Stations of the very cross

Stations of the very cross Linton Besser, Andrew Clennell and Andrew A RAIL strike at the height of World Youth Day celebrations threatens to clog Sydney roads, prevent many of the 200,000 pilgrims from seeing the Pope and force hundreds of thousands of people to miss work. The Premier, Morris Iemma, insisted yesterday he would not bow to "industrial terror" as the transport union pressed its claim for a 5 per cent pay rise by calling a strike for Thursday week - the busiest day of the Catholic celebrations when the Pope will visit the centre of Sydney. While the industrial court could today order the union to defer the strike, RailCorp's acting chief executive, Rob Mason, said: "Clearly we have to do the contingency planning of having no trains." However, transport experts say there is nothing the Government can do to make up the shortfall if the strike goes ahead. CityRail was planning for more than 700,000 people to ride the rail network on the Thursday, which means the Government would need 8750 buses to replace the trains. That is 6850 more buses than the entire State Transit fleet. All of Sydney's 2400 private buses - normally available for charter during school holidays - are already committed to World Youth Day or normal services. "There is really no prospect of filling the gap with buses," said the former chief executive of the State Transit Authority, John Stott. "A whole load of people are not going to get to work that morning, and a lot of visitors are not going to get to the event." Mr Iemma said: "The threat to embarrass the state on one of the most important days in our recent history will not cut ice with the Government. " Last night, the office of the Transport Minister, John Watkins, was investigating whether it could invoke the Essential Services Act or even try to use the Howard government's Workplace Relations Act to quash the strike. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission is expected to order the union to call off the strike, but if it declines to intervene, NSW could appeal to the federal Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, who has the power to end a union's period of "protected" industrial action if it affects the "welfare of the state or the economy". A labour law expert from Sydney University, Professor Ron McCallum, doubted Ms Gillard would intervene in the one-day action as her power was designed to cover "protracted" strikes. While the Treasurer, Michael Costa, imposed a cap of 2.5 per cent on public sector wage rises in the state budget, Mr Iemma said: "There has been an offer put on the table at 4 per cent. There is no cap on our wages policy. There have been 14 claims settled above the 2½ per cent." The Government says bigger rises can be granted if justified by increased productivity. The Rail Tram and Bus Union's state secretary, Nick Lewocki, acknowledged the disruption to World Youth Day. "But we ask the commuters to understand you can't have frontline public sector essential workers being told they need to take a pay cut and a cut in services." On Thursday week, CityRail staff had been planning for about 1.4 million "passenger journeys". An extra 4000 train services had been scheduled for the week-long event, and 70 per cent of pilgrims were expected to travel by train. The Government planned to carry them by bus from the suburbs to train stations to make the trip into the city and special events. The Bus and Coach Association's executive director, Darryl Mellish, said: "In a worst-case scenario there could be some rescheduling to take passengers [direct] to destinations." However, Mr Stott said roads would be brought to a standstill as the rail strike forced people into cars. "The Government would probably choose to open up Wentworth Park and Moore Park for car parking and commuters would park in those areas and then walk into the city," he said. "But they will be walking, in some cases, against the flow of people going to World Youth Day." Mr Iemma said: "We've worked very hard to win major events for Sydney and in NSW."