolaou said.
A hearing to resolve the crisis was underway at the Fair Work Commission in Sydney on Monday. However, a resolution was not expected on Monday, a union spokesperson said.
Commuters were urged to use alternative modes of transport, and allow extra time for trips.