Full timetable, $1m overtime as trains run empty
QUEENSLAND Rail has shelled out more than $1 million dollars in overtime to drivers as patronage has plummeted a massive 80 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Courier-Mail can reveal drivers earned an average $1678.24 in overtime in the four weeks to April 12 - a month when escalating coronavirus restrictions forced employees to quit the commute and work from home.
That added up to a bill of $1.23 million across QR's 737 drivers, despite years of efforts to attack a systemic reliance on taxpayer-funded overtime that helped create the 2016 'Rail Fail' debacle.
The overtime bill comes as State Treasurer Jackie Trad earlier this week said Treasury officials were hunting savings to fund business and worker support programs in the face of a more than $4 billion hit to revenue.
It was revealed last year at budget estimates that QR anticipated a $28.1 million overtime bill for rail crew in 2019-20.
State Opposition transport spokesman Steve Minnikin attacked the State Government over the ongoing overtime cost, saying it made "no sense" given the dramatic fall in patronage.
"No one disputes workers being paid for the work they do, but taxpayers demand efficiency - not a rail system run by the union that is clearly gaming the system," he said.
But QR boss Nick Easy has defended the overtime as "necessary," saying QR had continued to run full services during the pandemic to enable social distancing on-board for commuters making essential trips.
He said the overtime bill had fallen 8.76 per cent compared to the same four weeks in 2019 when there were 462 less weekly train services.
The overtime back then cost QR $1.35 million over four weeks, or $2042 on average per driver.
"Like any rail network worldwide which relies on shift workers, overtime is a necessary part of working patterns for Queensland Rail's traincrew," Mr Easy said.
"We've maintained our regular timetable just as other major capital cities like Sydney and Melbourne are doing, to provide social distancing for commuters, to ensure essential workers including frontline healthcare staff who often work shifts can get to work to support our community and to provide travel for essential reasons such as medical appointments."
Driver overtime has been a controversial topic since the October 2016 'Rail Fail' led to the shock cancellation of hundreds of services.
It exposed a systematic reliance on overtime payments to keep the trains running, with the 2017 Strachan Report into the crisis finding a structural shortfall of train crew was used to provide "overtime opportunities".
Driver vacancies were budgeted for, but remained unfilled, it found. Some drivers in 2017-18 were raking in tens of thousands of dollars in overtime a year.
The top earning driver that financial year earned $134,129, including $76,187 in overtime.
The Strachan Report recommended hiring a surplus of train crew and removing the "systemic reliance on overtime, which should be reserved for "temporary increases in demand".
Commuter group Rail Back on Track said it supported the decision to run a full timetable during the COVID-19 restrictions, but questioned the overtime and net gain in QR drivers after driver attrition.
QR has hired 200 extra drivers since the 2016 rail collapse, with 87 drivers in training, but the gains have previously been hit by the number of retiring drivers.
Mr Easy said contingency measures had been put in place should rail workers be impacted by COVID-19.
A TransLink spokesman said patronage had dropped about 80 per cent on buses and trains last week compared to the same period in 2019, but TransLink services were still carrying 98,000 people a day on average.
Brisbane City Council's bus network has also kept to its usual timetable amid the restrictions.
The Transperth transport network has been an outlier in cutting services during the pandemic.
Originally published as Full timetable, $1m overtime as trains run empty