New hand on lever of Auckland's trains

By MATHEW DEARNALEY

Auckland's train fleet is under new management this morning, but seasoned rail worker Craig Inger wants to assure passengers it will be largely business as usual.

The 40-year-old former loco-driver delegate on the Rail and Maritime Transport Union's national steering committee has jumped tracks to become train services manager in charge of about 100 workers for new operator Connex Auckland.

But Mr Inger, who began work at Westfield 23 years ago as a lowly "train advice porter" running dispatch instructions to drivers and guards, remains a union member and intends keeping his locomotive ticket for occasional front-line duties.

"It's the only way to get the feel of things - it was something Connex was quite keen to allow me to keep," he said.

Communications manager Penny Hartill said this was in line with the French-owned global transport operator's aim of depending on drivers to report any equipment faults to help it meet Auckland Regional Council performance targets.

It had imported computer systems from Melbourne, where it ran that city's rail services, to record the type and severity of train faults for faster maintenance and to monitor performance to ensure that at least 85 per cent of services were on time or no more than five minutes late.

Drivers were being issued with cellphones to report faults from their cabs, rather than wait to fill in logs at the ends of their shifts, so maintenance priorities could be set without delay.

But although passengers can count on service improvements over time, Connex Auckland general manager Chris White said they would notice few initial changes from today, when Associate Transport Minister Judith Tizard is to lead a handover ceremony at Britomart.

"Staff will wear a new uniform and the look of the tickets has changed slightly, but timetables, fares and fare boundaries remain the same," said Mr White, a former Australian Army major.

Connex, which has hired most of former operator Toll NZ's Auckland workforce and imported only two other Australian managers with Mr White, has become Mr Inger's fourth employer since he joined New Zealand Railways in 1981 a year after leaving school.

That Government-owned operation employed about 22,000 staff before being corporatised and then sold, spelling mass layoffs of all but about 4000 workers nationally.

Mr Inger said everyone realised there had to be cutbacks, even if some felt they went too far, but he was relieved the Auckland rail network was now in the hands of an operator he was confident would bring stability both to its employees and passengers.

For all its good intentions of running the trains on time, Connex is already a month late, because of a scrap between Toll and the union over whether the workers could be transferred under a multi-employer collective agreement with their former employer.

The union eventually lost the fight in the Employment Court.

Mr Inger accepted there would be no honeymoon for Connex from passengers, but Ms Hartill said the company still had to work with the same elderly rolling stock and some delays were inevitable until duplicate tracks were completed.

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