Attacks on Victorian public transport staff are an almost daily occurrence, with the RTBU working to reduce the risks and spread awareness of the issue.
Yarra Trams delegate Brian Penza said there had been a noticeable increase in assaults against drivers since the COVID pandemic in mid-2020.
Brian put that down to bravado by “unsocial elements”, who tended to take advantage of the lack of other people on the streets.
“Patronage levels went down to 10%, and the more unsavoury characters didn’t care about the rules,” Brian said.
“That has continued, possibly due to post-COVID tensions.
“Verbal abuse has gone up, and there is a lack of respect for workers just wanting to serve the public.”
Brian said there were three main danger spots:
- terminus locations, where drivers had to leave their trams to use facilities, often in areas with poor lighting and few cameras;
- on trams as drivers rode back to their depots;
- and take points, stops where drivers waited to take their tram.
After a string off assaults – including a vicious incident last year where a driver was attacked with a bottle – Brian and Malvern depot driver Luis Fanti launched a campaign that, with assistance of the RTBU Vic Branch, has led to some positive changes.
“We pushed and pushed and pushed and said this is not good enough, we need things to happen,” Brian said.
The group met with Transport Minister Ben Carroll and were also able to link the issue to pay parity.
In theory all drivers are paid the same, but women are avoiding late shifts – and missing out on shift loadings – due to fears they will be attacked at night.
Brian said company data confirmed this had created a pay gap of about 7%.
Following further meetings the government has signalled that it is prepared to allocate $14.7 million to help address staff safety. Proposals include:
- Two mobile Authorised Officer teams – plus an extra fleet operator to monitor duress calls from drivers, call police and deploy AOs at the same time. This is in response to CBD where police have taken more than 40 minutes to attend.
- Duress buttons at take points.
- Drivers be driven by taxi after a certain time instead of travelling back to depots as passengers.
- Staff toilets to be located at terminus stops, with improved lighting and cameras.
“Driver assaults are still at unacceptable levels, and while we have been kicking goals, a lot more needs to be done as we can never be complacent. We will never stop pushing for safety,” Brian said.
RTBU Rail Administration Divisional President Victor Moore said assaults on rail staff were also dire, with a big increase as the city came out of its COVID lockdowns, and a recent spike in attacks during school holidays.
Unlike trams, where drivers were targeted, Victor said rail assaults – verbal and physical – occurred mainly against station staff and Authorised Officers, with the biggest issue being the spontaneity of attacks.
“Offenders will come up demanding to know why their train was cancelled or ticket didn’t work or be demanding to be let through station barriers, and it quickly ends up developing into an altercation,” Victor said.
“Station staff at barriers were copping it very early in the piece, there has been a lot of abuse hurled at booking office staff, and there have been a number of assaults on the network against people just doing their job.
Victor said there was an ongoing RTBU campaign to raise awareness of the issue and eliminate risks.
“As part of these campaigns to improve safety we have held regular online meetings open to all members, HSRs and delegates, involving RTBU officials and Victorian Trades Hall Council safety experts. These are run in conjunction with station visits, leaflets and safety posters.
“These are issues where your campaign doesn’t stop.”
The RTBU is also using EBA clauses that forced management to meet with HSRs & delegates to review assaults and serious threats to members.
Rail Division Industrial Officer Amanda Swayn said assaults left emotional, as well as physical, scars, and she had been involved in several disputes where members had developed psychological conditions due to being involved in assaults.
“Assaults are almost daily occurrences, especially at bigger stations,” she said.
“Often people have trouble returning to front-line work, particularly if it has been a serious incident and they have not fully recovered. And WorkCover only protects them for 12 months, after which they are often dismissed.”
Amanda said it was essential that every incident was reported: “I’d encourage members to report incidents no matter how big or small, as employers are not obligated to do something they know nothing about.”